Sometimes things come together: I sleep well enough to enjoy my day, and, after checking my daily to-do list, see that there is nothing that really needs to get done. It suddenly occurs to me that I could visit my friends Jesse and Shay, who live a little more than an hour north from me, and have my caregiver Jenna drive me.
When she arrives, I tell her my idea and find out she’s up for it. Let’s get out of town!
The day is perfect for an outing. It’s nearly the end of August and there’s a bit of coolness in the air, the heaviness of summer lifting for a bit.
We leave town and immediately get on the highway. We pass steep hills full of leaning redwoods and pines and I feel my senses awaken. Traveling – even a short trip out of town, always opens up my world, reminding me there’s more to life than the inside of my mind and the confines of my home.
Jenna and I converse on the way there. She’s only been working for me for a short time and this gives me a chance to get to know her better. She tells me a little about her unhappy childhood – growing up as an only child in a small town outside of Madison, Wisconsin and how she tended to her lonely spirit by climbing trees and watching all kinds of critters. I learn that she has moved around a lot since an adult, until she arrived in Mendocino County ten years ago and realized she had finally found her home.
I tell Jenna I need a break from conversing, knowing that when we arrive at Jesse and Shay’s, there’ll be plenty of it. I don’t want my brain to go on over-load before we get there and spoil the visit.
I turn and look out the window. We are passing through the tiny town of Laytonville, which holds not a whole lot more than a gas station, a general store and a few small restaurants. Old hippies live here side-by-side with rednecks pretty much amiably, it seems to me.
The road flattens out as does the scenery – there are less trees here, revealing gentle hills that are golden brown from parched grasses.
Finally, we reach Bells Springs Road and I direct Jenna to turn right onto it. The car immediately climbs, pavement turning to dirt and gravel. The washboard road jostles our bodies as we drive up and up, rounding one curve after another, a cloud of dust following. Occasionally, there is a break between madrone and manzanita on the right, revealing spectacular views of ridges spreading out for miles, with no houses in sight.
Eventually, just as I am becoming impatient, the road straightens out and we arrive at their driveway, which is steep but short, guarded by a large gargoyle leering at us at the base. We park at the top at level ground and get out.
I am always struck by the quiet here. I pause and take a moment, breathing in the stillness, which is settling after such a long and bumpy ride.
We stretch our legs and look around before nearing the house. Two large goddess statues line the pathway, almost as tall as full-grown women. Flat rocks nearby them have been carefully stacked creating a natural tower.
The house is unusual – what I would call a Northern California home, probably built back in the 70’s. It is weathered and rambling with two stories and sits amongst trees. Two decks are connected by a narrow walkway, which leads to the front door. As we walk in that direction, we pass potted plants and a large stack of wood, forcing us to walk single-file.
I hear voices call out and see Jesse and Shay out on the front deck. When Jenna and I reach them, I introduce everybody, then hug my friends hard – it’s been too long since we’ve gotten together.
A big oak tree bends over the deck, one of its huge branches almost touching it. Beside us is a carefully and lovingly constructed ornamental terraced garden. There are small, meandering pathways and a tiny pond with a run-off that’s gently burbling. It’s truly a thing of beauty.
Gardening has always been one of Jesse’s passions and has kept her busy over the years, but now that she’s in a wheelchair, she can no longer tend to this incredible creation of hers and has taken to making what she calls “faerie gardens”, that line the deck. These miniature gardens that she has worked on meticulously are made up of tiny plants made to look like trees, with elfin bridges, houses, and even people, and not one of them is the same.
They reveal the patience Jesse has, which is one of her most admirable traits, along with her great intelligence.
We take our seats and immediately launch into deep conversation. I have known these women for a very long time, so there is no need for small talk and pleasantries. Although I haven’t seen them for months, in many ways it feels like yesterday.
Inevitably, the conversation turns to health. Last year, Jesse was diagnosed with cancer. Surgery became necessary and she has recently finished rounds of chemo. Her hair has just started coming back and when I rub my hand across her head, I’m surprised with how soft it is. She talks about frequent doctor visits, anticipating test results, and the hardship of having to go to Ukiah for appointments, almost 2 hours away. As she talks, I check out her appearance more closely and realize she’s lost a lot of weight, which concerns me. Nevertheless, she seems cheerful and talkative, and my concern, at least for her emotional well-being, begins to wane.
