A Transformative Buddhist Practice for when you feel like you’re overwhelmed by all the suffering in the world
As we look at the world today it can feel as though everything is going to hell in a handbasket. There are riots in the streets and people are literally killing each other. Our world feels divided and polarized as people cement around their us vs. them mentality. Facism is on the rise around the globe and more and more people are dying everyday from Covid as countries scramble to manage an out of control pandemic. There are record-breaking fires from Oregon to the Amazon. The world is literally on fire.
It’s tempting to want to throw your hands up in disbelief and frustration and isolate to your corner of the world, shutter the windows and pretend everything’s ok or drown out the noise in entertainment and distraction. But the world tugs on our heartstrings. How can we help? It’s difficult when it feels like there’s nothing we can do, we feel powerless. Is our only option to vote or go march in the streets? Does it help to be an on-line activist? While those are viable and important democratic actions, we sometimes need actions that feel more immediate and healing and that get right to the heart of the matter, which is the pain and disconnection we feel about the suffering in the world.
There is a practice in Buddhism called Tonglen (giving and receiving) where you breathe in the suffering of others and breathe out a pure calm light that relieves them of their suffering. It seems counterintuitive. Usually we think we need to reject or get rid of the bad stuff and keep all the good stuff for ourselves, but in Tonglen the logic is reversed and we begin with the view that we have more than enough to give and that we have the limitless capacity to take in the world’s suffering without letting it drag us down.
Practicing in this way asks us to take the view that we don’t actually exist (stick with me now). We usually think of ourselves as our body and minds and as basically solid beings. But when we actually examine this assumption we find that we are no one thing, we are actually aggregates of things and concepts and that if you examine those further you can never actually pinpoint who you are. The compassion teachings begin with emptiness because it shows that we can actually feel and take in the suffering of others without making it solid. We are recycling it, using the power of our minds and hearts to relieve the suffering of others and feel connected and then breathing out relief.
Tonglen is a feeling practice not a conceptual one. So even though we could delve deeper into the philosophical teachings underpinning the practice of Tonglen, it’s better to just be simple-minded and base your confidence in the practice on your experience. In 2017 there was a genocide in Myanmar against the minority Muslim Rohingya people perputated by the military. The news reports coming from this horrific situation struck me to the core. I remember hearing a news story about an 18 month old being thrown into the fire right in front of the mother (almost 1000 children under 5 were killed). My reflex was to push the story away, change the channel, and sort of reject the image and information. In fact, when I was trying to tell my friend about it later, she said, “stop don’t tell me, I can’t take it”, which is completely understandable. We feel we are too sensitive to take in the suffering of the world.
But in the practice of Tonglen, we reverse that logic and start with the view that because we are limitless, we can take it in and it won’t get lodged in our nervous system. I think many people reject hearing and thinking about the suffering in the world because they believe it will somehow make them more stressed, but in fact the opposite is true. When we actually take it in and accept others’ and our own suffering, something magical happens: we become bigger. Our hearts expand and we feel empowered in our ability to hold someone else’s pain, even if we don’t know them.
Another understandable reaction people have to suffering is anger. When you see a video of a Black man being suffocated by police officers, it’s completely appropriate to have immense anger. But in Tonglen and from the view of these teachings we actually take it a step further and breathe in our anger. We take it in. We let it expand our heart. We feel the pain underneath the anger. And then, once we have made sufficient contact with that pain, then we are able to act with more discernment and wisdom. This practice is not meant to pacify, it’s meant to soothe and clarify the strong turbulent emotions that come from being swept up by the suffering in the world.
Here is a short video with instructions on how to do this practice. Let me know how it goes!!