Compassion or Bust: How to Practice with Enemies and Negative Emotions

Photo by Ben Collins

Life is not all tonglen and roses  

There are countless practices we learn and employ as meditators to work with our minds and emotions in all kinds of situations. But not all we experience is tonglen and roses in the wide spectrum of experiences we encounter. From time to time, we are faced with our own rage and anger in situations of loss, abandonment, or betrayal. We experience others’ aggression or harm toward us, our loved ones, or our possessions, and this frequently engenders reactivity and anger in response. This is our ordinary human predicament. We probably prefer the flowers and rainbows of what we deem positive emotions and relationships. But when it comes to dealing with our own negative emotions and those of others being directed toward us, there are many tools and approaches that we can utilize.

Before engaging with any tools, however, we must first acknowledge that all emotions can be taken as the path. The key is not to react in a flash, without consideration, but to pause and first experience the raw simplicity of what is happening—both inside and outside of us—before acting or forming a response. That said, there are situations in which an immediate response is required for basic safety, both emotional and physical. One would not sweetly croon to or cajole a child running out into traffic; we would run out, grab the child swiftly, and bring them back to the safety of the sidewalk, even if this resulted in sobs or angry tears. Likewise, with our internal experience and our external expressions of thoughts and emotions, we sometimes have to take our own mind by the scruff of the neck very quickly, but still with presence of mind and awareness of what we are doing.

Photo by Kaishin Onelushlife

The practice of tonglen is an ancient and sublime practice for metabolizing or processing the suffering that we encounter in the world, whether our own or that of others. It is clearly explained in many texts and lectures and is something we can do on the spot at any time.

Pema Chodron says:

[Tonglen] is a practice that you can do for a real-life situation. Whenever you meet a situation that awakens your compassion or that is painful and difficult for you, you can stop for a moment, breathe in any suffering that you see, and breathe out a sense of relief. It is a simple and direct process. Unlike the formal practice, it does not involve any visualizations or steps. It’s a simple and natural exchange: you see suffering, you take it in with the inbreath, you send out relief with the outbreath.*

Tonglen is always accessible, whether the harm is occurring far away or quite close to us. However, there are situations that are happening so rapidly or disturbingly to us that tonglen might not be the go-to tool for the experience. I can think of several examples in my life—including a very recent one—involving a trusted person who suddenly turned quite aggressive toward me, betraying my trust and friendship, and who furthermore projected all over me their negativity as if I was the one enacting the aggression. This is called, in Western psychological terms, gaslighting, and is very common among couples, but happens all over the place: between colleagues, friends, parents, and children. It is a common poison of our culture that is perpetuated in many ways, both gross and subtle, and is often quite difficult to recognize until after the fact—sometimes long after the fact. In any case, tonglen might not be the appropriate tool in the immediacy of these situations. I have developed, out of dire necessity and spontaneous inspiration, a kind of mantra and visualization practice for aggressive circumstances.

Photo by Monika Simeonova

Wrathful protective mantras and visualizations

Having been empowered with different deity practices, as many of you have, I spontaneously chose one of the wrathful mantras with which I am familiar, although this could be any mantra, such as Om Mani Padme Hung or the Vajra Guru mantra. While this mantra is being fiercely recited, either silently or under one’s breath, the visualization is that the aggressor or harmer—whether it is someone in your immediate life or some terrible dictator across the world—becomes encircled in a protective sphere. By this mantra and by the energy of the force of our visualization, they become encircled and separated from those being harmed. Within that protective sphere, they are unable to penetrate through it, yet they also receive whatever it is they need to quell their actions and soothe their negative karma. Then tonglen could be practiced afterward or simultaneously for all the beings that are being harmed, oneself included.

Another option is to visualize two protective spheres, one around the harmer and another around the harmed. These mantras, which are vibrating and circling in recitation, form a protective fence. The fence excludes harm from entering or leaving and also provides whatever those beings within the sphere need to be well. I don’t have a name for this practice. You can certainly make one up yourself, but maybe the Protective Sphere Mantra practice will suffice! It is a kind of a CliffsNotes condensing of a wrathful deity sadhana practice for which one has empowerment.

Photo by Aaron Burden

It may seem silly to make up something new when Buddhism already has more than 84,000 methods and tools to tame our minds and work with our emotions and experiences. However, it is always useful to have new versions of tools that fit our modern-day culture and ways of relating with one another, which seem more complex than the cultures that bore these original, sublime methods. These methods can be updated like an operating system, adding a few tweaks here and there to individualize them for our purposes. I see no harm in this as long as we keep to the original meaning and overall form of the practices we have been empowered to enact.

Rage and aggression are real but fleeting, something is crying out to be known

Rage, aggression, hate, and similar feelings are part of the naturally arising display of our ordinary human experience. As per Vajrayana Buddhism, they can be taken as the path if they’re immediately recognized and used in terms of their core energy. In these practices I have described, the core energy, the power or intensity of these seemingly negative emotions can be harnessed directly to create imaginations of well-being and healing for beings, both perpetrator and victim.

Photo by Matt Duncan

This seems crucial to me, as we all inhabit both sides of the coin; aggressor and aggressed. Throughout our lifetimes, we vacillate between these roles in our various relationships, both internal and external. Developing the facility and fluidity to employ these tools on demand makes us more capable meditators and better company and role models. As we all know, meditation is not only on the cushion but in the classroom, in the office, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the shopping mall, in traffic, and so on.

May these and any other methods be the tools by which you tame your minds, little by little, leaving the buddha-nature to shine and blossom for the benefit of all beings, ourselves included. May you be well in all ways.

Photo by Nick Fewings

See more

Tonglen on the Spot (Tricycle)  

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