"Once the mindfulness bell rings in our consciousness, we can turn our attention to compassion breathing instead of critical thoughts."
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Episode 155 -- October 7, 2021Begin with Yourself: Loving-Kindness for Life in Recovery
When we're new to recovery, we are often introduced to things that we've never tried before. As we continue to work our way more deeply into our own practices, we will likely come across opportunities for meditation. There are many different forms of meditation and hundreds of different techniques to try.
In her book A Kinder Voice: Releasing Your Inner Critics with Mindfulness Slogans, Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart offers tools for calming a self-critical mind. Stewart shares guided meditations based on traditional mindfulness slogans to help us heal and live full lives.
The following excerpt introduces a Tibetan breathing meditation called tonglen. We can use this practice to develop more compassion and become willing to send as well as receive love and kindness in our lives.
Even at the most basic level, attending to the patterns of our breathing reminds us that we are alive. Tonglen practice helps us accept, let go of, and move on from our negative thoughts. Listen and learn how our breath can do more for us than we can imagine.
This excerpt has been edited for brevity.
A Loving-Kindness Training—Tonglen, the Compassion Breath
The literal translation of the mindfulness slogan Begin loving-kindness practice with yourself actually reads Begin sending and receiving practice with yourself. The ancients here refer to a loving-kindness practice called "compassion breathing" or tonglen. This is a Tibetan word meaning "sending and receiving." This beautiful heart-practice originated in India and came to Tibet in the eleventh century. (Some contemporary writers have suggested this practice should more accurately be called len-tong, or "receiving and sending," because of how compassion breath is actually practiced.)
Tonglen meditation is meant specifically for developing compassion, the willingness to feel and care about our own pain and the willingness to feel another's pain as our own. The practice is to not run away—to not try to convert the unfixable to the fixable by ascribing blame to ourselves or others and holding a co-dependent idea of mythical power.
Mindfulness sees the delusion of our inner critics. It recognizes the negative thoughts, or stinking thinking, that lead to relapse and self-destructive acts. Upon hearing these thoughts, compassion leans in and says, I care about your pain. I can't necessarily fix it, but I care.
Very simply, with our in-breath we say yes to our suffering from inner critics and receive it into our heart. We allow the suffering to be absorbed through our body and into the arms of our Big Mind or Higher Power, which is depicted as the vastness of the sky. On the out-breath, we let this Big Mind send relief and compassion through us and within us. We do this practice time and again until our suffering is transmuted. We can later do this practice for the suffering of others, yet the instruction is very clear: Begin sending and receiving (or, if you prefer, receiving and sending) with yourself.
Because tonglen works with the very breath itself, it reminds me of the admonition instruction to "pray without ceasing" in the Christian scriptures. Indeed, we are breathing at all times. This means that we can use our mindfulness to practice kindness and compassion toward ourselves—and ultimately toward others and all beings.
On a practical level, this practice turns the channel on our mental dial to a new station and gives the monkey-mind something new to do. Once the mindfulness bell rings in our consciousness, we can turn our attention to compassion breathing instead of critical thoughts. We bump our neurons off that well-worn track to a new way of being in the world. Tonglen practice helps us accomplish this training of the mind for greater happiness.
An important aspect of this practice is allowing suffering to be absorbed through the heart center and into the vastness of the sky—into the Big Mind of a Higher Power. Not many meditation teachers present compassion breathing in this way, but it has been a significant aspect to me personally.
Tonglen on the Spot
In addition to doing compassion breathing during our more formal sitting practice, we can do tonglen right on the spot at any time. In a moment when we feel emotional discomfort or bump into our inner critics, we open our heart and welcome the sensations with our in-breath. Then we send relief and comfort on the out-breath. In an instant in time, with a simple in-and-out breath, we can pause and send ourselves compassion.
Not long ago, I had such a moment while at the movies. After we purchased our tickets and went to get refreshments, I noticed my tight body and impatience with the popcorn guy. I wasn't aware of anything in particular that was bothering me; the day had been pleasant enough.
I said to my husband, Jim, "I feel so crabby I can hardly stand myself. I've been really edgy and short-tempered all day. I don't understand why!" (Inner voice: Maybe you're just not a very nice person.)
Jim looked over at my face and in his quiet and gentle way said, "When I'm like that, a lot of times it's because I'm grieving and I don't want to admit it."
Sometimes it's good to be married to another psychotherapist. At his words, I burst into tears. I realized that I was feeling lonely for our littlest granddaughter, who had just started kindergarten the week before. She was the last of three granddaughters, and the end of fourteen years of babysitting a sweetheart one day a week. I missed her. It was the end of a chapter of life. I was sad. Glad but sad.
Anywhere we are, however we are, we can do compassion breathing for ourselves, on the spot: breathing in the sharpness of our inner critics, allowing the negativity or shame to be absorbed into the vastness of Big Mind; breathing out, offering the heartfelt radiance of acceptance, loving-kindness, and compassion.
If we encounter someone else in pain, we can also begin to breathe in his or her difficulty and send out some relief. This is similar to the way we practice with ourselves. Even if there is no other way to help, we can always do compassion breathing for the other person.
Tonglen has been a powerful and relieving practice to help me stay present with loved ones who are suffering, such as the active addicts in my family and my mother as she aged and declined in health. Loving-kindness can become a way of life, a path to universal compassion. And it begins with ourselves.
About the Author:
Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart, a licensed psychotherapist for more than thirty-five years, was among the pioneers in recognizing the similarity between Twelve Step recovery programs and the ancient Buddhist path of mindfulness. Her books integrate meditative practices with the latest research in psychology and neuroscience, offering new insights into what it means to live fully—body, mind, and spirit—in the here and now. A noted lecturer and retreat leader, Thérèse is a recognized expert in contemplative meditation techniques and compassion-based cognitive psychotherapy and is the author of Paths Are Made by Walking: Practical Steps for Attaining Serenity (2003) and Mindfulness and the 12 Steps
© 2016 by Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart
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