Tonglen may not teach you universal compassion, but it can ultimately teach you self-love.
Are you on your self-realization journey? Then, have you ever been in the position to wonder what are some simple steps to take in order to avoid feeling bad and suffering during meditation and show compassion for yourself? I am sure you have been there. Well, let’s start with another question:
What do you 40 pluses do on a weekend night?
I don’t know about you, but I sit. In an incense stick or maybe candlelit dark room I sit on my zafu on top of my zabuton (purchased after starting zazen sitting a few years ago) wearing my comfortable, large, too long, black layrobe without a jubon (not available on Amazon). Notice the lingo.
I sit and breathe. When I try to empty my mind and I realize that it is an impossible task. I gently go back to my breath. Sometimes I count the inhales and exhales, then I lose count; I go back.
What is it about Tibet that fascinates us?
I read Alexandra David Neele’s book “Magic and Mystery in Tibet” when I was too young to understand the difference between my life and my heroes’. Traveling with the trapas from gompa to gompa in search of my master, I was flying “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” style. I also became the second woman accepted by the Tibetan monk community, and I did not even need to hide my feminine features under my robes as I did not have any at that time. All in my head, but so real.
Fascination and make-believe start from a book. You have been there and have traveled to remote places and have fought arduous battles for justice or for your beloved. You rescued or plundered, loved, or dueled. And thus, you started learning about right and wrong at a young age. Fragile as it was, a sense of justice was rising. You also encountered pain and suffering in various forms, and you decided to escape to your favorite place quite frequently.
I still escape to the amazing landscape of myself every weekend. I plunge into the amazing place called my mind. George Berkeley said: What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind. So, I begin the examination of myself, never minding (non)-duality and metaphysics while cultivating both.
My interest, fascination and curiosity for Tibet have somehow never subsided. I am still a so-called “fan” of superpowers and infinite wisdom obtained through all kinds of self-punishment and repetitive actions. Once I took on meditation and yoga in 2013 (still a rookie), I returned to my childhood stories and went back to the books and materials I was studying back then. Tibetan Tonglen caught my attention again, and for the first time, it made sense.
Have you ever tried Tonglen taking and giving meditation?
“Tonglen is a type of meditation designed to develop compassion in addition to reducing less helpful mind-states such as fear and egotism. It has been practiced for at least 1000 years and has been disseminated among the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism, allowing for a variety of practice instructions to develop. The practice involves visualizing all the aliments, negativities and difficulties in another being, breathing them into one’s own heart, in the form of a heavy, dark cloud, and transforming that cloud within the heart into white light. One then breathes out white light that contains anything the other being wants or needs in order to have health, happiness and the root causes of both” (Daphna Erin McKnight, 2014).
I decided to investigate and learn again, went to classes, retreats, etc, practiced, visualized galore, and felt compassion. Or so I thought.
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Started feeling bad during meditation
A few years ago, I started feeling uncomfortable after practicing Tonglen. That uneasiness birthed this essay. That pit in my stomach signaled I was giving birth to an impostor syndrome baby.
Have you ever experienced feeling bad during meditation? I realized I could not visualize suffering in other beings unless it was similar to my personal experience of pain. It felt like reading Math theorems and never understanding their use. I knew they were important, but to me they were pointless.
Humans cannot understand or empathize with something they do not know. In my case, it was impossible to meditate on universal suffering, as absorbing everyone else’s pain and releasing personal joy and happiness was difficult as long as I could not understand the construction and operating system of suffering in others. And one day it hit me. I related with dogs, cats, humans suffering when their pain was familiar. We can all imagine how horrible it is for people suffering from terminal illnesses. We all have a compass, a barometer inside us that measures all kinds of pain. But it is not real as long as we do not know someone who is ill.
I am not against meditation with the purpose of alleviating general suffering. I find it noble. But when I do not understand that pain, I cannot express genuine compassion. It makes me feel like a fraud. Feeling bad during meditation is not acceptable.
All of you who have tried some kind of spiritual work have heard that suffering is long-lasting, it is everywhere and as we live, we suffer. But is this suffering something we know, or is it just something we make up as a result of personal experiences and understanding of life as we know it? Do we perceive our suffering reflected on others? Attributing suffering to all beings is erroneous. In reality, there are so many creatures out there who are not suffering on a regular basis and sending them our compassion would be misplaced. Then, how do we decide how to practice authentic taking and sending?
