Suffering abounds in this world. Once you open your eyes to all the pain and sorrow, you might start crying and never stop.
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:
- The Heart of Compassion by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, page 106 to 116
- The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, Chapter 10
- Tonglen, The Path of Transformation, Pema Chödrön
I’m glad you are here! Thank you for reading and sharing. If you liked this article, please consider subscribing for free updates by email. With love, Sandra
Image: Associated Press