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Dealing with others’ suffering

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Dealing with others’ suffering

You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion. — 16th Gyalwa Karmapa

  • 15 minutes
  • Hard



tonglen practice to cultivate compassion.

Contrary to what you might think, shielding yourself from discomfort and pain causes you to suffer. In fact, separation becomes like a prison that limits your ability to care for others outside your inner circle of compassion. The practice of tonglen – sending and receiving – allows you “to be present and helpful to others when they are suffering, facing adversity, or confronting illness” (The Book of Joy). As Pema Chödrön points out, “it is a practice of taking in pain and sending out pleasure”. It has numerous benefits: (1) It reduces your own suffering because it frees you from your focusing only on your self-concern; (2) It allows you to become an oasis of peace and healing; (3) It enables you to feel less burdened whilst at the same time loving without conditions.

The following practice has been adapted from When Things Fall Apart – Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödron. In this book, American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön offers advice on how to live our lives when everything seems to fall apart – when we are continually overcome by fear, anxiety, and pain. The answer is not to avoid these uncomfortable situation, but rather to move toward painful situation and becoming intimate with them so as to open our hearts fully. Her book provides life-changing tools for transforming suffering and negative patterns into boundless joy. Find out more about Pema Chödrön and her work at https://pemachodronfoundation.org.



Resting your mind

First, rest your mind briefly with several long breaths through your nose that help you reach a state of openness and stillness. You want to open to basic spaciousness and clarity.


Working with texture

Second, work with texture. Breathe in a feeling of hot, dark, and heavy - a sense of claustrophobia - and breathe out a sense of cool, bright, and light - a sense of freshness. Breathe in completely, through all the pores of your body, and breathe out, radiate out, completely, through all the pores of your body. Do this until it feels synchronised with your in- and out-breaths.


Sending and receiving

Third, think of someone who is suffering. You can choose a loved one, a friend, or even a whole group of people, such as refugees. However, if you are stuck, you can work with a personal situation - any painful situation that's real for you. In this case, you can do the practice for the pain you are feeling and simultaneously for all those just like you who feel that kind of suffering.

Reflect on the fact that, just like, you, they wish to overcome suffering and to be joyful. Try to feel a sense of concern for their wellbeing. Feel deep within your heart and desire for them to be free of suffering.

As you inhale, imagine the pain being drawn from their body and dissolving when it encounters the warmth and bright light of your compassionate heart. As you exhale, imagine that you are sending them rays of light filled with your love and compassion, your courage and your confidence, your strength and your joy.


Expanding bigger

Finally, make the taking in and sending out bigger. If you are doing tonglen for someone you love, extend it to those who are in the same situation as your friend. If you are doing tonglen for someone you see on television or on the street, do it for all the others in the same boat. Make it bigger than just that one person. If you are doing tonglen for all those who are feeling the anger or fear or whatever that you are trapped in, maybe that's big enough. But you could go further in all these cases. You could do tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies - those who hurt you or hurt others. Do tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same confusion and stuckness as your friend or yourself. Breathe in their pain and send them relief.

Greta Rossi

Chief Empathy Officer at Akasha Innovation. Co-founder of ImpactAimers and Recipes for Wellbeing. Regional Coordinator for Ashoka's ChangemakerXchange. Youth coach and FRSA.

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