It’s Shay, really, that worries me more. She has suffered from depression since she was a teenager. Her voice is often flat, and she sleeps a lot and has little vital energy. Jesse’s cancer has certainly added to her mental state, and so our talk turns to her struggles.
She has been on antidepressants for some time. At first, she had a hard time adjusting to one medication, but then they gave her some relief. But not long after, the effects abated then stopped working altogether. The doctors wanted to increase her dosage, which she did, and that helped briefly, but then again, stopped working. Discouraged, she cut back, but found it difficult on her body and even though she’d like to go off altogether, it became too hard to do, so she has given up and stayed on them, even though she no longer feels any relief.
She has also gone to therapy, read countless books on depression, quit sugar altogether and changed her diet. But all this has had no effect on her body/mind.
“The only thing that really helps”, she says, “That really gets me out of my head is being creative.” She closes her eyes for a moment. “I can get in this zone and it takes me away from everything and into this other world.”
Shay is an incredible artist, with many interests. Her main focuses have been jewelry, painting and drawing. Her studio is a work of art itself: Sketches are set up here and there. Cups and cases hold pens, colored pencils and brushes in various shapes and sizes. Tiny drawers hold all sorts of beads, necklaces, chains and clasps. Easels lean against walls. There are leather-bound journals with her creations in them, reams of paper for watercolors, as well as others’ artwork – from small sculptures to paintings to help inspire her.
After Shay speaks, Jesse adds, her voice becoming soft, “What’s hard for me is seeing how her depression affects her self-esteem. She’s so damn hard on herself!” Tears spring to her eyes.
I know this to be true. Shay constantly puts herself down, downplays her artistic abilities, compares herself to others in many areas of her life, and often, in her mind, coming up short. It’s painful for me to see this in her. I love my friend dearly and know her not only to be talented, but extremely kind, sensitive and thoughtful. I only wish she could turn those qualities towards herself.
Jenna chimes in, “Well, I’m not clinically depressed, but I have my days and my cycles with it. When the days turn into weeks, I start to microdose myself with magic mushrooms. It works for me. It interrupts the cycle.”
We’re all interested in what she has to say, and barrage her with questions. What kind of mushrooms? How much do you take? Do you get high? Can you take it with antidepressants and other medications?
Jenna answers carefully. “I can only speak from my own experience. I take a teeny weeny bit of psilocybin and I don’t get high. But, I feel…” She thinks a bit, “I feel better, is all I can say. Different. Something shifts inside, and my brain resets itself.” She shrugs, as if to say, “That’s the best I can do to explain myself”. “And I want to be clear here: I don’t know if it will work for you. I don’t know if you can take it with your meds. I don’t have all the answers.” She shakes her head with a sad expression on her face. “And unfortunately, I’ve run out of mushrooms myself and don’t know where to get any.”
We’re all quiet, taking in all this information.
“I do think,”, Jenna adds, “That if you ever try it – don’t do it alone. Have someone there with you. I’d be willing to do that with you, if you’d like.”
“But you don’t have any,”, Jesse says, making sure. “No. But I’m looking. I could let you know if I find anything.”
Shay sighs, sounding weary, but says “Well I like the idea of taking something natural…” She drifts off, “I’m not sure if I’m up for something new.”
I understand this reaction. I’ve tried so many other things over the years and got my hopes up: Maybe this will work. Often, I don’t get the results I want, or it makes me feel worse and/or gives me intolerable side effects. Even something as simple and benign like vitamin B-12 to help feed my nervous system, took me a long time to try out. I just did not want to be disappointed yet again.
There’s a lull in the conversation and suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, their scraggly black, Noche (with a tiny spot of white on the tip of his tail), shows up demanding attention, putting smiles on our faces. More shadows have moved in on the porch, taking over most of the sun spots. As much as I don’t want to leave, it’s best that we get on the road before it becomes too dark.
We reluctantly say our goodbyes and as we pull out of their driveway, I look back and see Shay holding Noche and waving at us.
We’re quiet as we head home as I process the visit. Seeing these beloved friends always warms my heart, but breaks it, too, if that’s possible. I realize I want to “fix” Shay, as others seem to want to “fix” me, but I know it’s not possible and that hurts. Maybe, if Shay wants to try them, those mushrooms will help, I think, as we whiz by trees and hills. And maybe they won’t.
