Tonglen and the Psalms

I have been thinking alot about the Psalms this Lenten season.  The main reason for that is because I am leading an Adult study using the Psalms at John’s church.  I have chosen one Psalm for each week to “accompany” us that week.  I’ve asked people to try to read it every day, and just kind of see how it goes:  how they are feeling when they read it; how it influences their prayer life that day/week, etc., etc.  Of course, this isn’t quite as easy as it sounds.

For one thing, several people shared that they don’t really like the Psalms, and they don’t ever read them.  So, for them, this is kind of a strange and new practice.  And, of course, others shared that it’s hard:  sometimes you are feeling in one kind of mood, and the Psalmist is evidently feeling something quite different.  That problem really resonates with me, too:  I find the language of the Psalmist so intimate and personal, it is hard to say the words when they feel “false” to me–there can be such a strong disconnect, it almost feels like I’m telling a lie.

As I was thinking about all this last week, something came back to me–something I read years and years ago, but obviously never forgot.  It was in a book by Pema Chodron [which has long since vanished from my library], and she was talking about the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen.  If you haven’t heard of Chodron, she is a very, very popular Buddhist teacher [and I kind of mean “popular” in both senses of the word….]–she is an ordained Buddhist nun, and her writings on coping with sorrow and suffering are particularly well-read.

Anyway, this is how she describes the practice of tonglen [and I’ve only read about it from her–I haven’t studied it in any detail, so I can’t vouch for her presentation from another perspective within the tradition]:

“The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering–ours and that which is all around us–everywhere we go…..We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and who we wish to help.  For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child.  Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy, or whatever would relieve their pain.  This is the core of the practice:  breathing in others’ pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open; and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness.”  [Here is a place to read a little more about it:  Tonglen]

There is more, of course, but this is the heart of it–and this is what I remember the most.  [I think there was also an aspect of visualization, too:  breathing in darkness and breathing out light–but I wouldn’t swear to it].  Chodron describes this practice as being rooted in one’s own pain.  So, contrary to what we are used to doing, you don’t run from your own suffering and weakness, but instead you open yourself to feeling it deeply by feeling others’ suffering deeply; by doing this, you cultivate compassion both for yourself and for others, and you develop a stronger awareness of the connections between ourselves and others.

Since learning about this, I have practiced a Christianized version of it on and off for years, and I find it very powerful.  For me, I see this kind of compassion as coming out of my own relative strength, health and blessing–I see these things as gifts that I can give to others; and I don’t really think it has to be someone I know.  It can be–but I think you also can send love, peace, strength and comfort to people generally [and animals, too, if you want to know the truth]:  those who are homeless on a cold night; those who are hiding in their beds, afraid of an abusive parent; those who are mocked at school and lonely; those who are trapped in cages, hungry and neglected.  All this works for me, of course, only because of Christ; I believe that in Christ we are connected to everyone–all life, and through Christ I can touch anyone with love.

So, as you probably have guessed, all this has informed my reading of the Psalms.  When I pray a Psalm on any given day, if it does not articulate a prayer that comes from my own heart [and sometimes even when it does], I visualize someone else on whose behalf I can pray it, and pray it for her/him/them.  It is a comforting reminder to me that, in Christ, we are never alone, and we never pray just for ourselves, but always for others, especially those who are unable to pray.  And I’m equally comforted knowing that in those times when it’s I who is unable to pray, someone else is praying for me, too.

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