Uninterrupted, gnawing pain! Face-to-face with something that hadn’t happened in years, I instantly recognized the feeling and immediately judged my circumstances. BAD! I had been practicing yoga almost daily with no problems. So, why now and why me? My lower back was in serious trouble. I didn’t want to label this experience as good or bad—it just happened. A snap judgment! My thoughts continued to spiral down.
Thanks to support from my compassionate teacher, I made my way up the studio steps and to my car. I drove home, still not reconciled with the pain. Several hours later, after contacting my naturopath, I had a recovery plan. It was time to be. I was still upset.
Impermanence had struck on the heels of four, intense months of doing—a writing immersion—and I hadn’t taken time to unwind. My striving mind was in deep conflict with my body. It was as if self-compassion never existed. How unfair! What an inconvenience! I’ll just push myself a bit more! My body was doing its best, given the circumstances, yet it was my mind that needed a time-out.
Not able to move well gave me plenty of hours for being. I realized, at an even deeper level, what was meant by seeing adversity as a profound teacher. I had heard from and read about people who welcomed their terminal diagnoses or injuries from a car accident. Welcomed these events! They had learned amazing lessons about themselves and life. They became forever changed in how they interacted with people and viewed life events. Life became more inclusive and meaningful. They discovered what really mattered—unconditional love and others. No snap judgments there.
Able to do very little for myself but rest, I was a tangled mess. The more I tried, the more pain and constraint I felt. My body was defying me. It seemed that I had aged before my very eyes. No amount of mind over matter would allow me ease or mobility. It was very humbling to be living within narrow parameters. I continued to judge my circumstances. A captive audience, my body commanded my full attention. These circumstances touched a familiar vibe. What lesson was unfolding?
Up until that point, I was feeling pretty good about how life was unfolding. Believing that my inner core was resilient and that I could handle any misfortune, I was zapped by reality. That’s right—control is only an illusion. Reminding myself to accept the experience that had come to me, I softened my heart to a different perspective. Had I been abusing or loving myself?
In slow recovery, I observed my pain as part of the moment, not labeling it. I stopped using negative self-talk regarding why I did not do preventative back strengthening exercises or how my computer posture might have been questionable. I made no excuses. I recalled the Buddhist practice of Tonglen that I had tried in earlier years without much success. Had I evolved enough spiritually that this practice might be helpful?
Tonglen practice helps you to interact from your best Self in both challenging and celebratory circumstances—whether thought about in advance or done in-the-moment. The first action for either kind of circumstance is no action. Step back and simply observe without judgment. Think: Something is happening. Do not identify the situation as good or bad or apply any other dualities. In circumstances of challenge, Tonglen statements help you to observe adverse circumstances, negative thoughts, or impermanence and work through humanness.
Stay with the pure feelings of the moment; there is nothing to distract you from the past or future. This focus can be difficult, since most of the time you are used to making snap judgments. Remember self-compassion. As you breathe in these pure feelings—what does not work for you—you realize that you are honestly facing your issues. For some, this may be overwhelming at first and a bit scary. Your anxiety may be out-of-control. Stay with the negative feeling. Next, breathe out substitute feelings—antidotes—that are reassuring. You begin to feel calm. Repeat the statements as you inhale and exhale any number of times until you feel you are a part of them.
I usually want to turn away from agony, seeking a fast fix. This time I lay with the pain, felt it, and breathed it in. I breathed in dark and negative feelings, naming frustration, discomfort, arrogance of knowing (rather, thinking I did), and delay in finishing my work. These statements resonated to my core, to the point of tears.
To balance those negative feelings, I breathed out positive statements, characteristics of the true Self: ease, patience, forgiveness, and calm. I continued to repeat this pattern of inhaling and exhaling my feelings. At the time, it was all I could do to work with my own feelings. Yet part of Tonglen practice seeks inclusiveness—to remember that others (family members, as well as those you don’t know) experience similar circumstances and feel distress and pain. As I became more aligned through my statements with an energy that was greater than I, I was able to breathe in similar negative feelings that others experienced and breathe out the antidotes for those feelings. Inclusivity emerged, as separateness faded to the background. The more I worked with this practice, the more oneness I felt.
I developed the following Tonglen statements for three challenging situations. Although it is still tricky to catch myself before making snap judgments, I find that this practice offers lighter and more connected feelings. You might want to start reading the statements and then sit with the experience until you know the statements are right for you. Some of the situations and supporting declarations may have to be changed, customizing them to your circumstances. Be courageous and develop your own statements. It is worth your time. You will know what resonates when you feel something quicken within. Recognizing which statements symbolize your situation, repeat them until you feel you are a part of them.
