Always Well Within

Calm Your Mind, Ease Your Heart, Embrace Your Inner Wisdom

How to Cope with the Suffering of This World

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Suffering abounds in this world.  Once you open your eyes to all the pain and sorrow, you might start crying and never stop.

The Newtown school shootings, Indian bus rapes, minefields, and modern day slavery pushed me into moments of despair.  Sometimes, all the suffering seems too much to bear.

The Practice of Exchanging Oneself and Others

It is in these times of sheer hopelessness and utter desolation, that I especially turn to the practice of Exchanging Oneself and Others, known as “Tonglen” in Tibetan.  You too can find refuge in this simple practice of breathing in suffering and sending your happiness out on the breath.

“Sometimes, visualize that your heart is a brilliant ball of light.  As you breath out, it radiates rays of while light in all directions, carrying your happiness to all beings.  As you breathe in, their suffering, negativity, and afflictions come toward you in the form of dense, black light, which is absorbed into your heart and disappears in its brilliant while light without a trace, relieving all beings of their pain and sorrow.” – The Heart of Compassion, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

By engaging in the practice of Exchanging Oneself and Others, you gradually dissolve your own self-cherishing and purify your negative patterns.  The practice simultaneously reveals your compassionate heart and gives birth to an unstoppable love as vast as the sky.  Tonglen will expand your capacity in ways you may have never imagined.

The Impact of Exchanging Oneself and Others

Is Tonglen just a mental placebo or could it really have an effect?  The great spiritual masters tell us:

“By sincerely training in the meditation practice of exchanging suffering with happiness, you will eventually become capable of actually taking on others’ illnesses and curing them, and of giving them your happiness in reality.” – The Heart of Compassion, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

It’s not necessary to wait until the news of suffering overwhelms you.  You can practice this approach of giving and receiving every day and at any time – on the meditation cushion and in daily life. Whether you are happy or sad, well or ill.  Whenever you hear news of suffering, breath in the pain and send your happiness in exchange.  Whenever you see someone suffering, breathe in their misery and send your goodness to them.

The Circle of Suffering

Engaging in a spiritual practice like Tonglen doesn’t preclude taking action to end injustice in the world — consider the beneficent activity of Gandhi or Mother Teresa.

But, like these spiritual luminaries, it’s important to approach helping without hatred, judgment, and blame, which only engender more violence.  Because, we are all caught in a circle of suffering.  Whatever suffering we experience now is due to our past actions.  And, our current negative actions will create our own suffering in the future unless we change ourselves now. While everyone is responsible for their behavior, from a larger perspective, there’s no one person to blame.  Whatever occurs in this life comes about due to a complex web of causes and conditions involving multiple people.  The only way to break the cycle of violence is to have compassion for all.

To see the all-pervading Spirit of Truth, one must be able to love the meanest of all creation as oneself.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Grasping onto an impermanent self and self-cherishing (over-focusing on yourself) are two primary sources of our suffering.  Exchanging our joy and well-being for the suffering of others through the practice of Exchanging Oneself and Others destroys this self-clinging and self-cherisihing and brings true happiness and freedom in its stead.

A Short Guided Practice of Giving and Receiving

In this short video, Pema Chödrön beautifully describes different circumstances in which you can apply the practice of Tonglen and then guides you along.  She begins by saying, “Let’s do Tonglen for a world that is falling apart.”

While it’s only human to despair at times, heaping our own suffering upon the suffering of others will never end suffering.  Instead, cultivate love, compassion, joy, and equanimity and, in so doing, you will become a light for a better world.

How do you cope with the suffering of this world?

There’s more to learn about the practice of Tonglen.  Resources (affiliate links):

Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious!  Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always.  With love, Sandra

Image:  Associated Press

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24 Comments

  1. I was overwhelmed with the shootings at Newtown. I felt such grief for the families and the community and it shook my own sense of security in the world (which I know is an illusion at best anyway). I dealt with it by gratitude for what I have in the way of my families and friends. And I felt helpless to deal with it at many moments. I love this practice of Tonglen and will be using it now when I get overwhelmed.

    • We will probably always have moments of feeling overwhelmed and helpless in the face of overwhelming tragedy. But, I find it helps to have a spiritual perspective and practice to turn to and I hope this practice provides support for you as well.

      Security is an illusion, as you say, isn’t it? I find there’s a paradox to embrace: learning to live with confidence and ease in a constantly changing, groundless world.

      Thank you, Charlotte, for sharing in such a meaningful way.

      • This is so true..

