I’m hoping the word “Tonglen” caught your attention! And no I did not make it up – it is a real word and not just click-bait. It’s also a tool that I think that every parent should add to their toolbox. But what is it?
In a nutshell “Tonglen” is the ancient Buddhist practise of breathing in pain and suffering and breathing out compassion. It’s a really cool thing that you can do when you get triggered by your child’s behaviour and when you catch yourself not being the kind of parent you want to be.
Today I’m going to tell you about how it’s helped me get through some difficult moments, how to do it, and why you might want to give it a try!
Amazon links are included in this post. Please see my disclosure for details.
The Drive-Thru Awakening
But first – let me tell you a story of how I awakened to the idea of using Tonglen as a parent.
It all started when I was at the drive-thru one morning to get my favourite caffeinated beverage. In order to speed up drive-thru processing, my local McDonald’s has two ordering lanes that merge into one. Usually people glance over at the person in the other lane to see who has ordered first and then allow that person to merge in front. I still smile when I remember a day that the guy in the next lane and I were both unsure who ordered first and I waved him to go ahead and then shortly after discovered that he had kindly bought me my coffee for the day!
This day, something different happened.
I was waiting my turn in line and when it came, I started to edge forward into the single lane when all of a sudden I realised the woman beside me was going in front of me…even though (internal gasp!) she clearly ordered after me.
My first reaction went something like this…”Uh hello! I’m here! It’s my turn.” I think I even waved at her to get her attention…as surely she had made a mistake. Then when there was no response and not even a glance in my direction, my reaction quickly turned into, “What the heck!? Why is she still moving ahead!” And then embarrassingly to thoughts like, “You rude, disrespectful, impatient…..(bleep).”
I sat behind her in line just noticing my body and mind going haywire for a few seconds. Wow! Had I ever been triggered! Sometimes I think of this gut reaction that I have as a tiger that’s been unleashed within me. It appears to be instinctually protective and angry and if I allow it reign…it’s downright scary (but that’s another story!).
Now – let me tell you. If this had happened a year ago, I would not have had the same response as I did on this day. I can tell you I would have fumed and been annoyed by this woman and her actions all day and probably told the story angrily to a few people. But that’s not how it went this time (well, aside from me writing this post now…tee hee).
Watching the Angry Tiger
Since I started meditating regularly, I’ve developed this amazing ability to “pause” and just watch my body and mind respond without reacting (or unleashing the tiger). Instead I can now approach situations like this with curiosity.
I could see that my body had filled with adrenaline and my thoughts were thinking very uncharitable thoughts (to say the least!)…but I was somehow separate from them and I could have compassion for myself and for this woman.
In fact, my mind was working overtime to try and think of a reason why she might have behaved that way and to have understanding for her. As she drove off, I felt compassion and tried to send her love.
Being a super-feeler however, I still had to deal with the negative emotions that had pooled up in my body and so I pulled my car over and just sat for a minute (while I enjoyed my coffee of course!). I’ve learned that in order to move through painful feelings, I need to honour them and allow them, and then let them pass away. And that is one thing that Tonglen is amazingly helpful for!
What is Tonglen?
Basically, the idea with Tonglen is that you take a few minutes to breathe deeply when you notice you are experiencing a painful emotion.
When you breathe in, you picture taking in all the pain you are feeling right now. You are not only recognizing the pain, but embracing it. While you are doing this, you also imagine that you are breathing in all the pain of all others who have also felt this way and might be feeling this way right now at this very moment.
Suddenly – I could picture every other person cut off by someone on the highway, or butted in front of in a line, or pushed out of the way by someone else in a hurry. I breathed in this pain of not being seen, not being respected, not being considered. And tears slid down my cheeks.
Then, I breathed out… and with that breath I sent out opposite feelings and intentions into the world.
I sent out compassion for myself and for all those who might feel this way. I sent out love and understanding for those needs not being met in me or all those many other people.
On the next in breath, I pictured breathing in the pain again. This time, in came the hate of road-rage, the anger of being excluded, the sadness of being ignored. And more tears came.
On the next exhale, I sent out acceptance. I sent out inclusion. I sent out consideration. I sent out respect.
After a minute or two, I noticed that my chest loosened, the tears stopped, and my mind slowed. The feeling was passing. It wasn’t getting stuck. It had its moment, it was heard – and was now moving on.
What is Parenting Tonglen?
So what does all this have to do with parenting, you may ask? I thought this was supposed to be a parenting blog?
My answer is this…parenting is life.
It is learning to grow ourselves as people so that our children can learn from our example. I once heard it said that we cannot expect our children to be more than we are. (I think that was Brené Brown). We can’t expect them to manage their tempers if we cannot. We can’t expect them to be resilient and happy – if we are not.
We must ourselves grow and show them the way. For this reason, our children are often our best life coaches.
There have been many, many moments in time when I have felt myself triggered emotionally by either my son’s actions, or by challenging parenting situations. And without awareness to support me, I’ve been flooded with either anger, frustration or impatience and anxiety.
With awareness, I can step back and pause. I can look at the situation with a bit of space between it and me. I can choose to act or respond in a way that aligns with my values and needs – without allowing the metaphorical tiger to take over.
If we want our children to grow to be compassionate, kind and understanding people – we need to demonstrate it ourselves. Tonglen allows me to do that. It allows me to model being the person I want to be while living in a body that feels and cares deeply (and which apparently harbours a pretty scary tiger not that far under my skin!).
Tonglen in Action
So what does Tonglen look like in my parenting life? Here are a few examples of ways I’ve used it.
Awareness allows me to pause when my son begins arguing for more Ipad time and I don’t want to fight.
The Tonglen allows me to breathe in the frustration and anxiety of worrying that there will be negative consequences to allowing him too much screen time. I breathe out compassion for myself and all parents who are struggling to help their children manage their choices independently to be healthy.
Breathing Through Bullying
Awareness allows me to pause when my son tells me he was punched and kicked by another student at school.
The Tonglen allows me to breathe in the very real fear and worries that he was a victim and that I can’t always protect him. I breathe out compassion for my son, that child, and all the parents in the world who want to protect their children and keep them safe.
Awareness allows me to pause when my son is so anxious about getting sick and getting his father (who recently had a kidney transplant) sick that he washes his hands right away when arriving home and then puts up a fight to unpack his school backpack for fear of getting germs on his hands again.
The Tonglen allows me to breathe in the fear and worry that he is experiencing and that I am experiencing on his behalf. I breathe out reassurance that all will be well and that we will all be safe and healthy.
Next time your tiger is triggered…will you do me a personal favour? Will you try to pause for a moment…and just breathe? Let me know how it goes!
Love and light,