“The Path of Non-Rejecting”

Tonight I’ll resume a series of dharma talks based on Pema Chödrön’s book Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World. The fifth chapter, titled “The Path of Non-Rejecting,” starts with her quotation: “Only by learning to fully embrace all aspects of ourselves—even the most seemingly negative elements of our minds and hearts—will we learn to fully embrace others. Only by discovering the basic goodness in both our lotus and our mud, will we come to see the basic goodness of all living beings.”

Rooted in mud, the lotus flower symbolizes the beauty and purity of our fundamental goodness of nature. The mud represents negative tendencies such as our confusion, divided mind, closed heart, and self-destructive habits. It is through understanding and rising above these impediments that we achieve our full potential as human beings.

One of Pema’s teachers, Anam Thubten Rinpoche, wrote, “Wisdom teachings tell us not to reject anything about ourselves and to embrace all aspects as the same…. The lotus is part of the mud…. All flaws that exist are part of us. They begin to heal when we accept them as they are. They can be fertilizer for our inner growth. Recognizing them without denying or maneuvering around them is the key point.”

When we experience unwelcome, painful or embarrassing emotions, we tend to avoid or repress them. It is hard not to turn against a part of ourselves that we judge as unacceptable. Pema suggests two methods to help us acknowledge and accept all our qualities, whether we consider them negative or positive.

She learned the first method from Tibetan master Thondup Rinpoche. Instead of rejecting an unwelcome emotion, we can intentionally connect with it, feeling it strongly, and then let it go into all-encompassing spaciousness. When an unwanted emotion arises, the first step is to feel it as fully as possible, breathing with it, touching it, and inhabiting it in the present moment. The next step is to intensify the emotion until it feels solid and heavy enough to hold. At this point, we can imagine grabbing the emotion and then releasing it, so that it floats like a balloon into the vastness of empty space. The final step is to visualize the emotion dissolving into tiny particles in the distance.

I tried practicing these steps to deal with disappointment that because of the pandemic, it has been over a year since Mark and I have been able to travel to New England to visit friends and family. As I turned towards it, disappointment transformed into sadness and felt like an ache in my heart. With each breath, the aching sensation grew sharper and heavier. I visualized the sharpness and heaviness intensifying until it resembled a jagged piece of heavy metal, like a crude dagger. Then I imagined pulling the dagger from my heart and hurling it out into empty space. As the dagger floated away, I visualized it disintegrating and disappearing into infinite vastness. I was left with a feeling of gratitude for being with Mark and our dog Amanda and for connecting with friends and family by Zoom.

The second non-rejecting method is tonglen, Tibetan for “sending and taking.” This is a radical practice of reversing habitual tendencies to cling to pleasure and comfort and to reject pain and discomfort. Out of fear and confusion, we tend to grasp at what we want and push away what we dislike. These tendencies prevent us from sensing the basic goodness of our nature and block us from responding compassionately to others.  

In tonglen practice, we coordinate the mind with the breath. During each inhalation, we imagine breathing in unpleasant things that we would ordinarily reject. For example, if I feel anxious, I don’t try to escape nervous, speedy sensations. Instead, I open up to these signs of anxiety, inhaling them into my heart, which expands with each in-breath until it is wide enough to relax with those sensations. The less I resist them, the more anxious sensations dissipate. After inhaling the anxiety that I am experiencing personally, I can expand the practice to breathe in the anxiety of all people who are feeling similarly.

Pema recalls Trungpa Rinpoche describing tonglen practice: “It’s as if you’re the sky, allowing all the clouds to pass through you, not rejecting anything that arises in that space.” We heal our own pain by connecting to the universal experience of pain, realizing that there is no difference between our discomfort and that of others. As Pema says, “Fear is fear. Sadness is sadness. Anger is anger. Anxiety is anxiety. Whether we call them ‘mine’ or ‘yours,’ they’re more like free-floating qualities that we all share.”