        The spirits with the highest awareness are the people who can in the face of hatred still send love…

        This is the level we must strive for..

        Never condemn or judge but try to understand and send love at all times..

  2. What a beautiful practice, thank you for sharing! And, I love Pema Chodron’s wisdom, her energy and style–reading her words several years ago was an invitation to deepen my practice of presence.

    I understand being overwhelmed by external. As an empath, I feel the waves of pain and sorrow; learning to understand fully and see beyond the fear into the purest point of love and then to *be* that point of love is quite healing. I don’t “plug into” the hype around the situation, I center into love and surround the situation with it. I guess in words I choose to create with love, instead of respond with fear. My intention is based upon the belief that what we focus on grows; and I would like to not add to the pain, but to amplify the love energy, the space where healing and connection occurs. I don’t think compassion asks us to bear the suffering of others, but to hold space for it and relieve it if possible (internally as well as externally).

    This article is a gift, as you share a simple, practical way to alleviate the feel of suffering and overwhelm.

    • Hi Joy,

      You’re welcome! Your approach feels very resonant with the approach of Tonglen. The belief that what we focus on grows is so fundamental! Thanks for sharing that knowledge with us. I love your commitment to amplify the love energy rather than adding to the pain. I agree we are not taking on the suffering of others as a burden but relieving it through wisdom and love. When we realize that love is limitless, we know that we are not diminished when we give our goodness and love to others. I’m so inspired by how you have intuitively developed your own way of establishing presence and being love.

  3. Dear Sandra,
    There is a saying that, ‘great minds think alike’, but I don’t consider my mind to be great. That expression simply indicates that we experiences coincidences. Tonglen is now also part of my practice, and as I am without a Sanga, I have adopted Pema Chodron as my precious teacher. I revealed this between the lines in my recent Starting Over: Working Through Pain and Developing Inner Strength article, and I probably revealed it between the lines in my other articles as well.

    My year of grief and suffering brought me great insight into the workings of the ego mind. After years of rejecting the negative, while earnestly trying to remain positively focused, I’m here to say that does not work for me. Letting negative thoughts pass through my mind like clouds pass through a blue, without following them is a door to meditation, a door I have practiced opening since college. It remains part of my practice. For me Tonglen is an essential step-by-step practice of opening the heart that works for me. By embracing, rather than rejecting, the unwanted and painful aspects of negative experience, I am overcoming fear and developing greater empathy for myself and for others.

    The notion that we cannot become attached to positivity, without experiencing the damaging effects thereof and in equal portion to the damaging effects of becoming attached to negativity aversion panders to our ego. I have learned valuable lessons from the negative people and negative experiences in my life. I escaped from the cult of the delusional twisted sisters in the evangelical fundamentalist milieu (bless them one and all), who like me were raised up and educated to practice bullying in Jesus name, cloaked in the guise of niceness when I became an adult. Hence, I am strong enough to maintain my focus without feather bedding my mind with only positive thoughts, or my life with only positive people.

    Following the painful events of the last year replete with betrayaI and death, I have made a break-through. By emotionally detaching from my defiant sibling, an elder abuser and thief, but still listening with my heart and not only hearing with my ears, I have gained valuable knowledge.
    Firstly, by being with my own negativity and by becoming very quiet within, no longer mentally running from each negative thought or pushing it away, I have discovered so much work within that I can do to become a better me. I have lifetime of leadership training and on the job skills I have acquired through my employment, voluntary service work, and lessons learned from personal failures that became stepping stones to success.

    I may limit the time I spend with my own negativity and with people who are addicted to negativity but I will not reject and abandon them. I may limit the time I spend with people who are addicted to positivity but I will not reject and abandon them either. While acknowledging and conquering my own ego driven addiction via Tonglen practice I will open my heart and cultivate compassion.
    Thank you so much for sharing your insights in your beautifully written article. You are in my thoughts and prayers always. I do hope your back pain has subsided, and you are recovering.

    May you be well and happy.

    P.S. I like the new theme.

    • Dear timethief,

      Tonglen isn’t new to me, but, since my word this year is “compassion”, I am re-engaging with the practice for many of the reasons you so eloquently outline. “Starting Over: Working Through Pain and Developing Inner Strength” was an amazing post that inspired me deeply. There are many different types of meditation practice, but what I gather from your experience is that one type is sometimes far more suited for our current needs than another. I find Pema Chödrön remarkable and it makes me so happy to hear that you have adopted her as your teachers.

      I’m sorry for all the struggles you’ve been through in the last year. At the same time, I am touched by all that you have learned and how you have made a breakthrough.

