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Tonglen: A Compassion-based Meditation

As conflicts and wars continue to unfold across the world during these times, the impact is not limited to those directly involved but extends to people worldwide who receive news of these events. The emotions stirred by such occurrences range from anger and sadness to sympathy and a sense of hopelessness. It is during these moments of collective pain and global unrest that I find solace in various healing tools I have practiced. One of these tools is the loving-kindness meditation from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, which fosters compassion and goodwill to oneself and others with exception. Another is the Tonglen practice, rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, which I would like to share with you today. The essence of Tonglen lies in its ability to transform negativity into something beautiful, offering a pathway towards healing and compassion amidst the turmoil of the world.

I recently read an article about Pleasure Women in North Korea. A group of girls and women for the sole purpose of providing sexual pleasure to North Korea's leader and his men. I instantly looked at these girls and women through a sympathetic lens. I felt bad for them. Thinking about their abuse, pain, suffering, and oppression, I felt it for myself. I experienced unpleasant sensations in my body after looking at a picture of young girls happily smiling and flirting around Kim Jong-Un, who appears plump and smug, looking afar into the distance with his sunglasses on. I felt rage and disgust building within me. I wanted to tell those young girls to run far from him and to live their life however they wanted to do—without the negative influence of an oppressive society. Suddenly, I snapped myself out of this chain of unskillful thoughts and curiously looked inward.

Why did I allow myself to experience these negative emotions after looking at a picture? Was I unintentionally or unconsciously putting myself and my emotions in the middle of it all? Why did I put myself into a situation where I could make myself feel bad and suffer even though I wasn’t there and nothing was happening directly to me?

So, instead I decided to do tonglen. To inhale suffering and exhale compassion and lovingkindness. By allowing myself to take in the suffering and pain that I see and clearly feel, I can exhale love and compassion to myself and others. I don’t perpetuate myself into a suffering of pain and trauma that already exists in this world. I don’t force myself to look at life through a single lens that doesn’t allow me to see the full picture.

When I see or read of intense suffering in the world, I can’t assume to know the full picture and everything that is happening. We often see small children and women suffering, but so are the men and those we don’t see. And there’s so much good in all of them that it’d be unfair and unkind of me to overlook that. So, that is why I offer my good vibes when I come across pain and oppression. Whether it's North Korean Pleasure Women, Japanese Comfort Women, the mass rape of Congolese women, the mass genocide of the Yazidis, various forms of oppression, slavery, suffering, or pain humans impose on another group.

Instead of subscribing to the inner, negative narration that promptly arises when I'm exposed to various global issues, sometimes all I can do--in that present moment before I move on to whatever I need to do--is to simply give good wishes of peace, ease, and wellbeing as I intentionally inhale suffering & exhale compassion.

I encourage you to try this simple practice the next time you feel disappointed or frustrated by the ongoing conflict humans inflict upon each other. With practice, you can develop a strong sense of grounding and wellbeing in your life.

Author: Madiha H

Madiha is a nonfiction essayist and wellness educator who celebrates her multicultural identity and lifestyle. A former English Professor, she now works at Apna Ghar, a domestic violence agency with a mission to end gender violence. She currently resides in northwest Indiana with her partner and two rescue dogs. Her values of empathy, compassion, and long-lasting impact influence her work ethic, development, and contribution.

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