And, for me…this is where it all fell apart…it’s taken a while to process and find my voice to share what came next. In Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) week seven we learned about Tonglen meditation.
What is Tonglen? It is the Tibetan word for giving and taking. Practiced for centuries exclusively in Tibet, it’s been widely known in the West for less than a decade. The idea (simplified) is to reduce suffering in the world, by taking it in (caution! but NOT taking it on) and then transforming it through your own inner well of limitless compassion and love. The transformation is highly visual and takes place in the rhythm of the breath. The suffering of self and others is absorbed slowly with the deliberate in-breath (perhaps imagined and inhaled as a dark cloud), and then, just as light immediately cancels out the darkness, the warmth of your heart (perhaps as a golden beam of light or burst of flowers) relieves the suffering you took in with an equally deliberate out-breath.
Inhale suffering, exhale love and compassion. Simple, right? Are you picking up on my sarcasm?
Before you can effectively practice Tonglen, you have to be adept at tapping into the well of compassion inside yourself. But where does this limitless well of love and compassion come from?
And that is why I stopped. I wasn’t fully on board with the concept. And I realized that I’m all too often stuck in the empathy trap. The place where you’re taking on, and taking on wholly and completely (Warning! Warning!), then walking straight off the cliff with the very person you’re trying to help. That’s not helpful and may even be harmful to YOU, AND those around you! Sigh…
Do you prioritize others’ feelings over your own? If so, you might be in this mean little trap with me.
“Overly empathic people may even lose the ability to know what they want or need. They may have a diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest, experience physical and psychological exhaustion from deflecting their own feelings, and may lack internal resources to give their best to key people in their life. What’s more, unending empathy creates vulnerability to gas-lighting, in which another person negates your own reality to assert his or hers…Those who regularly prioritize the feelings of others above their own needs often experience generalized anxiety or low-level depression. They may describe a feeling of emptiness or alienation, or dwell incessantly on situations from the perspective of another.”
– Robin Stern & Diana Divecha, July 7, 2015 Greater Good Magazine
And so, the idea of Tonglen was not appealing. But I’m not alone, many people respond similarly upon introduction to the practice. They ask, how can I possibly take in and transform what already seems so overwhelming?
Then, an epiphany! I began to connect this foreign practice to the roots of my own faith.
I’m a Christian. I don’t profess it openly because I don’t subscribe to interpretations presented by “organized” religion, I don’t go to church, I happen to admire atheists like Sam Harris and Robert Sapolsky, I love science, and quite honestly, I’m ashamed of what most people do in the name of Christ.
But when I began to think of Tonglen as Jesus’ calling to be a light unto the world, I began to imagine myself drawing on the light of His suffering and forgiveness. I felt an opening of my own heart toward the possibility of freedom from the burden of empathy, the burden of feeling too much.
Empathic distress is real, but with faith, there is an endless well of love and compassion that never runs dry, a light capable of transforming the darkness.
In CCT we graduated through studies and practices of loving-kindness and compassion for self, others, strangers, and beyond. I’m reminded of a book I read in an undergraduate religious studies class, Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, an elegant study of the overlapping teachings of Buddha and Christ. This was the beginning of a personal spiritual journey. In college, I moved from a naive stance of reared Christianity to becoming a rebel skeptic and nearly nihilist, then later on to adopt a sort of a new age version of Christianity, and now, to professing my own authentic faith.
Christ is within. He is the infinite source of light to transform our suffering. The original followers of Christ were called followers of The Way. Unfortunately, the modern church has lost the way and the truth of Christ and Western Buddhist philosophy has risen up to take its place providing comfort in a stress-ridden world. I relate to the Buddhist idea that suffering is the base of our human experience. But taking it a step further, I know that the burden of sin is the source of our suffering separating us from the divine. This separation is the ultimate suffering.
Personally, I bear the guilt of being silent about my faith. As they say, we never really change, we only, perhaps slowly, become more of what we are. Pay attention to the moments of resistance in your life and what they may be telling you. For me, my Christian faith, which includes contemplative practice, is the source of a boundless compassion through Christ.