Microdosing – disclaimer: I am not endorsing the use of illegal or potentially dangerous drugs/medications.The subject of microdosing is only to inform my readers.
“It’s also important to know that not all psychological disorders lend themselves well to psychedelic treatment. While there is no scientific basis for the propaganda that psychedelics can “make you crazy,” it has been suggested that those with latent schizophrenia could have their condition triggered early by a strong psychedelic experience. Keep in mind this is still a new frontier of research, and people with certain medical conditions or on certain medications should absolutely not take certain psychedelics. Any properly run treatment clinic will have a full physical and mental health screening before treatment, and walk you through any contraindications that may be revealed. We do not endorse any illegal behavior, but from a harm reduction perspective, anyone who chooses underground treatment should exercise extreme levels of research, discernment, and safety precautions throughout the process.”
“Finding Integration Support – Beyond the psychedelic journey itself, integration of the experience after the fact plays a critical role in ensuring that the insights, progress, inspiration gained are translated into daily life in a sustainable way. Whether you are fresh out of an underground ayahuasca ceremony that helped you deal with childhood trauma, or a recent outpatient of an iboga center that helped you detox from an opiate addiction; a few weeks or months of integration support from someone who understands psychedelic treatment is immensely beneficial in securing your new goals, perspectives and commitments.” …
“Releasing the Stigma – One of the most insidious aspects of mental illnesses is the stigma that surrounds them. Despite the statistics that show how common these disorders are, our culture still often adopts a “toughen up and go it alone” approach, leading many to isolate themselves and be fearful of speaking up about their condition, much less seek help. Psychotherapy, prescription medications, and conventional rehab centers do help many people stabilize their lives, but sometimes these routes are not enough to fully eradicate the pain, trauma, and stress that lay at the core of the disorder, leading people to simply numb their symptoms without seeking true healing.” “Radical shifts in behavior, self-image, and wellbeing are something that psychedelics excel at when used appropriately, but not everyone is able to travel abroad for psychedelic treatment or willing to find underground options. The single most important thing that anyone suffering from an addiction or mental disorder can do is to speak up about it to their loved ones and seek help. Shame and stigma surrounding these issues should be forever discarded, as these conditions are an integral part of the human condition, and everyone faces stress, challenges, and addictive habits in their own way.”
… “Carina*, a 59-year-old therapist in Oregon, sees the ripple effects of the anxiety and stress of our current cultural climate every day in her work—and in her personal life. She has struggled with depression for much of her career, managing it with regular therapy sessions and movement practices like yoga and dance, but when she found herself struggling with a particularly challenging depressive episode in the wake of the #MeToo movement, she began exploring alternative treatment modalities.”
“That’s when she was introduced to microdosing for depression. “So much of depression is feeling stuck,” says Carina. “Microdosing has helped me get out of preservation mode; it helped me get out of the stuck places and see that there are options.”
“Shrooms (aka psychedelic mushrooms) and LSD have a rich résumé of providing a hallucinatory high, and we’re in the midst of a psychedelic resurgence. The recent interest in psychedelics isn’t a throwback to the ’60s so much as it is the potential future of mental health treatment—especially for depression and anxiety.”
“The goal of microdosing is not to get you high. As the name implies, the practice involves taking a small amount—a microdose—of psilocybin (in the form of mushrooms) or LSD every few days. Unlike higher doses of psychedelics, which typically produce the “trip” experience these substances are most known for, the effect of microdosing is much more subtle. Most people start with “around 10ug of LSD (around a tenth of a tab) or 0.1g of dried psilocybin mushrooms,” according to The Third Wave, a psychedelic education resource. (The “right” dose varies from person to person. You should never take any substance without consulting your doctor first.)”
“Psychedelics aren’t legal—they’re currently classified as Schedule I drugs by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, meaning there’s “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” (For the record, cannabis is also classified as a Schedule I drug by the DEA.) That poses some considerable risks. Because psychedelics aren’t legal, they aren’t regulated. There’s no way of knowing what you’re getting, where it’s coming from, or how strong it is, which can put your safety in jeopardy.”