It is easier to state declarations for yourself first and then state the declarations on behalf of family members and unknown others who have similar distress or pain. Breathe in what does not work for them and breathe out positive feelings that strengthen them. All energies are connected. It is important to remember that even though you may not know whom you support with your declarations, you will feel a kinship with them. This is also a sign of oneness. I invite you to consider these Tonglen statements for challenging circumstances.
Situation 1: Anxiety over health issues or terminal diagnoses
- Fear of leaving loved ones, incomplete work projects, not fulfilling my purpose
- Knowing that this experience is mine by design
- Knowing that I’m not alone
- Knowing that I’m part of a greater energy
- Knowing that I’m deeply loved
Situation 2: Relationship setback
- Lack of unconditional love for another
- Guilt, shame
- Insensitivity to circumstances
- Presumption that I know, or know better
- Self-compassion and love
- Forgiveness for my humanness
- Strength to create a new habit or approach
Situation 3: Tight heart; carrying a grudge
- My timetable
- Understanding of and forgiveness for my role in the hurt
- Unconditional love in the form of expansive relief
At the other end of the spectrum, Tonglen statements also encourage you to recognize celebratory feelings of good will, caring, and joy. When you are feeling personal gratitude, fulfillment, or awe, it is natural to want to recognize the circumstances that created those feelings. A greater energy around you is supportive. Sharing your happiness, whether privately or overtly, raises your vibration.
You’ll also want to share your positive experiences with others who are celebrating similar circumstances or with those who could benefit from some positivity. This gathering of celebratory feelings raises the vibrations of all energies throughout the collective universe and those of the general universe.
Breathe in examples of optimism and breathe out the gifts of your experience, sharing with others to uplift them. On behalf of others who might benefit from positivity, breathe in your observations and breathe out inspiring declarations.
The following Tonglen statements point to three celebration circumstances. Starting with these declarations may move you to develop your own. Again, you will know which statements are right for you because something within will stir. Repeat the statements until you feel you are a part of them.
Situation 1: Beauty of nature – Contemplating a small twig of crabapple blossoms
- Red and green gradient foliage
- Tender, pink flowers with delicate magenta and gray stamen
- Quiet, unassuming beauty that speaks to strength of being
- Appreciation for nature’s spontaneous gifts
- Innate goodness that augments circumstances
- This moment that encourages wholeness
Situation 2: Improved health because of professional care – Hooray for craniosacral therapy!
- Gratitude for intuitive perceptions and skilled hands
- Release of tight ligaments and muscles
- Relief that overrides pain
- Love in the form of body alignment and mobility
- Zest for life
Situation 3: Reconnection of Friendship
Breathe in …
- Like-minded thoughtfulness and common values
- Shared focus, honesty, and appreciation of differences
- Acceptance without judgment
- Friendship that weathers impermanence
- Lightness, humor, and ease of being
- Uncompromised support
Words can never fully express the interactions and effects of Tonglen practice. It is about reaching an understanding at a higher level among all energies. After working with Tonglen, I feel that my heart and mind are no longer at odds. When I feel a snap judgment lurking and begin to label an experience as fortunate or unfortunate, I stop because I realize that my thinking and feeling patterns are no longer stable. I may or may not be going down the “rabbit hole.” I return to the present moment, breathe, and begin Tonglen statements. Because my mind and heart have stopped judging, they are more open to new understandings. This is a good thing—a form of loving myself and others.
Applying a diligent practice like this whenever life’s experiences lure me toward snap judgments, I find my thoughts and actions are more consistent. When I begin with something is happening and then move to breath declarations for myself and others, humanness doesn’t trip me up as often.
Awareness of this change seemed to come out-of-the-blue. Yet I know differently. Nothing happens by chance. It was a wise and resourceful greater energy that believed I was ready. Now I have more clarity within the moment. I think of others in similar circumstances and want for them what I am experiencing. I am a work-in-progress, and this has made all the difference.
From a higher vantage: Resilience is gained from not accepting the lure of immediately labeling circumstances as good or bad, happy or sad, or hopeless or optimistic. Simple acknowledgment is enough. I don’t have to judge, thereby not feeling separated from others. Instead, I am creating a new pattern of how I deal with the on-going challenges and celebrations that Impermanence is sure to deliver. Distress and pain are eased while joy is enhanced.