Spiritual Practice: Shamanic Tonglen

Thanks to Emilio Bettaglio for his insight and initiation into this work.

About seven years ago I was attending our regular shamanic drumming circle.  A major world event had recently transpired – perhaps the tsunami of 2005.  As an individual, I feel that dealing with major world events has always seemed to just a bit, well, difficult.  And with global media we become more informed of world events.  I’ve never wanted to project false optimism or grandiosity into my work.  Only about a half year earlier, I was witness to the type of shamanic work that I preferred to avoid.  I was visiting another drum circle (I think it can be good practice to see what other circles are up to).  As it happened, on the night we were meeting a hurricane was heading for the coast of Texas.  The circle began a debate/discussion on how they should decide as a group to influence the hurricane – what direction it should go, the altitude, and how the hurricane should behave in relative detail.  I found this big-headed, like commanding an earthquake to be still or a volcano not to erupt. It is potentially delusional to assume we have control over the forces of Nature.

It is also difficult to expect that a single drumming could relieve the suffering of all those caught in a major traumatic event.  No one in my ongoing circle would have disagreed.  And yet it seems callous to deny or turn away from human suffering.  My alternative suggestion had been for the group to drum positive intention to the best possible outcome.  That night, my friend and colleague Emilio went one better.  “In circumstances that seem beyond my personal control, I practice Tonglen.”  Tonglen, a practice with which I was familiar, involves breathing in a specific pain or suffering and breathing out compassion and love.  In a cycle of breath, you transform the pain into loving-kindness.  One way to visualize the process is to breathe in the pain, visualizing the pain as dark smoke.  As you breathe out, the dark smoke has been transmuted into compassion and can be visualized as purified light.  As a practice builds, compassion becomes a force of mind.  Emilio explained that he began his Tonglen practice in the traditional way, but soon found himself seeing the pain symbolically – as one might shamanically see an intrusion appearing as a slimy creature, barbs, or raging fire.  Emilio explained that once he had an image of the pain, he would breathe out a shamanically inspired antidote.  If the pain was symbolized by a raging fire, perhaps he’d breathe out from the heart of rain.  I asked if he used his shamanic mind or helping spirits.  “Yes, but it all begins by connecting with the motion of breath and Tonglen.”

“Shamanic Tonglen,” I responded instinctively.  It felt like I had given it a name.  That evening we engaged in shamanic Tonglen with the aid of drumming.  The practice may be enhanced with drumming or other ritual aids, but can also be practiced like original Tonglen: body, breath, and mind.

With shamanic Tonglen you add your intentional consciousness to the streams of like-minded practitioners, to the spreading of compassion and loving kindness, and to the communion with compassionate spirits.  As I work with shamanic Tonglen, I sometimes find myself in strict rhythm with the cycles of breath, and sometimes find myself more focused with the resulting shift into imaginal realms and the journey-like motion with active and compassionate spirits.  I don’t expect a directed outcome. I like that I can address suffering, my own included, without individually trying to direct “a cure.”  In that sense I’m not performing a directed healing.  Tonglen is understood to be an ongoing practice.  It can be incorporated as part of a meditation or yoga practice, as part of a drumming or shamanic practice, or as an element of “a moment’s pause” that is good practice for taking small moments to step back from the rush of your day.

Shamanic Tonglen is well suited to medicine for the Earth.  Breaths can be matched to a rhythm of footfalls, or timed to match the paddling of a kayak.  Consciousness of breath can come alive in any circumstance of Nature, whether present or at a distance.  The “symbolic” healing through breath may lead to a reverie of thought or vision that suggests specific action.  The land might communicate with you directly, of its own accord.

Shamanic Tonglen is well suited to dealing with the health of a nation and with national or global issues.  With mass events — the manifestations of disease, disharmony, greed, chaos, and surprising acts of Nature — I like shamanic Tonglen because it speaks to healing or cleansing in a compassionate and loving way outside the realm of cause and effect.  It may be that the symbols or chants that we organically invoke will of themselves carry the elements of healing or protection.  (One could say that all spirit-based healing is out of our hands, so to speak.)  When working with individuals the goal may become specifically intentional. When dealing with forces that dwarf comprehension, an outcome-based approach is potentially shortsighted.  I was not there when the universe came into existence – I do not understand the elemental force of Earthquake.  So rather than try to impose my will, it makes sense that I add goodwill and shamanic mind to the streams and expressions of our shared reality with compassion and love.

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6 Responses to Spiritual Practice: Shamanic Tonglen

  1. Irina says:

    Jim, this is a beautifully written and inspiring article!
    Although I have been practicing Shamanic Tonglen, on and off, for several years, I felt that somehow I could never get it quite right. But your words really capture the gist of it and make it all fall into place for me. My practice will now progress well, as a result.
    Are you acquainted with Nan Moss & David Corbin’s work on weather shamanism and their book on this subject? As shamans, they deal with the Spirits of weather with reverence, compassion and love. I don’t know if they are familiar with Tonglen, but I’m sure they would be interested in the combination. Would you allow me to send them your article?
    Many thanks,

  2. Jim says:

    Thanks for your kind words. I’m honored that you would like to share the article.

  3. Ramona says:

    Dear Jim,
    I thank you for this thoughtful post and agree with you about the constant need to make sure we are not letting ego into our work with the Spirits. I’ve read about Tonglen practice from Pema Chodron. However, I’m puzzled by the idea of breathing in suffering and pain. It seems to me this could go very wrong. As a shamanic practitioner, I was trained NOT to absorb intrusions or other negative energies/entities when doing healing work, but rather to let the healing spirits handle those energies. It seems to me a rather tricky thing to not be letting pain and suffering, into my own body/mind/spirit, when doing this breathing-in practice. Maybe it’s not for everyone! I welcome your response.

    • Jim says:

      Good question. First, in my experience Tonglen has a very different dynamic than shamanic extraction. The purpose is not to breathe in an intrusion or coalesced negative energy or entity. Breathing in the pain is a way of connecting empathically with a source of human suffering that, given circumstance, we could also experience. It is an “all life is connected” type feeling, with the intention of transmuting suffering and pain into compassion or divine light. We are turning that connection of suffering into projected blessing through our connection to the power of compassion and our own compassionate spirit helpers. Now, it’s important that we have connection with our own source of compassion, loving kindness, are wearing our shamanic mind, or are “cloaked with spirit helpers”. If there is a feeling of doubt with the practice, I suggest beginning the practice on yourself — connecting with a recent pain and transforming that pain through empathic compassion into spirit blessing or a feeling of love and compassion for yourself. Invoke the feeling of Presence. Project that feeling of communion into the transformation of pain into Light. I think it parallels Sandy Ingerman’s Earth medicine transmutation process to reverse pollution through infusion with divine light. You are part of the process of projecting strength into a problem that you have knowledge of through the empathy of your mind. If it helps, you may find it easier if you are breathing for spirit helpers — a physical conduit while your ego and body are safely sheltered by their power.
      At the end of the day, you have to feel comfortable with any practice, whether taught in a workshop or read on a blog site. Your spirit helpers are there to guide you, and their advice will carry knowledge of how you are interpreting or processing the practice.

  4. Ramona says:

    Thank you for expanding on this, Jim. It’s very helpful as I sort this out. Blessings!

  5. Nancy Hauer says:

    I have tried shamanic tonglen from time to time, but I find that for me it works better to breathe universal light and love in and out, to visualize universal light and love flowing through any difficult situation I am concerned about, and also to visualize universal light and love flowing endlessly through everything.

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