By Pema Chödrön Sounds True, 2001 Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 30th 2002
I've listened to this audio double-CD of Prema Chödrön
several times and I would recommend it to those looking to an
introduction to tonglen, a system of meditation to help
one deal with life's troubles, derived from the practices of Tibetan
Zen Buddhism. I can't say that I have used it much to help my
own peace of mind, but occasionally the method has occurred to
me and I've found it interesting. Whether it is useful is of course
very hard to say - I doubt that any scientific studies have been
attempted trying to prove that it helps people cope when experiencing
emotional turmoil. But on the other hand, it is unlikely to have
any unwanted side effects, and many people vouch for its importance,
so it may be worth trying it out.
Chödrön talks very slowly, and listening to her can
be relaxing, unless one feels extremely impatient, in which case
one might become exasperated by the pauses from one word to another.
She explains any terminology she uses, and she illustrates her
ideas with straightforward examples. She starts off talking about
being an unconditional friend to oneself as the basis of compassion
and happiness. The problem is that pain is an inevitable part
of life, and she explains that it is important not to struggle
against pain, but instead one should be comfortable with both
pleasure and pain. One should not make the mistake of mistaking
pleasure for happiness; pleasure is always fleeting and unreliable.
Instead, one should accept one's pain and discomfort with oneself,
and should even move closer to the painful feelings. The discomfort
is made far worse by one's struggle to not be as one thinks one
should, because then one feels shame at oneself. This does not
mean that one should not care about the bad sides of oneself,
but it means recognizing oneself for what one is and being compassionate
Of course, it is incredibly hard to accept oneself as one is;
we are always full of self-criticism. So it is hard to meditate
and to be with oneself; seeing oneself for what one is can be
upsetting. Chödrön links this with breathing meditation,
focusing on one's present feelings and not drifting off into other
thoughts. With practice, it becomes easier to accept oneself,
and one's anger with oneself diminishes. Similarly, if one can
experience jealously, depression, loneliness without condemning
oneself, then one can learn to accept oneself more fully. This
practice awakens an understanding of our shared humanity, and
then one feels less need to avoid the feelings by doing something
else such as drinking, taking drugs, or other self-destructive
Opening one's heart will also mean one can see the discomfort
of others without needing to avoid it. Furthermore, one can experience
one's own pleasure without a sense of regret that it is temporary.
Chödrön says that compassion heals us and makes people
more relaxed and open.
The obvious danger in such an approach is that it can be used
as an excuse for not trying to improve the world. Chödrön
says little to address this danger directly, but she does not
convey the sense that it is fine to be self-satisfied or uncaring
about other people's suffering - indeed, it seems likely that
if one becomes more compassionate through the practice of tonglen
then one will do more to help other people.
The attraction of tonglen is that it is a way of dealing with
mental strife. Rather than trying to subdue our powerful emotions,
it suggests that we should allow oneself to experience them; indeed,
she says that negative emotions can be good in that they provide
a transformative energy. "The more neurosis, the more wisdom,"
she says, and so there can be some aspect of difficult circumstances
that one can welcome. She also says that tonglen is being used
more and more in hospices and with people who have terminal illnesses.
People start to feel that their pain, fear or despair has a meaning
and they can better cope with it. Many people become more kind
and regain a sense of humor once they start this kind of meditation,
according to Chödrön.
Chödrön recommends tonglen practice not just when one
is in a special meditation session, but also in the middle of
the day and one sees pain or suffering. Our reaction is to avert
our eyes or guilt that we cannot do something to help others.
She says that one thing we can do is practicing tonglen on the
spot. Similarly one can practice tonglen in the middle of a furious
argument with another person. This meditation is not a matter
of leaving the situation and sitting cross-legged on the floor,
but rather it is letting oneself experience one's negative feelings
more, examining them without being judgmental. One allows oneself
to experience the feelings and tells oneself that other people
have the same feelings. Speaking for myself, I at least find this
idea very intriguing, even if I am not sure that it will be very
useful to me. It is at least plausible that doing this prevents
a chain reaction in one's feelings that leads to an escalating
series of unpleasant emotions.
There is a more formal process of tonglen that Chödrön
explains as well, guiding her listeners through a meditation session.
Presumably those wanting to know more will need to seek further
training beyond this CD; there are many books and videos available
on tonglen practice. There is, furthermore, an overlap between
the practices of tonglen and various self-help methods for reducing
stress and dealing with anger and depression, and it would probably
take a great deal more study to really understand the world view
behind these practices. But this CD is a good start, and even
though I am not inclined to investigate tonglen any further in
the immediate future, I felt that I gained something from listening
to Chödrön's teaching.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster
communication between philosophers, mental health professionals,
and the general public.