Raw, adjective: 7. brutally or grossly frank: a raw portrayal of human passions.

I am reminded, over and over again, that we all have broken hearts.

We forget this sometimes, you know? We're good at pretending. I see it sometimes in class, though, as people beat up on themselves for falling out of Utthita Hasta Padangustasana, or feel it in their heaviness as they walk in the door and make a wan effort to smile, or when they struggle, fidgeting, to give themselves permission to rest for even two minutes at the end of class in Savasana.

One of my own pet peeves as a yoga student is when the teacher starts jabbering on and on about "finding your bliss." There you are, fighting to stay in Parivrtta Parsvakonasana and to not topple over straight onto your face, sweat dripping into your eyeballs, and they're wandering around blabbing about bliss and joy and rainbows and unicorns. Um, seriously? No. That's not how it works.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Yoga does not mean you have to be perky. Yoga means you get to be real.

And a part of that realness is remembering how grounded our lives are in suffering. The fact of the matter is, we all suffer. (It's one of the Four Noble Truths, silly.) And because at one point or another we have all suffered, we know what it's like to be in pain, to feel empty, lost, confused, broken, fearful. And that knowing, that empathy, becomes the ground of our own compassion. Because when we're able to recall that heavy empty dark shadowy feeling within our own bodies, hearts, minds, we're better able to reach out to those around us whose own darknesses might feel too great to bear.

So much of asana is about learning to meet ourselves in moments of struggle, of chaos, of self-imposed difficulty — Warrior 3, anyone? — and remind ourselves that the struggle will pass, the chaos will abate, the difficulty will ease. That truth of impermanence then bleeds into our lives off the mat, so that when we're sitting with sorrow, or pain, or uncertainty, we can remind ourselves that, in the same way that Warrior 3's tension eventually resolved, so will our own emotional tumult blow right by.

I'm reminded of all this here, now, on this particular morning, because of a conversation last night with a dear friend who's aching a bit, whose usual radiance is feeling a bit clouded-over, and because I'm feeling particularly close in this autumnal grey to memories of own past sorrows, and so I sat down this morning with Pema Chodron's beautiful, brief teaching on Tonglen practice, and it lit me up.
The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering — ours and that which is all around us — everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.

We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and who we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy or whatever would relieve their pain. This is the core of the practice: breathing in other's pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness. However, we often cannot do this practice because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment.
Breathe in one another's sorrow; breathe out one another's peace.

How simple, how perfect, how counterintuitive to the resistance we usually present to all things dark or painful or difficult.
People often say that this practice goes against the grain of how we usually hold ourselves together. Truthfully, this practice does go against the grain of wanting things on our own terms, of wanting it to work out for ourselves no matter what happens to the others. The practice dissolves the armor of self-protection we've tried so hard to create around ourselves. In Buddhist language one would say that it dissolves the fixation and clinging of ego.

Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness. We begin to feel love both for ourselves and others and also we begin to take care of ourselves and others. It awakens our compassion and it also introduces us to a far larger view of reality. It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness that Buddhists call shunyata. ....
So on the spot you can do tonglen for all the people who are just like you, for everyone who wishes to be compassionate but instead is afraid, for everyone who wishes to be brave but instead is a coward.

Rather than beating yourself up, use your own stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world.

Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us.

Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.
It's just so powerful, isn't it? Suddenly the notion of taking on another's suffering becomes liberating, becomes the source of compassion, becomes just one more way in which we remember that we are all connected. And if that's not yoga, I don't know what is. No expensive pants or fancy props necessary.

The Practice of Tonglen ~ Pema Chodron (Shambhala)


Oh my dear Rachel! I am so grateful you dropped into my world! It's again a reminder that I am taken care of and that all is perfect! Thank you for such a beautiful piece! And yes - Steve Jobs said "It was an awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it!"Like you said it's medicine, not poison.
Kairos Rae said…
"Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings."

There's no way you can know what I'm going through and what this means to me, but thank you, with all my heart, thank you.

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