      I don’t necessarily find it easy to deal with negativity, but I certainly agree that it is a worthwhile and necessary practice when we feel ready to do so. Thank you. I always learn so much from you.

      Oh, and yes, my back is back to my “normal”! I really like this theme to. I think it’s a keeper. At least for awhile!

  4. P.P.S. I like the theme except for how it removed the spaces between my paragraphs in my comment above. 🙁 The readability factor is compromised by that annoyance.

    • I fixed it on your comment. I don’t know why that happen as I see page breaks in other comments. I’ll keep an eye out for this. Thanks for noticing it.

  5. jean sampson

    Hi Sandra. This had been quite a post for me to read today because I watched the video attached to the post that was about human slavery —-the TED talk which I am surprised that nobody else has mentioned. That, combined with the video I saw last week about the pitiful plight of birds on Midway Island who have been dying horrible deaths from eating all of the plastic crap we humans have tossed into the ocean, gave me quite a lot to process as far as grief and sorrow go. I am so glad that you provided something I can do. I saved this post to comment on later—-that is when I saw the video that has Tonglen on it. Somehow, I got the other one first and did not even see the one with Pema Chodron—–so weird! Anyway, I am very grateful for this beautiful process. I really did need a way to do SOMETHING to heal these things. Love to you!

    • That is a very strong video, isn’t it Jean? Lisa Kristine takes you directly into all these barbaric situations with tremendous heart and courage through her words and photos. She has shown me how an ordinary person can become extraordinary. I think many people just don’t have time to follow all the links in a post. Maybe I should post this video separately at some point. I’m glad you like the practice and I hope it helps you from time to time. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  6. Charmaines

    Just what I needed tonight.

  7. Thanks for the refresher on Tonglen. I have performed Tonglen when feeling overwhelmed by a world that is “falling apart,” such as on 911 anniversary, the oil spill in the Gulf, and specific cases of violence or cruelty within my awareness. I had forgotten about this helpful practice.

    My question to you is, in your opinion, does a Tonglen session take the place of regular meditation that day or is it an additional practice?

    • Hi Debbie,

      I’m glad you are familiar with the practice. Tonglen is considered a form of meditation, although it’s focus is cultivating compassion, so it can be your regular meditation session for the day. However, you might want to begin by doing five minutes of basic meditation like watching the breath to allow your mind to settle and then move on to Tonglen. It’s up to you. Thanks for asking.

  8. This is going to be my confession comment! I’m glad you wrote about Tonglen because something has always bothered me about it. This is true even though I have read much about it and learned about it in my Shambhala training. When I bring the suffering energy towards me, I feel resistance because I think that somehow it’s going to get “stuck” in me, rather than being transformed. Fear/ego/separation type thoughts, I know. I sometimes think of Tonglen as “energy laundering” akin to money laundering. You take the “bad” energy in and transform it into “good” energy. But somewhere in that transfer, I lose faith, perhaps. At any rate, even though I’ve practiced this before, I have not embraced it. I hope you can shed some light on this and help me break through my resistance.

    • Thanks for your honesty, Galen. Your experience isn’t unusual at all when it comes to the practice of Tonglen. The Dalai Lama says if Tonglen makes you feel a slight discomfort, that’s a sign it is hitting its target – the self-centered, egocentric attitude. It’s not just you, we all have this part to some degree. We want to protect ourselves from harm so doing the practice of Tonglen can give rise to this fear.

      If you don’t feel ready to do this practice, that’s really OK. There are so many different ways to meditate and practice, we are not limited to this option. We will always be pushing ourselves at least a little beyond our limits in practice, but we shouldn’t try to push ourselves too hard or too fast or it may just create an aversive, counter-reaction that may pull us further away from practice. So, on the one hand, you don’t need to do this practice now. You can wait till you feel ready. On the other hand, if you acknowledge the resistance and continue to practice, it will, ideally, melt away with time and practice. The Dalai Lama also says this is not necessarily the best practice for someone with self-hatred, low-self esteem, or a low self-image. I know that doesn’t apply to you, but thought I would add it here for anyone who might wonder about that.

      Here’s another option. Sogyal Rinpoche says that if you feel this sense of hesitation to do Tonglen, you could do it in the form of a simple prayer. “May I be able to take on the suffering of others; may I be able to give my well-being and happiness to them.” That will create the auspicious conditions so that you will feel more confidence to do the practice of Tonglen in the future. He stresses, “…the only thing that Tonglen could harm is the one thing that has been harming you the most: your own ego, your self-grasping, self-cherishing mind, which is the root of suffering.” Of course, in this context, we are not referring to a healthy sense of self-esteem. That’s good to have and we are not aiming to destroy a positive sense of self.