Medical News Today “Psychedelics: Risks and benefits of microdosing revealed: New research, published in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience, finds both potential benefits and risks of using psychedelic microdosing to treat mental health problems. The study reveals effects on cognitive skills and sociability, as well as metabolic and neuronal consequences.” By Ana Sandoiu on March 4, 2019 https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324609.php#1
“An emerging body of research is making a case for using psychedelic drugs to treat mental health issues.”
“For instance, two studies published last year showed that psilocybin, the active psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, alleviated symptoms of treatment-resistant depression.”
“Moreover, the psilocybin did so without causing any side effects of conventional antidepressants. Such side effects typically include emotional blunting or apathy.”
“People who use psychedelics to improve their mental health and boost their overall well-being tend to do so with a technique called microdosing. Taking microdoses of a psychedelic drug means taking only a fraction of a dose that is required to have a full-blown psychedelic experience, or “trip.”…
“The lead researcher is David Olson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine at the University of California, Davis.”
… “conflicting results may suggest that an acute dose of psychedelic substances affects the brain differently from intermittent microdoses.”
“Side effects notwithstanding, say the authors, the current results are promising because they suggest that researchers can separate the psychedelic effects from the therapeutic ones.”
“Our study demonstrates that psychedelics can produce beneficial behavioral effects without drastically altering perception, which is a critical step towards producing viable medicines inspired by these compounds,” says Olson.”
“This is the first time anyone has demonstrated in animals that psychedelic microdosing might actually have some beneficial effects, particularly for depression or anxiety. It’s exciting, but the potentially adverse changes in neuronal structure and metabolism that we observe emphasize the need for additional studies.” David Olson, Ph.D.”
“Microdosing, or taking tiny amounts of a drug daily, does more than just get people mildly high. Specifically, psychedelics such as LSD (which is very similar to psilocybin, pharmacologically speaking) act on the neurotransmitter system, serotonin, which is widely used in traditional antidepressant drugs, says Harriet De Wit, PhD, founder and primary investigator in the Human Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory at the University of Chicago. “So, there is some neurochemical rationale for the possibility that it improves mood,” she says. Compared to traditional antidepressants, which can take weeks to take effect, microdoses of LSD have been shown to have marginal subjective effects after just one administration”, she adds.”
“All of this points to the greater need for research into promising drugs like psilocybin. Most experts agree that psychedelic drugs have a lot of potential — either taken in microdoses or in combination with psychotherapy with psychological guidance. “This is an exciting new chapter in psychiatric research,” Dr. De Wit says.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll be quick. I want to let you know a caregiver won’t be coming today, after all”.
“Oh. Who was on”?
“Liza”, I say.
And then I quietly leave the room, closing
the door gently behind me.
As I return to the living room, I reflect on our relationship. Cari and I met through a mutual friend. I had heard she had epilepsy, too, and I really wanted to know how she managed.
I had a lot of compassionate friends, but I knew it would be different if I met someone who dealt with the same issues that I did. I wanted to know: how did she cope? Did she have seizures often? What kind? Did she take meds? Were they under control?
We eventually got together and shared information, and shortly thereafter, became friends. The friendship turned into attraction and we fell in love. A year later, we exchanged vows in a wedding ceremony in our front yard.
When I knew we were falling in love, when I knew this was a relationship I wanted to pursue, I realized at some point we would need help (I had learned in the first few months of knowing her that she had other health challenges, including debilitating migraines, chronic sinusitis, and what eventually culminated in arthritis throughout her body, due to past injuries and years of playing sports. On top of that, she occasionally walked in her sleep!). At first, this help came from friends who were willing to step in when we were both down for the count, mostly to do needed errands. But I knew as we aged, we would need more assistance.
Evening is my favorite time of day, because it means that Cari will come out of her den and we’ll watch TV together for a couple of hours before the caregiver shows up for the night. One of our cats (Reggie) curls up between us as we watch our favorite programs. It’s family time for us.
I love this ritual. We may not talk much, but that doesn’t matter; her presence is really all I need. She gives me something that no one else can, because she understands what it is like to live with chronic conditions and because some of those conditions overlap.
Over the past 25 years, we have seen each other through seizures, pain, emotional ups and downs, struggles with doctors, changes in medications and even menopause. We have figured it out. We get each other. And that gives me incredible comfort, and that is what has kept us together.
