Sending and Receiving

by on November 10th, 2014
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This is the sixth of ten posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.  This post addresses chapters fifteen  through seventeen. To find out more or to ask to be part of the online discussion visit: Exploring Mindfulness.

In chapter sixteen  Pema Chödrön introduces the precept  of pasjna which  is freedom from the actions of making ourselves secure”.  Pasjna, it seems to me,   is the core of what frees us to  practice sending loving kindness outward.   She describes prasjna as  the “wisdom that cuts through the suffering that comes from seeking to protect our own territory”.  sendreceive3By not being compelled to protect our own territory we have no reason to defend against perceived threats by those who see the world differently than us.

Today’s exercise, below, is meant to guide you through the more formal practice of Tonglen as described in chapter fifteen.  To build on the descriptions  of tonglen presented last week from  chapter fourteen we can see tonglen practice as a method of connecting with suffering—the suffering  of ourselves and those around us.  It can lead to overcoming our fear of suffering thus expanding our heart when our impulse is to constrict.

Pema reassures us that it is okay if at any point in the practice we become stuck. If so we are to do tonglen  for what we are feeling at the moment  by breathing  in our stuckness and breathe what we feel we need—such as openness and fluidity.  Then we  breathe in for everyone who is feeling stuck and send out what we feel they need.

Or maybe it is our own pain that blocks us from receiving the pain of others. If you can name the pain, breathe in for those who feel the same pain.   If you can’t name  the pain, focus on the emotional and physical sensation. Then breathe in for all those who feel the same sensation.

She encourages us  to go against the grain of wanting things to work out and tells us that in Buddhist language this is referred  “dissolving the fixation and clinging to the ego”.   This suggests becoming free of making ourselves the reference point—the center of things.  If we feel we are the center of things then our needs, beliefs and our opinions must be protected or propagated.  From this perspective the needs, belief and opinions of others are less important to us and even seem like they are competing with us. To cease to cling to our ego is to be free of this and the suffering that comes with.


In chapter seventeen she talks about our attachment to opinions and how we become fixated on them to the point  that we see them as truth.  She writes,

Opinions are opinions, nothing more or less. We can begin to notice them, and we can begin to label them as opinions, just as we label thoughts as thoughts… To have even a few seconds of doubt about the solidity and absolute truth of our own opinions introduces us to the possibility of egolessness.
We can just let those opinions go, and come back to the immediacy of our experience. We can come back to looking at someone’s face in front of us, to tasting our coffee, to brushing our teeth… If we can see our opinions as opinions and even for a moment let them go, and then come back to the immediacy of our experience, we may discover that we are in a brand-new world, that we have new eyes and new ears.”

 This creates  spaciousness and clarity—what she calls “intelligence” or clear seeing.  Intelligence is particularly important as we take action in the world to make it more kind and loving.   Let’s say, for example that I see an injustice in our community or nation and I choose to become politically active to change it and to protest the way it is.   I may have an opinion about those who are at fault.  If my opinion seems solid and true to me those who have different opinions are seen by me as the ones causing the injustice.  I am tempted to focus more on them, as I become angry with feel “righteous indignation”, then I focus on the cause.  I make them the “other”, and demonize them.  It can be said, therefore, that we actually  construct our enemies through our solid opinion and the righteousness we feel.  When I do this it does nothing for my cause and it likely hurts my cause because it fosters the defensiveness of my opponents and helps to solidify their opinions.  In contrast intelligence, that is, clear seeing, begets authentic speech and authentic speak begets effective action.


“Tonglen”, Pema tells us, “can extend infinitely”.  Most of us begin with a lot of stuckness, constriction, and long standing judgments.  As we practice, gradually over time, we may find that our compassions expands—becomes more spacious. We may find that we are more able to be there for others in what used to be intolerable situations.

Settle yourself in your seated position.

1.  First, rest your mind briefly, for a second or two, opening up to basic spaciousness and clarity.

 2. Second, work with texture. Breathe in a feeling of hot, dark, and heavy—and breathe out a feeling of cool, bright, and light—a sense of freshness. Breathe in completely, through all the pores of your body, and breathe out, through all the pores of your body. Do this until it feels synchronized with your in and out-breaths. 

3. Third, work with a personal situation—any painful situation that’s real to you. Traditionally you begin by doing tonglen for someone you care about and wish to help.  If you are stuck, you can do the practice for the pain you are feeling and simultaneously for all those just like you who feel that kind of suffering.

 4. Now make the taking in and sending out bigger. If you are doing tonglen for someone you love, extend it out to those who are in the same situation as your friend. If you are doing tonglen for someone you see on television or on the street, do it for all the others in the same boat. Make it bigger than just that one person. If you are doing tonglen for all those who are feeling the anger or fear or whatever that you are trapped in, maybe that’s big enough.

             But if you feel ready you could do tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies—those who hurt you or hurt others. Do tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same confusion and stuckness as your friend or yourself.  Breathe in their pain and send them relief.  (This passage is an abbreviated version of Pema Chödrön’s instruction at the end of chapter fifteen.)

Link to online discussion:  DISCUSSION    If your not already member and would like to be, contact me at




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