      Lastly, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche says, “As you take his [the enemy’s] suffering into you, you feel great joy and bliss, mingled with the experience of emptiness.” Obviously, we may not feel that way at the beginning, but we can imagine that the practice will become like this. In some ways, to do the practice of Tonglen does require some understanding of emptiness, which helps to alleviate the fear we might have about doing it.

      I hope something here will resonate for you and help you to break through you resistance or just feel comfortable not doing the practice for now, which is completely fine too.

      I appreciate your honesty so much!

      • Thank you for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully and thoroughly. I especially took to heart the reassuring words of Sogyal Rinpoche that you shared. I am more willing now to try this again. As you know, Pema Chodron is my favorite teacher, and I know she teaches this practice, so I have been intrigued by it even as I have been nervous about it. Your article and your response have helped me tremendously. (And thank you for practicing compassion for my fears in such a lovely way!)

  9. Sandra,
    I am in a moment of deep contentment and I have not been writing on many blogs or doing much of anything except doing my Liangong ( Qugong healing) which must be done in a relaxed manner in order to keep the energy flowing. I really am enjoying the quiet here and the time to read everything that comes my way – to my hearts content. In March I am going to a discussion group on Color, Slavery and Kidnapping and I wanted to share some of your writing with the group before we get together – I think many people are overwhelmed by what to think about suffering and even more about what they can do about it …Your words are fine examples

    I will share a little story with you: My Energy Healer was in a car accident in early December 2012. A drunk driver ran into her car head on – totaled her car. The healer survived the 60 mph crash and was rushed to the hospital – one side of her face pressed in, sternum and every rib broken, both legs fractured, even more I do not know about. Nearly every person who saw her thought it was a miracle she was alive – even the neurologists. She was.. alive but someone else was having to move her body for her and the pain was amazing.
    2 months later after much work, I had my next appointment with her – she is more beautiful than ever, she is walking and able to move freely, there is no sign of the accident on the face – only one small scar on each leg remaining….she is not driving yet, because she has not been able to go look for a new car.
    She considers her suffering the greatest gift she has ever received and her energy/ healing powers are profoundly enhanced because of it. She understands the letting go of pain – completely….She is a physicist by training….I think we can all be that powerful – what is the greatest gift of the experience – visualize and dream how you would like it to be… I think the story tellers are right – we can heal the world

    • Patricia,

      It’s so nice to “see” you! I’m so happy to hear that you aren’t doing much of anything but your Qigong. That’s a huge inspiration to me. Few people take the time they actually need to heal.

      This is an amazing story of your energy healer. The healing power of mind is remarkable, indeed! I’m so grateful you have shared this story. I am sure it will inspire others as well. We never know what will unfold next and need to be prepared to meet each moment with as much openness as we can embrace. Thank you! Wishing you great healing.

  10. This is a really powerful article. Thank you for sharing this! I love the notion of coming from calm and compassion– a spiritually mature route, almost like a kind and patient parent who foresees the immaturity in society and wants to help it grow rather than become caught up in the frenzied mess of treating small symptoms in hopes of healing the bigger picture. I don’t believe we as human beings can heal deep-set issues int he world around us unless we aim to collectively work from a much more spiritually mature and enlightened strain of thought. The Circle of Suffering will continue cycling as long as we “feel” the need for it to exist. I’m sure any healer here would agree that if a person does not want to be healed or feel the need to rid themselves of their issues, the healing will only be a short-lived relief. It is almost like a Band-aid Solution to the much bigger problems at heart. Which poses the question; why is it that suffering does indeed exist? Why do people remain within a limiting victim mentality and take the world’s problems as their own? I believe the answer may come through the fact that the great feminine energies is simply trying to reconcile internal and external issues through empathy and compassion– a genuine attempt to right the world around them. I believe the only way to exit the struggle is to become mature enough to decide we no longer need to live within the conflict. To decide this and attempt to live in a state that is greater than the conflict is the heart and soul of Enlightenment.

    • This is a wonderful metaphor, Sufian: like a kind and patient parent willing to be loving and thoughts whatever their grumbling kids may dish out. I think that is exactly the mature stance that we need to help and be able to serve in this world. Not with arrogance of course, but with insight and maturity, compassion and understanding. Your thoughts are very wise. Thank you for sharing them with us.

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