Tonglen Breathing is a Tibetan breathing technique, where one breathes in the suffering of oneself or others and breathes out comfort, safety, happiness.
Pema Chödrön gives tonglen instruction as follows:
“On the in-breath, you breathe in whatever particular area, group of people, country, or even one particular person… maybe it’s not this more global situation, maybe it’s breathing in the physical discomfort and mental anguish of chemotherapy; of all the people who are undergoing chemotherapy. And if you’ve undergone chemotherapy and come out the other side, it’s very real to you. Or maybe it’s the pain of those who have lost loved ones; suddenly, or recently, unexpectedly or over a long period of time, some dying. But the in-breath is… you find some place on the planet in your personal life or something you know about, and you breathe in with the wish that those human beings or those mistreated animals or whoever it is, that they could be free of that suffering, and you breathe in with the longing to remove their suffering.
And then you send out – just relax out… send enough space so that peoples’ hearts and minds feel big enough to live with their discomfort, their fear, their anger or their despair, or their physical or mental anguish. But you can also breathe out for those who have no food and drink, you can breathe out food and drink. For those who are homeless, you can breathe out/send them shelter. For those who are suffering in any way, you can send out safety, comfort.
So in the in-breath you breathe in with the wish to take away the suffering, and breathe out with the wish to send comfort and happiness to the same people, animals, nations, or whatever it is you decide.
Do this for an individual, or do this for large areas, and if you do this with more than one subject in mind, that’s fine… breathing in as fully as you can, radiating out as widely as you can.”
I initially thought to map this practice within a larger Buddhist Breathing tradition, and then a more global breathing tradition that cultivates compassion. I then realized that this is also situated within a larger map some refer to as “Shadow Work”. Where we find the medicine in the poison, instead of avoiding the painful feelings or shadow side of things or ourselves, we give it space and thereby can transform it. The “Shadow” as described by Carl Jung is:
“…the unknown ‘‘dark side’’ of our personality –-dark both because it tends to consist predominantly of the primitive, negative, socially or religiously depreciated human emotions and impulses like sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger, or rage, and due to its unenlightened nature, completely obscured from consciousness. Whatever we deem evil, inferior or unacceptable and deny in ourselves becomes part of the shadow, the counterpoint to what Jung called the persona or conscious ego personality. According to Jungian analyst Aniela Jaffe, the shadow is the ‘‘sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life’’
Under the Shadow Work system, I included:
- Chöd Nun Practices – working with “evil” energies, visualizing their own bodies as food for these “demons” as transformational fuel
- Brahmavahara Cultivation
- Entheogen / Psychedelic Medicine Ceremonies where healers hold space as you do an underworld Journey
- Kambo frog poison for mental, physical, spiritual energy disharmony
- Underworld stories in Mythology
- Sound Therapies
- Grieving practices
- Death & Birth Doulas
In our culture in the U.S., everything is monetized so deeply that even our emotional processing and how we view emotions are effected. Shadow work isn’t seen as productive, and the community rituals that can be found historically & virtually worldwide aren’t very present in our culture. I’ll also be mapping the social political context of shadow work as well.
Machik’s Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chod (Expanded Edition)