Part of much meditation is a practice called tonglen. The Dalai Lama is said to practice tonglen every day. It is the practice of praying for yourself and for others, rather than focusing on breath, on the compassionate observation of the Monkey Mind, the Idea Horse. I was introduced to the idea of tonglen many years ago by Pema Chodron. When meditating, I mark my breathing with beads on a mala. My mala has the traditional 108 beads, divided into four sections. Toward the end of my meditation, I come to a set of beads I have dedicated to my practice of compassion. For the first bead, I pray for myself to be free from suffering and the root of all suffering. Then, I pray for my husband. Then, my animals. Then, my family and friends. (Don’t judge the order in which I choose to pray.)
I travel the beads, from those I love, to those I like, to those I know, to those I resent, to those I fear, to those I don’t know who may be suffering — people who are grieving, who are refugees, who are in danger — and I end tonglen on the last bead with an in breath where I imagine taking in all the suffering of the world, and on the exhalation, I pray for all sentient beings to be free from suffering and the root of all suffering.
One goal of tonglen is to reduce our self-centered attachment to happiness. The longer I practice this, the more I am aware of the vastness of human suffering. Early on in my practice, I used many beads for fears and resentments. I am down to one. It’s a stubborn heartache: the loss of a few old friends over the years. The best news is that I do not judge the heartache, I bathe it in compassion.
Today, my most fervent prayers are not so much for loved ones who are safe, but for those who are suffering in the darkest ways: people in need of medical care, safety, love. The other morning, I found myself praying for everyone who owned a gun. On the next bead I prayed for everyone who lived near anyone who owned a gun. My mediation evolves as I evolve. I am grateful for the willingness to continue the practice and to feel happy in sharing it with you.