Tag Archives: Tonglen
Mindful Monday: Tonglen Explained–Working With Animals Is Working On Ourselves

Mindful Monday: Tonglen Explained–Working With Animals Is Working On Ourselves

MINDFUL MONDAY image courtesy growabrain@typepad.com

In Soap Making for Horses I wrote, I have only a hazy, and ill-defined idea of that shifting point in space where spirituality and horsemanship collide. If I can keep my eye on that bullseye, that’s what I want to write about. That eye has been a-wandering of late, and I”m going to bring it back to the bullseye on Mondays. With that in mind, I bring you Mindful Mondays.

Today’s subject is an article I read this morning.

Verena von Eichborn, P1, of Vernon B.C. wrote of using the Buddhist technique of sharing compassion called Tonglen with her fearful Dachshund in the July-September issue of TTEAM Connections. Understandably, von Eichborn’s exploration of Buddhist thought and the practice of Tonglen was limited and aimed narrowly toward the application of human/canine interaction.

Of her relationship with her fearful and depressed Dachshund, Disa, von Eichborn says,

I couldn’t disconnect the ‘unholy umbilical cord’ that connected the two of us, each reacting to the feelings of the other before we even showed them.

The unholy umbilical cord von Eichborn speaks of seemed to transmit more pain and suffering than joy. Von Eichborn reports that through an intuitive veterinarian, she learned that Disa was using the practice of Tonglen. I cannot dispute this statement; however, I must dispute the implication that Disa was suffering from a “blockage” of the negative energy she had absorbed from others. Unless somewhere Disa received improper instruction in the practice of Tonglen, or was failing to breathe out the peace and joy dogs seem universally to share, the so-called blockage must come from another source. My intuitive feeling is that Disa was mirroring von Eichborn’s own fear.

Von Eichborn says

…the major help for her was to be reminded of joy because we are so much stronger healers when we come from a place of joy.

She goes on to say that learning of Tonglen has made a tremendous difference in her life. I believe that if she had a clearer view of traditional Tonglen practice, von Eichborn might find it even more liberating. Using Tonglen, von Eichborn might learn to open her heart to everything Disa feels, to allow it to touch her heart, and yet not to be destroyed by it. One of the benefits of her brush with Tonglen practice was that Von Eichborn realized that her dog’s depression and fearfulness paralleled her own. It illuminated the way in which all beings are equal; all animal condition is the same.

Though all her emotional buttons were pressed in the period in which von Eichborn learned this practice, the thimbleful of courage it took to get started multiplied into a bucketful by the end of the process. Von Eichborn describes a transformation in her abilities to deal with humans and animals in bad situations. Fearlessness and open heartedness took the place of the umbilical cord. With qualified instruction in Tonglen techniques, Von Eichborn would be able to make changes in her life based on the realization that fear alone has prevented her from moving forward. I do not suggest that I am in any way qualified to teach anyone Tonglen. I can only relate to readers the way in which I was taught, and provide reference to reading materials and avenues of further learning.

Tonglen, as described by Pema Chödron in her book The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness is the practice of sending and receiving compassion. According to Chödron, practicing Tonglen cultivates fearlessness and opens the heart more fully.

Learning to use Tonglen can develop beneficial Heart Coherence, because in a situation where there is potential emotional or physical pain, you begin to realize that fear for a beloved animal or person has something to do with wanting to protect your own heart. If you are afraid that harm will come to your heart, then your reluctance to open it and to use it fully in the service of healing another being will be impaired. This is harmful to both of you. For more information on Heart Coherence, visit http://www.cap-coherence.com/html/cardiac_or_heart_coherence.html.


When you do Tonglen, you invite pain in. That’s what opens your eyes…seeing pain, seeing pleasure, seeing everything with gentleness and accuracy, without judging it, without pushing it away, becoming more open to it…In Tonglen, not only are we willing to breathe in painful things, we are also willing to breathe out our feelings of well-being, pace and joy. We are willing to give these away, to share them with others.

