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Good MedicineReview - Good Medicine
How to Turn Pain into Compassion with Tonglen Meditation
by Pema Chödrön
Sounds True, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jan 30th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 5)

I've listened to this audio double-CD of Prema Chödrön several times and I would recommend it to those looking to an introduction to tonglen, a system of meditation to help one deal with life's troubles, derived from the practices of Tibetan Zen Buddhism. I can't say that I have used it much to help my own peace of mind, but occasionally the method has occurred to me and I've found it interesting. Whether it is useful is of course very hard to say - I doubt that any scientific studies have been attempted trying to prove that it helps people cope when experiencing emotional turmoil. But on the other hand, it is unlikely to have any unwanted side effects, and many people vouch for its importance, so it may be worth trying it out.

Chödrön talks very slowly, and listening to her can be relaxing, unless one feels extremely impatient, in which case one might become exasperated by the pauses from one word to another. She explains any terminology she uses, and she illustrates her ideas with straightforward examples. She starts off talking about being an unconditional friend to oneself as the basis of compassion and happiness. The problem is that pain is an inevitable part of life, and she explains that it is important not to struggle against pain, but instead one should be comfortable with both pleasure and pain. One should not make the mistake of mistaking pleasure for happiness; pleasure is always fleeting and unreliable. Instead, one should accept one's pain and discomfort with oneself, and should even move closer to the painful feelings. The discomfort is made far worse by one's struggle to not be as one thinks one should, because then one feels shame at oneself. This does not mean that one should not care about the bad sides of oneself, but it means recognizing oneself for what one is and being compassionate towards oneself.

Of course, it is incredibly hard to accept oneself as one is; we are always full of self-criticism. So it is hard to meditate and to be with oneself; seeing oneself for what one is can be upsetting. Chödrön links this with breathing meditation, focusing on one's present feelings and not drifting off into other thoughts. With practice, it becomes easier to accept oneself, and one's anger with oneself diminishes. Similarly, if one can experience jealously, depression, loneliness without condemning oneself, then one can learn to accept oneself more fully. This practice awakens an understanding of our shared humanity, and then one feels less need to avoid the feelings by doing something else such as drinking, taking drugs, or other self-destructive activities.

Opening one's heart will also mean one can see the discomfort of others without needing to avoid it. Furthermore, one can experience one's own pleasure without a sense of regret that it is temporary. Chödrön says that compassion heals us and makes people more relaxed and open.

The obvious danger in such an approach is that it can be used as an excuse for not trying to improve the world. Chödrön says little to address this danger directly, but she does not convey the sense that it is fine to be self-satisfied or uncaring about other people's suffering - indeed, it seems likely that if one becomes more compassionate through the practice of tonglen then one will do more to help other people.

The attraction of tonglen is that it is a way of dealing with mental strife. Rather than trying to subdue our powerful emotions, it suggests that we should allow oneself to experience them; indeed, she says that negative emotions can be good in that they provide a transformative energy. "The more neurosis, the more wisdom," she says, and so there can be some aspect of difficult circumstances that one can welcome. She also says that tonglen is being used more and more in hospices and with people who have terminal illnesses. People start to feel that their pain, fear or despair has a meaning and they can better cope with it. Many people become more kind and regain a sense of humor once they start this kind of meditation, according to Chödrön.

Chödrön recommends tonglen practice not just when one is in a special meditation session, but also in the middle of the day and one sees pain or suffering. Our reaction is to avert our eyes or guilt that we cannot do something to help others. She says that one thing we can do is practicing tonglen on the spot. Similarly one can practice tonglen in the middle of a furious argument with another person. This meditation is not a matter of leaving the situation and sitting cross-legged on the floor, but rather it is letting oneself experience one's negative feelings more, examining them without being judgmental. One allows oneself to experience the feelings and tells oneself that other people have the same feelings. Speaking for myself, I at least find this idea very intriguing, even if I am not sure that it will be very useful to me. It is at least plausible that doing this prevents a chain reaction in one's feelings that leads to an escalating series of unpleasant emotions.

There is a more formal process of tonglen that Chödrön explains as well, guiding her listeners through a meditation session. Presumably those wanting to know more will need to seek further training beyond this CD; there are many books and videos available on tonglen practice. There is, furthermore, an overlap between the practices of tonglen and various self-help methods for reducing stress and dealing with anger and depression, and it would probably take a great deal more study to really understand the world view behind these practices. But this CD is a good start, and even though I am not inclined to investigate tonglen any further in the immediate future, I felt that I gained something from listening to Chödrön's teaching.

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the general public.


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