There are times, though, when one of us becomes insecure and wonders: Am I too much for her?
Here’s my response when it’s she that feels this way:
The following is an excerpt from my “book” that I wrote years ago.
Introduction to Tonglen
There are times when, in the midst of recovering from a seizure or getting out of bed after another sleepless night when not only do I feel I can’t face one more minute of my life, but I ask the question many of us ask at some point in time: Why this senseless suffering? What good can come from this? At times like these, it can feel that all I am is an embodiment of suffering taking up space in the world. You may feel this way at times as well, or perhaps you come to these kinds of questions when hearing a news story about war or some other facet of brutality. For me, the Buddhist practice called “tonglen” provides an answer. Tonglen takes that feeling of senseless suffering and gives it a purpose: transforming it into compassion.
Tonglen (a Tibetan Buddhist practice) means giving and receiving in Tibetan or exchanging oneself for another. I find the latter a more accurate description, as one of its benefits is developing empathy. When I am having the most difficulty with my health, tonglen is a meditation practice that has helped me greatly, over the years.
When we practice loving kindness meditation, we tap into that part of ourselves that truly cares about our well-being and that of others. When we practice tonglen, we use that same desire for well-being and deepen our capacity to care. Tonglen, above all else, develops compassion.
But just what is compassion? As Sogyal Rinpoche says in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1992), “True compassion is the wish-fulfilling jewel, because it has the inherent power to give precisely to each being whatever that being most needs, and so alleviate his or her suffering, and bring about his or hers fulfillment”. It may not always be easy for us to experience this valuable and precious quality, for we may have guarded our heart well, thinking that by doing so, we can protect our self from pain and suffering. And, just as we discovered in loving kindness meditation, we may also feel we are undeserving of any kind of tenderness; in part perhaps, because we may feel that on some level, we brought this illness upon ourselves. This way of thinking couldn’t be further from the truth. Because of feeling unworthy, we are more in need of compassion than ever. As people with chronic illness, we have also been on the receiving end of toxic responses, such as fear, pity, shame and judgment (some of which may come from ourselves). These experiences can spark a disconnect with others, bringing with it a feeling of isolation and loneliness. Compassion, on the other hand, is a shared connective experience that brings with it a deep understanding. When we are touched by compassion, we feel seen and accepted. Compassion, and in turn, tonglen practice asks of us to instead of turning away from our pain and suffering, to come towards it, feel it, and in fact, embrace it with the utmost love and attention and with the express desire and intent to transform it. Just as we found in loving kindness meditation, at times it takes great courage and effort to practice tonglen, because it asks of us to not only acknowledge our pain and suffering but know it intimately.
Preliminary information to practicing tonglen may be found in the “Loving Kindness Meditation” section of my Loving Kindness, Part II blog posted on May 5, 2019.
There are many ways to practice tonglen: The methods I present here are what I consider the most suitable for those of us with health challenges. In some places, I’ve made modifications. If you want to further explore this valuable practice, I recommend you read Sogyal Rinpoche’s descriptions of it in his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying or Pema Chodron’s in The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (2002).
To begin, get in a comfortable position and start with the basic meditation techniques of becoming aware of body sensations and listening to sounds. Then pay attention to breath, becoming aware of its movement throughout the body. Then, for a brief time, note your thoughts and feelings. Become the observer, allowing your body/mind to become expansive as these thoughts and emotions move through you. Align yourself more and more with that expansiveness.
Maintaining this vastness, bring your awareness to your mood. Are you anxious or depressed? Are you feeling irritable because of pain? On the inhale, breathe in any difficult mental or emotional states to your heart, allowing them to dissolve. On the exhale, breathe out calmness and compassion for yourself, cleansing the quality of your mind. It may be that you are only able to touch your hurt or sorrow or pain for a moment here, a moment there, and that’s okay. You may not be used to being so tenderly attentive with yourself, but luckily, you can practice this technique again and again, and by doing so, become more familiar with it. If you have a hard time opening to this self-compassion, you can also start with loving kindness meditation and/or the “jump-start” (see below for quote from Loving Kindness, Part II post) techniques that precede it; remembering you are worthy of love, a time when someone was kind and helpful to you, and then proceed with this practice.
