The Wounds We Carry: Help from Pema Chodron’s Tonglen Practice
by Elaine Mansfield
“They’re all wounded,” I thought as I watched people in the grocery store or on the street, “but I can’t see their scars and they can’t see mine.”
While anxiously awaiting my husband Vic’s cancer diagnosis in 2006, I walked through the produce area of the grocery store and watched serious and downtrodden faces. I noticed people in wheel-chair carts and others leaning into a push cart for support. I noticed faces without eyebrows and bald scarf-covered heads that shouted chemotherapy. I noticed those who were irritable, moving impatiently through beautiful heaps of late summer corn and cantaloupes, seeing nothing except the old person in front of them slowing their progress. I watched tight jaws that seemed on the verge of tears. Some people averted their eyes, unwilling to exchange even a glance or smile.
It became my practice to watch and wish others well as I wished myself and Vic well, a simple version of the tonglen practice taught by Pema Chodron and other Tibetan Buddhists. It helped in the chemotherapy room where the wounds were obvious—severely thin people with bald heads, sallow skin, and dark circles. Sad people, often alone, distracting themselves from this alarming land of cancer treatment. I wished them happiness because I knew their life hurt as mine did, even if we were the lucky ones who had food to eat, a place to sleep, and medical treatment.
Agonizing over Vic’s illness spurred me into this practice of taking in the difficulty of others and wishing them well while feeling my own unhappiness, worry, impatience, or anxiety and wishing myself well, too. I did lots of deep breathing, breathing in the unhappiness and breathing out solace and comfort.
Pema Chodron speaks of it this way: “I particularly like to encourage tonglen on the spot. For example, you’re walking down the street and you see the pain of another human being. On-the-spot tonglen means that you don’t just rush by; you actually breathe in with the wish that this person could be free of suffering, and send them out some kind of good heart or well-being. If seeing that other person’s pain brings up your fear or anger or confusion, which often happens, just start doing tonglen for yourself and all the other people who are stuck in the very same way.”
I remembered that I was not alone, that everyone struggled and felt disappointment, fear, illness, or pain. Vic was good at noticing the suffering around him and he became my teacher, too.
Now, I watch my 97-year-old mother-in-law grow more and more angry. I know she is eaten alive by undigested grief after the loss of her only son. Her grief has hardened into a wall of rage so she can no longer see or feel that others hurt, too.
She wants something I can’t give her—her son. I want him, too, so I try to learn from her. Breathing in the misery she feels and the misery I feel in her presence, breathing out comfort to both of us and being careful with my words when I want to snap and scold. This practice helps me with the guilt I feel about my own aversion and anger. It helps me stay with her when I’d rather run. All I can do is practice.
Another couple of on topic posts from Beyond Meds: Tonglen: a compassion practice and Is it possible to hold all the grief in the world and not get crushed by it?
Elaine Mansfield’s book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief was published by Larson Publications in 2014 and won the 2015 Gold Medal IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Awards) for Aging, Death, and Dying. Her TEDx talk is Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss. Elaine writes about marriage and bereavement issues and leads bereavement support groups at Hospicare in Ithaca, NY. You can read more articles by Elaine and find out more about her work at her website.