During the “sending” part of tonglen practice, each time we exhale, we imagine sending others beneficial and pleasant things that we ordinarily desire for ourselves. For instance, for the benefit of others, I can breathe out universal qualities such as kindness, well-being, and relaxation. This aspect of the practice develops our compassion and care for others and helps us let go of tendencies to grasp what we prefer. We might imagine mentally sharing with others enjoyable experiences such as good health, delicious food, beautiful weather, fulfilling intimacy, satisfying recognition, or inner peace.

Because the two aspects of sending and taking support and reinforce each other, it works best to alternate breathing in what’s unwelcome and breathing out what’s welcome. Inhaling our own unwanted feelings and those of others creates space in the heart and mind. As we stop rejecting unpleasant emotions, we feel relieved. Then we can breathe out spaciousness and relief to those who are struggling with similar feelings. At the end of doing tonglen, we can offer to all living beings any freedom and contentment that arise from this non-rejection practice. 

Apart from the formal meditation practice of tonglen, Pema recommends doing an abbreviated version on the spot whenever an opportunity arises. If we are on a walk and notice a person or an animal in pain, we can breathe in their pain and send them relief.

Or if we turn away because their pain triggers fear or resistance, we can do tonglen for all the people just like us who wish to be compassionate but are afraid. Rather than judging ourselves, we can use our own limitation as a path to understanding others’ fears. By breathing in all of our pain and breathing out relief for all of us, we use our own suffering compassionately for the benefit of others.

*Let’s practice this abbreviated form of tonglen.

Sit comfortably and close your eyes.

Bring to mind someone you know who is in pain, physically or emotionally.

Take a moment to connect with their experience.

Inhale the pain and exhale comfort. Repeat this cycle two more times.

Notice how this practice affects you.

Over time, tonglen practice opens us up to accept life just as it is. Pema’s sixth chapter begins with her observation that, “The exalted state of enlightenment is nothing more than fully knowing ourselves and our world, just as they are.”

Any time that we accept our experience as it is without wanting it to be different, that moment feels fresh, complete and unique. Whenever we open to a moment that has never been that way before and will never be so again, the heart softens naturally towards ourselves and others. Pema asks, “How can we learn to spend more and more of our time in this state of mind? How can we develop trust in the completeness of being with life “just as it is”?

First, we must be aware of how we incline the mind. If we focus habitually on what’s missing or lacking, we are oriented to notice imperfections and to feel dissatisfied. To remedy this negative bias, Pema suggests that we practice noting whatever we appreciate—birds singing, afternoon light on treetops, a freshly cooked meal, and a loved one’s caring smile. Such simple attentiveness warms our hearts and connects us to the world around us.

Practicing gratitude helps us to appreciate our blessings. In my seventies, I have a choice to complain about arthritic stiffness or to appreciate that I can still take bike rides and long walks. I can bemoan my diminishing eyesight or be grateful for all the faces and colors and shapes that I do see. The practice of gratitude gladdens my heart.

As another practice of appreciation, Pema recommends paying special attention to strangers whom we encounter in daily life. Amidst the pandemic, I often greet people I pass on walks. If they have a canine companion, our dogs have a chance to trade sniffs. I am amused by how often dogs and owners resemble one another. Each warm interaction with a stranger reminds me of our common humanity.

The most challenging practice is to direct this warmth towards parts of ourselves that we dislike, including doubts, fears, and insecurities. With a clear intention to accept ourselves just as we are, we can allow space for uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, neither rejecting them nor buying into them. When we let go of self-judgments, we build trust in our basic goodness, which lacks nothing. As an antidote to self-criticism, Pema suggests repeating as a mantra, “I am complete just as I am.”

In her words, “Whatever arises in our mind and heart is just our current experience, nothing more or less. Even our good and bad qualities are temporary and insubstantial, not ultimate proofs of our worthiness or unworthiness.” She concludes, “[T]he ultimate fruition of this path is simply to be fully human. And the ultimate benefit we can bring to others is to help them also realize their full humanity, just as they are.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” It is by learning to be fully human that we embrace those larger concerns.