How to avoid feeling bad during meditation
Years of practicing have taught me that the only thing I can change and influence is me. Thus, sending compassion to all beings could be an exercise for our own growth and healing, as we are all one, so similar and beautiful.
I quit sending universal compassion and receiving suffering in my meditation. My ego seemed so inflated in the process that I decided to channel my compassion only towards individuals and causes in my environment. Of course, I can send imaginary vibes to the turtles eating plastic straws, to cancer patients, to everyone and everything, but it is an act of self-delusion. This attitude would develop into scaffolding for my personal contentment, not a real base for sharing and helping. Sending good thoughts to all beings without prejudice, discrimination, or preference is a conscious choice. I would watch myself sending light and joy while receiving suffering in order to become a stronger person. I would feel better. But it would not be natural.
However, there is a sense of acceptance that arises in meditation: the equanimous acceptance of one’s struggles. When you meditate, you allow past, present and even future suffering to unfold, and this is not only practical but useful.
My daughter and I used to watch horror movies when she was very young. Everyone and their neighbor told me it would scar her for life. Nothing of the sort happened. She got bored with scary movies and saw them for what they were: dull and weird entertainment. Why did I mention this example? Because it is the same with reliving past wounds: the more we watch the “movie” of past pain, the more we get used to it, understand it and learn to attach less and less emotion to them. We also learn how to accept everything that happens. We see life for what it is. Horror films are not real. So is our past suffering; something we should always put into perspective and learn from it. The more we experience something, the less resistant we become. For instance, meditation is hard to practice when you start. Fiddling, yawning, itching, aching, even having horrendous thoughts of all kinds (violent and morbid ones included) and feeling bad during meditation are familiar to all new practitioners. It takes a lifetime to achieve a state of bliss in meditation (it is said that 10,000 hours make you an expert).
What is meditation
Meditation is a process, like every other activity in your life. Chopping wood, cooking, doing sports, going to the toilet or writing a book, they are all processes/experiences with a beginning and an end. Still, how is meditation different? It is the only exercise that requires you to do nothing, empty your mind, and dive into yourself. According to their own assertions, meditation masters reach amazing states of inner peace. They de-focus while focusing on nothing. Admirable, but such a grueling task for most of us.
New meditation techniques and completely removing feeling bad during meditation
Meditating while doing other activities is a practice I have embraced. While chopping food or washing the dishes I focus on what is happening: my hands cutting, the colors, the smell, the knife, the kitchen, the sounds, etc. No other unrelated issue comes to mind. You can use every short and easy activity as an opportunity to meditate. I am aiming for living in a constant state of mindfulness, but this is taking longer than I expected. I try to drive, eat, go to sleep, write, teach, breathe in a state of flow/zone that helps me to concentrate for brief periods of time (up to 30 minutes). This is an article about “the zone”.
After repeated failed attempts at inhaling suffering and exhaling blissful thoughts, I concluded that I had never succeeded. Never. In retrospect, I’ve always felt like a fraud deep down inside. This is just a practitioner’s opinion, neither fact nor science. “To date, there has been no academic research on the practice of Tonglen and no published empirical studies of its efficacy for increasing compassion (or anything else)” (Daphna Erin McKnight, 2014).
Feeling bad during meditation is pointless
As living an authentic life is my goal, I find it imperative to pursue doing good. I tried Tonglen, it did not work for me. Feeling bad during meditation is pointless. Helping my family, friends, and community is practical. Meditating on past trauma and reliving it has helped me with my anxiety, emotional roller-coasting, and low self-esteem among others. I have come a long way from feeling insecure and sleepy in meditation to enjoying my feelings, pain, laziness, and forgetfulness. Recalling and forgiving. Paying attention and loving. Practicing self-love every single day.
Although all we remember is a past remembrance re-written and embellished by our subconscious to make life livable, I choose to re-write my personal story until I become one with the universal wisdom source, and maybe then I will practice taking and sending selflessly and naturally. We all start somewhere in our quest for inner peace. We fight tough battles with our own resistance to change. But as long as there is a quiet place in our mind where we can find balance, we have everything.
Vivi has been writing about the process of self-realization through mindfulness and compassion since the age of six. She has dedicated her last years to helping people know themselves and live their best life. In addition, Vivi has taught around 10,000 students since 1990, and she blogs about the role of cooking at the intersection of food and self-mastery using simple recipes and copyright food photos. Subscribe to this site to stay updated with new posts on living the best life.