Tonglen–The Brilliant Buddhist Method of Breathing Backwards

By: Tory  |  Published: August 2nd, 2011   |  Category: Buddhism, friendship, jealousy, pema chodron, Rants & Raves, Relationships, women

Some of you might have seen my recent tweet about a beautiful, bubbly, blonde who just joined my acting class. She is beyond sweet with a sultry southern flavor and she bakes Nestle Chocolate Chip Cookies for every single class. And yes, they are still warm when I stuff five of them into my mouth at once. In short, she is a total sweetheart which makes her enemy #1.

I say this as a joke obviously. Kind of. Sort of. To be totally honest, the second I laid eyes on her in rehearsal, I stepped out of the room and called the office to see about switching into another class. My whole body was tense like I had just seen a shark and gotten my period at the same time. DANGER. It wasn’t that she was fake or bad at acting or cloying or any of those things. She was just a funnier, thinner more southern version of myself and I did not know how to deal with that. I only knew one thing at that moment and that was the fact that there couldn’t be more than one TORY in the class. And so I panicked and started to do what I ALWAYS do–run away from the icky situation. Who needs acting class? I’ll be discovered in a Starbucks someday.

Of course, that’s when I heard Pema’s voice in my head. (Pema Chodron, if you didn’t know is my favorite wise-cracking Buddhist nun who tells it like it is). I had just listened to a teaching where she instructs her students to consider a breathing technique called Tonglen. The best time to use this technique is when you are on the proverbial “hot seat.” Something has just triggered you and you are suddenly hooked on an emotion like superglue. And I think we all know what this feels like.

In essence, Tonglen is really just about breathing in and breathing out the problem but done in a REVOLUTIONARY way. Now most of us would instinctively breathe in peace and space and calm and breathe out the problem. We have been taught to inhale strength and perseverance while exhaling weakness and doubt. However, the reason Tonglen is so revolutionary is because the instructions are to do it BACKWARDS. Pema instructs her students to INHALE the dark, hot feeling of anger, craving, jealousy or fear or whatever the problem is at that very moment and EXHALE relaxation and space. Instead of running away and trying to escape from that ugly nasty feeling of stress, you learn to make an actual relationship with it. Because guess what? This aint the last time I’m going to get jealous and if I just keep exhaling that jealousy I’ll eventually hyperventilate.

I know you are saying WTF right now and so I’ll give you a clear example using Hottie McBakesalot to teach the four steps of Tonglen.

The Tonglen Practice at Work

Bodhichitta means “awakened heart.” So before you begin your Tonglen practice, visualize an image that can evoke the feeling of opening your heart. I like to use the image of a porch on a beach house. I’m gazing at the ocean while eating lobsters and beer. Some people use an image of a hot cup of coffee, or a warm bathrobe after getting out of a pool or even a Farside cartoon that always makes them laugh. It could be anything. Just as long as it gives you a flash of spiritual space in which to begin the practice.

The actual “problem” can be an infinite amount of things for any given person but basically it is whatever makes you hooked in that moment. In this case mine was a feeling of strong, hot jealousy. This particular problem felt like a red wave of panic had crested over me and was overwhelming my senses with wishing I were more like this girl. So I breathed IN the red, hot wave. I accepted that this was how I was feeling. I asked to know more about this feeling and how it affected my body. And I didn’t just dip my toe, I dove in with each inhale, making a commitment to work with the issue and not escape it. I dealt with it. I inhaled.

Now just as important as inhaling the pain and craving is exhaling something that gives you space and peace. Pema thinks of the Colorado sky and its limitless qualities on her exhale. I like to think of a sprinkler touching my feet on hot pavement. Sometimes just the word “compassion” can be your out-breath. Whatever it is, it should give you a sense of joy or peace or even humor.

Here is the best part. After you feel as if you are inhaling and exhaling at a normal rate, you spread out the practice. Now when you inhale, you not only take in the heavy emotion for yourself but you breathe it in for anyone else on the planet that happens to be going through that same motion. So I inhaled jealousy for myself and for anyone, anywhere that right then was feeling trapped by wanting to be someone else. And as I exhaled my ocean image, I exhaled it for all those people so that they could use even just a flash of relaxation. This breeds compassion, a feeling of “oh I’ve been there” with the rest of the world. This very act TEACHES you empathy.

As soon as I ran out of the acting rehearsal, I raced to the bathroom and practiced Tonglen for about 15 minutes. After I came out I went straight up to Hottie McBakesalot and confessed my feelings, telling her I was two seconds away from leaving the class because she was so intimidating to me. She laughed, gasped and embraced me and said in the most lovely southern drawl “Darlin’ I have nothing but a sweet soul”

I don’t doubt it.