“Traditionally, we begin these phrases with ourselves, then move on to others, building up loving kindness in our hearts. But, although the idea of showering ourselves with loving kindness may seem simple enough at first glance, we may have difficulty with it. We may not be used to such gentleness with ourselves. If this is true for you, or if the words become mechanical, take time to recall an incident where someone was kind to you. It can be as simple as someone letting you into the flow of traffic, or a gentle tone someone used with you when you felt out of sorts. Connect with that feeling and then begin the phrases that work for you”.
I find that by offering compassion to these vulnerable parts of oneself is what’s been needed all along, and if you’re at all like me, you never knew that, or need reminding. There’s a sadness that can come with this awareness – a sadness that we’ve separated ourselves from our own love for a long, long time. What we’ve always yearned for – true understanding – we can best receive from ourselves; for who knows pain better than us? By practicing self-tonglen, we are coming back to our own heart. We are coming home.
For the next stage, you can use your physical symptoms to bring about a transformation: On the inhale, breathe in some physical difficulty and visualize it dissolving in your heart. On the exhale, send that ailing part your love, compassion and healing. Keep this up for as long as you want, or can, and move your awareness throughout your body, the same way. Again, you may be able to do only so much, but that’s okay. Your physical symptoms may remain much the same as when you started, but has your attitude softened? You can add another component to this stage if you wish: any pain you experience, imagine all the people who are experiencing the same pain, and when you inhale, take in their pain as well, and then let it dissolve in your heart. On the exhale, breathe out tenderness and understanding and any other calm that comes to mind and send it to all those people. You can also become creative here and send an image instead, if that makes the practice more intimate. A blanket to snuggle in or a warm hug by a loved one might be good images to send, for example. Sometimes when I include others who are in the same emotional and/or physical boat as me, I feel less isolated, less like I’m the only one on the planet that feels this way, and any loneliness I have begins to diminish or fade away. This may happen to you, too. It’s also possible that the opposite is true – that including others’ pain feels overwhelming. If that’s the case, just come back to doing the practice for yourself or breathe in that feeling, letting it dissolve and breathing out calm.
Because there’s such an intricate relationship between the emotional and the physical, you may want to include both of these steps in one. Also, if you have symptoms like I have sometimes, where much of the body is affected, you can do tonglen for the entire body as a whole. I encourage you to be creative here and throughout the practice. There are probably ways to practice that have never occurred to me that will occur to you. Trust your instincts. This practice may bring up deep sadness and you may want to cry. Please give yourself permission to do so; there is no need to be completely formal about this and tears can be so cleansing.
You may want to stop the practice right here and that’s fine. But, if you’re up for it, you can go to the next stage, which is similar to the one for loving kindness meditation, where we practice for others. Envision a loved one, someone dear to your heart, who is going through some difficulty. On the inhale, breathe in their suffering, whether it be cancer or the heartbreak of divorce, depression or a bum knee, and allow their pain, their struggle, to dissolve in your heart. Besides their suffering dissolving, allow any judgments or fears to dissolve as well. One time, when I was practicing tonglen on someone who was sick, I saw that I had judgment towards her, because at the time, she was still smoking cigarettes. I saw how this judgment blocked my compassion for her and I breathed that in, too. You may fear that by breathing in someone else’s illness, despair, suffering, that you will become depleted in the same way they are. Breathe in this fear, too, and allow it to melt within and dislodge from your heart, remembering to breathe out compassion, peace, etc.
At any point in practicing tonglen for others, you can include, just as you did for yourself, all others who are experiencing the same sort of suffering. For example, if you are doing tonglen for your mother who has Alzheimer’s, you can include all others with the same disease. By adding this piece in, we begin to expand our focus of awareness, causing our hearts to expand as well.
If you still have energy, you can move on to the next stage. Visualize someone neutral in your life; this time someone who you noticed is experiencing some difficulty. Perhaps it is the receptionist at your doctor’s office whose hand is in cast or the bus driver who seemed grumpy one morning and go through the same routine: inhaling their discomfort, letting it melt, exhaling and sending them love. If you can’t think of someone neutral who you know is suffering in some particular way, consider any neutral person – there is probably some difficulty in that person’s life, even if minor. Remember, just as in loving kindness meditation, part of the reason we do this practice in its entirety, is to awaken our heart to all people; not just those that are like us or believe the same things we do.
