Coincidence is a powerful thing. It really makes you pay attention.
About a month ago, my eight-year-old son found a book on his shelf, The Supernaturalist, by Eoin Colfer, and read through it in a day. (He may dislike formal schooling activities but he can read like a champ!) As I, too, enjoy science fiction, I took a glance, and with its snarky opening—about a boy living in a corporate orphanage that has turned orphans into guinea pigs for new products—I was immediately drawn in.
But quickly it turned from that to a mystery about strange creatures, which only a few people can see (usually only those who have nearly died or suffered greatly), that take away people’s pain and turn it into energy. Colfer never explains anything more than that but as the reader is swept along on an adventure first to destroy and then save these creatures (the protagonists initially thought they sucked out life force not pain), the reader is never really given a moment to stop and ask “Wait, what?!?”
Now, I probably would not have reflected too much on that story, except that while reading The Supernaturalist, I listened to an episode of “On Being,” in which Krista Tippett interviewed musician and artist Devendra Banhart, to discuss their shared love of the book, When Things Fall Apart, by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. A part of their conversation centered on the practice of Tonglen (literally: “Sending and Receiving”), a Tibetan Buddhist meditation in which the meditator breathes in the pain and suffering of the world, and breathes out relief, understanding, or happiness.
I hadn’t heard of Tonglen before. And frankly, its profoundness might not have registered with me had I not been reading a story about creatures that literally live off of that process.
So I gave it a try during my morning outdoor meditation. And it was difficult. Perhaps being in a heightened state of anxiety—a time when we literally go around trying not to breathe in other peoples’ suffering (i.e. COVID germs)—intentionally inhaling the pain and suffering of the world was hard. As I inhaled, I wondered what if that pain gets stuck? What if I breathe in someone’s cancer and get cancer. Of course, I know that’s not possible, but that’s where my mind went.
But then I remembered the creatures in The Supernaturalist. In the story, they came to people in serious pain, or when dying, and drew out their pain, calming them until either someone healed them or they died. They literally lived off that pain, transforming it into life energy for them and waste (which happened to be energy that actually helped repair the ozone layer—bonus!). So I imagined pulling out pain in that way, or more specifically in an ecological way, where that pain did not get trapped in me, but instead fed me and could produce food for others—in this case the joy waste that I breathe out.
Tonglen is about a thousand years old, created by Buddhist master Atisha Dipankara Shrijnana and written down some years or decades later by Tibetan Buddhist master Langri Tangpa. It’s a simple practice, breathe in suffering: of one person, or of one type: the suffering of your sick friend, drawing in the pain he’s feeling; suffering from cancer, drawing in all the uncertainty and fear of those who have just been diagnosed; the suffering of those dying, who can no longer be healed. And then, release joy and tranquility: the loving acceptance and presence of friends and family; the absence of pain and fear and illness; the relief that even if life is ending, it will continue on for those we love and care about.
As Banhart explains to Tippett, Tonglen is really helpful to him—“a way of unburdening yourself from yourself”—even if he admits to not knowing if it helps anybody but him. But even if it doesn’t literally help others, it does help, as Chödrön explains in her book, in the sense that practicing Tonglen can help us develop a “kinship with the suffering of others,” and since we can no longer “continue to regard it from afar,” it can help us to discover our Bodhichitta, or “noble or awakened spirit,” which in turn connects us to all of creation, to “the whole” (p. 87).
Plus, as Tippett notes, this can be a much healthier response than simply tuning out the world’s suffering. Quoting Chödrön, she explains that by tuning ourselves out, “we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole. This separateness becomes like a prison for us, a prison that restricts us to our personal hopes and fears, into caring only for the people nearest to us. Curiously enough, if we primarily try to shield ourselves from discomfort, we suffer.”
Instead, as Banhart responds, bear witness to it, and then practice tonglen. “I’m gonna breathe in all the suffering, the anger, the pain, the confusion, and I’m gonna breathe out healing and peace and wisdom and love and strength. And that helps me, and it feels like I’m doing something, as opposed to just taking in all this horror and sorrow.”
What I noticed, as I continued to practice Tonglen these past few weeks, if I applied the idea of digesting the pain, not just taking it in and sending out relief, it was a much calmer practice. I digested the pain—like the creatures in The Supernaturalist—and transformed it into healing energy and sent it out into the world. That shift came with a different breathing style too: a more yogic breath pattern where you pause for a few seconds at your full inhalation (without holding or locking your breath) and then fully exhale. That pause is the moment when the pain is digested, when I thought about transforming that pain into relief.
To me, this now feels like a natural ecologically-framed meditation, with a more focused tranquility that I’m sending out. I breathe in the suffering of COVID patients—their difficulty breathing, the fear that these will be their last days, digest that pain, and breathe out calm and the ability to breathe again; I breathe in the desire and guilt of an addict, digest it, and breathe out relief from and absence of that need; I breathe in the pain and fear of being systematically targeted solely for the color of my skin, digest it, and breathe out justice and equality; I breathe in the pain of animals being factory farmed and mechanistically and inhumanely led to their slaughter, digest it, and breathe out a quick and painless death—which felt like the most compassionate relief I could imagine. And in the process of breathing in and breathing out, along with digesting a bit of that calm for myself, I can also feel myself being nourished—as Colfer’s creatures were—and understand that Chödrön was correct in noting that this practice can help us feed and grow our awakened spirits.