A Year of Atisha Slogans
7. Sending and taking should be practiced alternately. These two should ride the breath.
According to this slogan, in relation to ourselves, it is a good idea to practice breathing out what we want and breathing in what we don’t want. How counterintuitive is that? And in relation to others, it is suggested that we practice breathing out to them our love and healing, and breathing in their pain and sickness. That aspect is a little easier to grasp, as the notion of praying for those we care about is more familiar to us, as people who grew up in a Judeo-Christian culture.
There certainly is a need for more loving-kindness in the world. Who doesn’t want to develop that aspect of themselves? And that quality of love and heartfulness is what makes this slogan so appealing. It is tender and gives us a way to hold others in our hearts. It gives us a way to connect with those we care about, even when we may not be able to do so physically, and to help others, even though there doesn’t seem to be much we can do.
It feels great to pray for others and to be all warm and loving. But that is not all there is to it. The practice of sending and taking, or tonglen in Tibetan, brings to light the boundaries of that love and caring. If you pray for your friends and family, how about other people and other families? If you pray for those you like or admire, how about those who you dislike or reject? What about those you disagree with, or simply find annoying? What about those who do harm? The idea is to go beyond bias, to include more and more, to let the heart grow and expand.
Tonglen also challenges our internal bias—what we like and dislike, grasp or toss out, expose or cover up, fear or covet. The idea is to practice completely reversing the habit of getting rid of what we don’t want and holding on to what we do. It seems like such a nice idea to pray for others, but dealing with ourselves is another whole story. It is quite embarrassing when we begin to see the extent of our self-regard, the level of our attachment, and the amount of energy we invest in the ongoing project of looking out for Number One.
When you practice tonglen for others this week, choose someone a bit out of your comfort zone as the focus. Not your worst enemy, but someone you know personally and that you dislike.
In your tonglen practice in general, at the end of each breath, drop whatever you have breathed in or out. Let it go completely. Keep a light touch.