Recycling toxicity

I wondered a little while ago about getting upset with people who choose to live emotional toxic waste dumps. Last night, my unconscious must’ve been trying to tell me something because the word ‘tonglen‘ popped up in my dream. I know very little about Tibetan Buddhism but I do know a little bit about tonglen, having once made the acquaintance of a woman who was trying to put it in practice.

The core of tonglen practice, as described here, is by ‘breathing in other’s 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’, literally using your lungs and heart and body in compassion to purify the negative energy and convert it to joy and happiness.


If that sounds tough, it is; largely because it seems to go against our very instinct for self-preservation. Ane Pema Chodron writes:

… we often cannot do this practice because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment.

Truthfully, this practice does go against the grain of wanting things on our own terms, of wanting it to work out for ourselves no matter what happens to the others. The practice dissolves the armor of self-protection we’ve tried so hard to create around ourselves. In Buddhist language one would say that it dissolves the fixation and clinging of ego.

I won’t always admit it but the truth is I’m quite attached to parts of my ego… even the parts that are sometimes angry and fearful. It takes all the energy I can muster to get away from toxicity (my own and others’), and the thought of sitting there and trying to purify it terrifies me. It smacks too much of passivity and sitting there and allowing oneself to be bullied and used and dumped on. But that’s only if we do nothing. Actively trying to transform that negativity into something pure and useful requires an equal and honest investment of energy on our part.

Christine Longaker offers three basic tonglen practices, including tonglen for the self, that is, learning to convert one’s own pain and suffering into compassion and joy. I reckon that has to be done before one can extend the service to others. Longaker points out that one of the practices of daily life is to:

Do the Tonglen for your own aversion to the other person’s suffering.

I can already hear the voice in my head trying to talk myself out of attempting it. How quick to reason fear can be. I’ll go sit with that now.

Image: Recycle icon. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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