Thinking Toy #6 — Tonglen

Look back on your past week and see if you can find a feeling or emotion that you had trouble with. Perhaps a scenario where you reacted in a way that you later regretted. It could be in a particular situation, like anger in an argument, or a recurring pattern, like a regular desire to check your email. Try to call up the state again. Imagine yourself in the situation that triggered it last. Put yourself in that moment and recreate the sensations within your body. Once you are re-experiencing the unpleasantness, ask two questions:

  • What do I want to be feeling instead of the unpleasantness?
  • How would I like to be or act differently in this situation?

You may find that you want another person, or the world around you, to change. This may be totally reasonable but also out of your control. Given that, try to identify what feeling you’d rather experience instead.

Earlier this week I was working on a blog post and kept running into a strong desire to seek distraction. I run into this often and use some simple coping strategies, such as putting my devices into airplane mode while working. Even without the ability to access the internet, I am not immune. I’m often triggered by an initial feeling of stuckness or hesitation. I will be cruising along doing work and stumble into a need to look out the window or to get a glass of water. I find myself experiencing stuckness and distraction-seeking. I’d like to be experiencing a feeling of flow and generativity.

Once you’ve identified the unpleasant feeling along with what you desire in its place, you can try a simple practice. Invite in what you are resisting and give out what you desire. We do this through breathing. On each in breath, pretend like you are breathing into yourself more of the feeling you are trying to avoid. With each out breath, pretend like you are breathing out into the world the feeling that you desire. In my example, I breathe in the stuckness and breath out generativity and flow. After a minute or two, you may start noticing a difference. A different attitude will start developing towards the triggering situations. Also, you can try this technique for a few seconds in the moment when you encounter the reactive state. Often when I’m writing and notice stuckness, I will stop and breath that in while breathing out a desire for flow. This is becoming more and more effective at snapping me back into the state I desire.

How could this work? What’s going on here?

First off, there’s no need to get magical. Rearranging our experience in this way will not directly change the world around us. But, by changing our patterns of reactivity we can learn to act more skillfully. In time, this makes us more capable of getting the results we desire. Patterns of reactivity are just that: patterns. We can change our patterns by overriding them with new ones. We begin this process by vividly imagining the state we wish to avoid and pairing it with the new one we’d like to embody. The association starts off weak and, well, imaginary. With practice, it begins to strengthen. Eventually, we become better prepared to react differently when triggered in the future.

This thinking toy is called Tonglen because it’s a simple version of the Tantric meditation practice. In traditional practice, Tonglen allows us to engage with suffering. This can be for a single interaction or across all living beings. By breathing in suffering and breathing out love, we can train ourselves to be more compassionate. Of course, there’s nothing stopping us from using the method to redesign any pattern of reactivity. Is Tonglen Truly Awesome? expands on this idea and my writing above borrows heavily from it. I strongly recommend reading the whole post!

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