A practice for when life feels hard

Sometimes life is royally hard. Nothing feels right, and relief feels far away. There’s a tool I call on at times like this. It’s a Tibetan practice called ‘Tonglen’ that I learned several years ago from reading Pema Chodron’s book ‘When things fall apart’.

I was living in Far North Queensland at the time, in a miserable relationship, and nursing a terribly aching, disappointed heart. As you might have guessed I banked a lot on both that relationship and it’s consequent life in the far north. But that’s quite another story. I also happened to be several thousand kilometres from home – hence my friend Roby offering me Pema’s book to help get me through. I can’t overemphasise how useful that book has been as a resource in the years since, and most especially the practice of Tonglen.

Basically, Tonglen, as I understand it, is about identifying the pain you’re feeling, and as you breathe in, you extend your awareness from a focus on your own pain, to imagining a thread of connection with everyone else who’s simultaneously feeling this particular pain. Then with the out-breath, you offer a prayer/wish of relief for yourself and everyone else who’s experiencing this pain right now.

I share this practice with many of the women I work with 1:1 to support them in their own struggles. What I love so much about Tonglen is that is pierces the isolation that so often accompanies suffering, and reconnects us with a thread of collective experience. Some people worry that by breathing in not only our own pain but including the particular pain of others with our own, there will be an experience of overwhelm. This is always a possibility, but if that were to happen (and I’ve rarely heard of it occurring) you can then adjust your practice to attend to that.

So, let’s say you were like me recently and had a big swinging sense of PMS looming over your day, and yet you needed to show up for your work, even though you would have liked to rest and be quiet. While sometimes it’s possible to take a break on such a day, in this case I need to ‘suit up and show up’. In times like this, I calling on Tonglen to support me through the day.

Each time I’m filling the kettle, or prepping for facilitation and the hormonal sensitivity feels so very raw, I inhale awareness of my own sensitivity and sadness, and welcome all other women who are working with PMS today, and exhale a wish of relief for all of us. When I do this, I feel so much less alone. It’s not a cure, but my goodness it feels like a relief. If I feel overwhelmed by the practice, then I can either move on to another practice, or I can breathe in the sense of overwhelm and invite into my awareness an imaginary connection with everyone around the world who feels overwhelmed right now, and breathe out a wish of relief for all overwhelm.

Next time you’re feeling any strong feeling, especially tough emotions (you can practice with joyful feelings too!) you might like to give this practice a try.

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