Then, we turn to a difficult person to practice tonglen for. Again, this can certainly be someone you know, but can also be someone in public office you disagree with or a group of people you don’t know. I have actually used my partner’s health insurance company, who has consistently denied payment on expensive medication that they have repeatedly said they would cover. When I did this practice for them, I saw how angry I was and how that anger hardened my heart, cutting me off from love. What good was hanging on to it doing for me? Although difficult for me to do, I was able to soften my heart and send them some of that soft-heartedness (soon after, they sent a letter saying they finally approved the coverage. Coincidence? Hard to say). Again, perfection is not the goal here – but being aware that we all have our areas of prejudice, fear, and judgment that are difficult to open to and to do the best we can to awaken compassion to those parts.
Instead of practicing tonglen for a difficult person, we could practice for a more difficult scenario, in order to build on our compassion. This might mean someone who is dying, or someone in constant pain. By practicing tonglen for a severe situation, we strengthen our compassion muscle, which is the gift of this practice. By imagining the most difficult suffering and bringing it into our heart on an inhalation, we are able to dissolve our deepest fears about suffering in general and can offer as we exhale, our most tender and heartfelt wish for the well-being of this person or persons in this mental or physical condition.
The next stage of the practice is to imagine all the people you have included up to this point and breathe in their suffering and breathe out compassion, imagining all of them well and whole – similar to the same stage in loving kindness meditation.
After you have finished with this aspect of the practice, you can move on to the other phases – for those in your hometown, country, and the world. The length of time you spend here depends, as usual, on your energy level and the time you have set aside for practice. When you are finished with this last part, bring your mind back to the vast awareness you experienced at the beginning of your practice.
If you have explored the entire practice, you have included all beings into your practice. In doing this, one can see that we all suffer in some way, that as human beings, this is something we all share. Tonglen puts us in touch with universal suffering in other ways, as well, as we begin to see that “my” suffering and suffering in general, all have the same component, whether it comes in small disappointments like losing our car keys to ongoing, grueling pain. Understanding this can have the effect of making us feel less alone and walled-off in our misconception that we are the only one that feels the way we do.
There are days when my suffering seems so great that the practice of tonglen seems insurmountable. You may find this is true for you sometimes. On those days, I don’t formally practice, but try to distract myself with other activities, if possible. However, I like to keep in mind the concept of tonglen to help inspire me and remind me that all suffering can serve to open my heart and awaken me to compassion. One way I do this is, I write the word “tonglen” on a piece of paper and put in on my fridge. That way, when I walk into my kitchen and see my sign, my body and mind immersed in the chaos of great difficulty, I can, for a minute, shift my awareness. And it is my profound belief that this makes a difference, not only for myself in the moment, but for great suffering everywhere. When we keep in mind the concept that all we are is energy; something scientists proclaim and something we see glimpses of in meditation, when we can shift even a little bit of suffering, we are adding a little more peace and clarity to the world.
Many practical and spontaneous ways of doing tonglen present themselves regularly to us, if we pay attention. As a result of our practice, we begin to see how we can be more connective in the world than perhaps we’ve been in the past and how that benefits us. We notice too, how often we shield ourselves from others’ pain and how we can change that.
There are times we can do tonglen spontaneously, using our own suffering, along with others’. I remember one such time when I was detoxing from a strong medication that had ceased its effectiveness for anxiety and insomnia. It took over a month to complete this process and most of that month it seemed every minute of my waking day was extraordinarily difficult, but the nights were even worse. I got very little sleep and my anxiety was off the charts.
