A Buddhist perspective on emotional suffering

We all want to be happy. It is human nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Most of us spend our lives trying to attain as much happiness as possible and prevent as much sadness as possible. The paradox is, however, that this causes suffering.

Buddhist teachings point out that suffering arises when we resist whatever is happening in the present moment. When we don't accept the moment as it is, we suffer. While it is the most natural thing in the world to try to avoid pain, pain is unavoidable; it is a fact of life. When we resist this fact, we suffer.

What is Tonglen?

Tonglen can be translated as "taking in and sending out." It is a Buddhist practice that can assist us in countering the human tendency to resist emotional discomfort. Instead of engaging in the habitual response of pushing away pain, the practice of tonglen invites us to bring the discomfort close. It is totally counter-intuitive, yet it is a profound way to cultivate inner peace and compassion.

Practicing Tonglen

Take a moment right now to check in with yourself. Take a few mindful breaths. Notice how you are feeling in your body. 

Is there any physical discomfort? 

How are you feeling emotionally? 

Any emotional discomfort? 

If nothing is standing out right now, think of a time recently when you were experiencing an unpleasant emotion--could be anything, like sadness, fear, or anger. 

Instead of trying to talk yourself out of the feeling or judging yourself for having had the feeling, hold the feeling in your awareness, and as you breathe in, breathe in the feeling. 

If it is sadness, for example, breathe in the sadness. 

As you do this, imagine you are connecting with all the other people on the planet who are experiencing sadness right now. 

You breathe in sadness for all of them. 

Then, as you breathe out, breathe out compassion for yourself and all people who experience sadness. 

Breathe in the sadness, and breathe out compassion.

We're all in this together

Practicing Tonglen is a powerful way to connect with yourself and all of humanity. We all experience sadness and other difficult emotions at different times, yet when we do, we often feel very alone in it. This practice reminds us that we're not alone when we are in pain. If we have the courage to break the habitual pattern of pushing away the pain, we can experience deep compassion for ourselves and all beings. 

How do I learn more?

Pema Chodron is an American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun and popular teacher who writes, speaks and teaches about Tonglen.

Recommended reading:

Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chodron