A meditation practice used often in the Buddhist world, tonglen (“giving and receiving”) is often construed as being a means by which the suffering of someone may be relieved. It’s not unusual to hear of tonglen requests directed toward another, and seems to be used often as an analogue to prayer.
This doesn’t strike me as being the chief purpose of the practice.1 As described in depth by Pema Chödrön, tonglen seems to be more effective at facing one’s own hangups. The practice is deceptively simple, and goes something like this. (It’s assumed one is already in meditation for this.)
- Visualize someone you know who is in distress.
- As you inhale, imagine yourself taking in that person’s pain.
- As you exhale, imagine relief from suffering going out to that person.
This is simple to do when we’re contemplating friends or other loved ones, of course; but Chödrön doesn’t let us off so easily. We’re advised to practice tonglen for others as well, including those whom we dislike, or whom we believe to have harmed us.
It’s a challenge. And sometimes, the effects can be startling. You can actually feel your antipathy toward a perceived enemy slip; you can feel the change in temperament within yourself as you accept that individual’s pain, frustration, anger at the world.
A key is, if course, the common nature of humanity. Who among us hasn’t felt wronged from time to time? Who among us has not lashed out in fear or sorrow or rage? Who among us hasn’t been so lost in our own pain that we harm others, intentionally or otherwise, slightly, gravely or permanently?
I’ve got the parenting bug fairly intensely at the moment, and this image from MSNBC shook me. Because of the age of the boy, and because of the wrenching humanity of the embrace, it was too easy, too easy for me to feel her suffering.
We call them ragheads, we torture their citizens, we immunize our own forces against prosecution when we overstep and kill them. We bleat rhetoric and we assure ourselves that our cause is just. The boy was not killed by a US bullet. He’s just another part of the chaos that Rumsfeld shrugged so casually about after Mission Accomplished.
What, exactly, have we made ourselves and Iraq safe from? How do we extricate ourselves from this mess?
I don’t know the answers. But I don’t believe snipers were a common feature of life in Baghdad before we invaded, and that puts this boy’s blood on my hands as much as it does anyone else’s.
1. As an atheist and skeptic, in fact, I reject the plausibility of that purpose entirely.
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