All this was happening at the same time Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I watched a lot of TV during that time, because I was capable of little else, and the images I saw of all the poor, abandoned people left me feeling even more disturbed. I felt surrounded by suffering with no sense of relief. Seeing their struggle and pain only seemed to increase my own. On one day a certain story in particular haunted me: A makeshift hospital was created at the airport for some of the victims of Katrina. Because of the large number of patients and the under staffing of volunteers, a place was set aside for the most stricken and the least likely to live, while the ones who had a better chance at survival were attended to. This horrified me when I heard it and when I couldn’t sleep again that night, I remembered this story and it filled my heart with dread. How could it be that these people were left alone to die without the comfort of friends and loved ones? I tossed and turned, wondering about their own despair – what was going on with them now? What was going on in their minds at this exact hour? At the time, I was hooked up to an oxygen machine, set up as a result of a sleep study that showed I have mild sleep apnea. I laid there with my disturbing thoughts, listening to the machine whose rhythmic push-pull of air was somehow soothing – like a giant person next to me, breathing. Then I remembered tonglen and its basic teaching of breath, and that any suffering could be used to transform into compassion. Bit by bit, I chipped away at the claustrophobic, emotional state I was in. At times, waves of panic or despair would wash over me. Most of the time I was unable to concentrate on both the breathing and the transformation of pain to compassion, and many times the intensity of feeling was so great, it overtook any of my efforts. But now and then, I felt some relief from my emotional agony and also felt this remarkable connection with the people at the airport who were also lying there, perhaps facing even more despair. “My” suffering and “their” suffering began to blur and merge until they were indistinguishable from each other. I felt we were in the same room, doing the best we could and somehow, that felt comforting; I wasn’t all alone with my desperate thoughts and feelings. I also had the sense when I felt this connection strongly, and felt the depth of my compassion, that I was somehow enabling them to cope and open to this tenderness, as well. Although I still managed only a little sleep that night, something in me had changed and softened, and this had to do with my ability to meet such difficulty with the depth of tenderness it needed in order to transform.
I have noticed after many years of practicing tonglen, how it sparks in me, not just spontaneous responses like the above, but active ones as well. As an example of this, one day I went to a local store to pick up some items and saw the husband of a woman who had worked there for years, had suddenly died of a heart attack. Because I live in a small town, I knew that they had been childhood sweethearts and had been together for probably forty years or more. I imagined his suffering was great. In the past, prior to doing tonglen, probably because I had no real connection with this man, except a passing nod of recognition in the store from time-to-time, I most likely would’ve tried to avoid him, feeling awkward in his presence, because of his pain. Instead, I felt a confidence arise in me and I approached him. I looked into his eyes and spoke from my heart about his loss and even reached out with my hand. He immediately took my hand in his and spoke from his heart. I felt a true connection in that moment, and when I left, I felt something important had taken place between us, even though (or maybe, because) we were practically strangers. I believe my practice gave me the confidence to reach out and take action, which only deepened my sitting practice all the more.
This story speaks to the idea of compassion in action. We may question whether doing tonglen meditation is enough – is it really bringing about any change, except within us? Shouldn’t we be doing something more to affect change? As with loving kindness meditation, we may never know the effect we have on another, although I certainly believe there can be one. When you think about it, the same holds true for actions. We may never know how a kind word we say may affect another. Just as we may never end up telling a teacher how they changed the course of our life, others may never tell us how our efforts have impacted them. I do believe however, if we are moved to do something for another, and it’s in our capacity to do so, we might as well act on those impulses. A word of caution here; make sure you’re not acting from a place of guilt or martyred sense of duty. That’s not true compassion. In other words, if you offer your cousin a place to stay indefinitely, and then resent him, neither of you is truly benefiting from this act. As people with chronic health challenges, we particularly need to make sure our energy isn’t drained, as it can take a toll on our bodies. Sometimes we may be moved to do something for ourselves on the physical plane, like reaching out for support, or seeing a new practitioner, but even if “all” we do is self-tonglen, we are doing something very powerful. By changing our inner world, we create meaning in our lives that may not have been there before.
However we practice tonglen, whether for ourselves or others, whether in a formal practice or in spontaneous fashion, not only do we find a purpose for our suffering by developing and strengthening our capacity for compassion and empathy, but we uncover our true nature, which includes this aching tenderness and with it an awareness of the preciousness of life itself. In this way, our lives are infused with meaning.
Synapses and a Few Words More
Tonglen: breathe in suffering, allowing it to dissolve in the heart of compassion
Breathe out compassion, peace, and tenderness. Start with self, then a loved one, a neutral person, someone (s) you’re at odds with, all of the above, your town state, country, world
Consider this: true compassion leads to true happiness and the awareness of our true nature.
Consider this: we can only begin to relieve our suffering by knowing it intimately, not ignoring it.
“Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allowing ourselves to move gently towards what scares us. The trick to doing this is to stay with emotional distress without tightening into aversion; to let fear soften us rather than harden into resistance.” ~ Pema Chodron