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.