Let’s twist Tonglen into something new, better and more brilliant, then it would be more awesome…ok, I’m just being silly to grab your attention. Now, here’s a less silly thought, what if the practice of Tonglen were to become something much more immediate, more real, and something we could use to transform the daily grind of our existence, and immediate concerns, including insecurities, paranoia, doubt, performance anxiety, frustration, and whatever other specialities and delicacies in the neuroses department are currently at play in our tiny microcosms?
What if we were to pitch our practice tents somewhere below the universal of all human suffering in a place much closer to our day to day trials and tribulations, and practice exchanging all of the wonderful manure of our neuroses and dysfunctional habits into a workable opening back into the immediacy of the world we inhabit? Not the big all encompassing world out there, but the one we know all too well. The one we live within day in day out. The one we are immersed in with its rhythms and flows, frictions, tensions, challenges, openings and limits.
In its traditional form, Tonglen appears to function in three specific ways; firstly, it develops altruism, secondly, it chips away at our resistance to unpleasant experience and the more stubborn resistance towards the wide world of myriad suffering and misfortune perceived as being out there somewhere in the world and away from me (just where we like it!), thirdly, and clearly linked to the second, it undermines our impulsive self-preservation instinct; not the sensible one that keeps us away from dark alleys and the parasitic elements of society (including Donald Trump), but the deeply held need to maintain the status quo of our sense of who we are. Like all practices, it can be more or less effective in its intended aims, and when wielded badly, it can lead to what we might define as spiritual dysfunction or the immaturity of poor outcomes. As a dysfunctional practice, it can feed utopian fantasies, leave us feeling that we are magically transforming the world whilst living in our imagination, and demotivate us from carrying out real world change. This is not to say that such consequences are inevitable, but rather, that they can and do happen. Tonglen is a very human practice after all.