What exactly is this Tonglen Practice, anyway? Put simply, it is breathing.

According to Chödron, the essence of the practice is that on your in-breath, you become willing to accept the pain and suffering of the creature you are working with: for example, your horse is injured and anxious; your dog is ill; your child is upset. You become willing to acknowledge the suffering of the world with the suffering of the individual. Your own bravery and willingness to feel that part of being alive cultivates heart coherence and compassion. You become less afraid of damaging your own heart while bearing witness to the pain of others.

No running away.

You breathe it in, feeling it completely. It’s the opposite of avoidance: being completely willing to acknowledge pain (yours, that of a stranger, your animal, your child). That’s the in-breath. You don’t get completely trapped in that because the out-breath is coming! This is a great reminder of the way life is: breathe in, breathe out. No dwelling on pain. No need to prefer the pleasure to the pain or vice versa because each has its place.

The essence of the out-breath mirrors the flip side of the condition of living creatures. With every out-breath, your heart opens more, connecting with your own joy in living, well being, and tenderheartedness. Your own experience of pleasure and pain become a means for connecting with all sentient beings. The out-breath is about all the good stuff of life. What we would want life to be if the suffering did not get in the way. You breathe it out so that it spreads and can be experienced by the other. This is not merely esoteric. It’s useful and practical, for you and your subject. Try it and see.

All you need in order to do Tonglen is to have experienced suffering and to have experienced happiness.

In other words, if you are an ordinary human being, you can use your breath to share pain and happiness with another being. Breathing in, breathing out is a technique for being completely awake to the needs of others and of showing compassion: “I will accept and witness your suffering, and share with you my joy.” It is important that the in-breath not be used to assume the suffering of a subject. You are offering your open heart and awareness. That is everything, and that is enough.

Tonglen is not merely a practical tool for dealing with immediate circumstances of the suffering of horses and companion animals. It has far-reaching implications in life. Buddhists who do Tonglen practice expand its focus to include all sentient beings. It cultivates a fearless heart that does not turn away from any circumstance. It is always wide open so we can be touched by anything.

At the same time, it draws boundaries that prevent too much emotional harm from the pain of others. For those with few boundaries, those who suffer from an excess of empathy, and who feel the pain of others too sharply without being able to breathe out the joy of existence, learning to locate and share that freedom and joy shows them a way to experience it more fully without being waylaid by the pain. That’s what we all seek: the enjoyment and mutual sharing of spirit with our loved ones without becoming overwhelmed by the everyday sorrow that is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: Life is Suffering. It is how we respond to it in our hearts that makes a difference in how we live.

In my practice as an equine massage therapist, Tonglen is integral. Each time I lay my hands on a horse, I take a metaphorical and literal in-breath. I accept the physical pain, confusion, and stress into my hands and body. I bear witness to it. It cannot hurt me, because I know that the out-breath is coming. With my hands and breath, I will ease that pain, confusion, and stress, and remind the horse of the joy of living. In this way, my work with horses keeps me inspired to live in constant contact with these beings and the whole of the animal kingdom. One of the things that differentiate the effective bodyworker from the purely mechanical body worker is the concept of Heart Coherence. Without it, you’re just moving the muscles around. Same goes for training and groundwork. If you’re not willing to see into the heart of the animal, to share intimately the experience, then you’re moving four feet and imposing your will on another, and that’s all.

I was delighted to read of von Eichborn’s discovery of the concept of Tonglen practice. I really hope she and others who read her article and mine will be moved to learn more about it and to give it a try.

According to Pema Chödron,

This practice will introduce to you the whole idea that you can feel both suffering and joy—that both are part of being human. If people are willing even for one second a day to make an aspiration to use their own pain and pleasure to help others, they are actually able to do it that much more.

☛Just a few more days to enter the guest blog sweepstakes to win an autographed copy of Linda Tellington-Jones’ Ultimate Horse Training book!☚

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