I was in a hotel room, sleeping deeply, when I heard a baby screaming in the room next to ours. Its crying was so loud and urgent that it yanked me awake.
I was immediately irritated, even angry. Goddamit, why can’t that baby be quiet? Then I heard the father yelling, sounding desperate, “What IS it?! What is your PROBLEM?!” I started to judge him for the way he was reacting.
It was the that I remembered a practice I had read about recently called tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “sending and taking.”
It’s a simple practice. If someone is suffering, you breathe in, as if you’re taking in that suffering, and you send out thoughts of happiness or comfort or whatever might provide relief. It’s an exercise in compassion.
I tried it. I thought of the baby, breathed in its confusion and pain, and breathed out soothing thoughts. I thought of the father, breathed in his frustration, and sent him calm and patience. I reflected on how I had been in similar situations many times, and how upsetting it could be.
My judgment and irritation melted away, and the baby stopped crying. I was incredulous at first. Did tonglen really work? Before drifting back to sleep, I remember thinking that I had just tapped into some kind of superpower. That feeling didn’t last long, however, as a few hours later the baby woke me up again, and this time I was in no mood for tonglen. Nevertheless, that night of broken sleep made it clear I had a choice of how to respond to upsetting events, and that the compassionate choice made me happier.
You can practice tonglen on yourself too, when you’re hurting in some way. Maybe it's when a driver honks loudly behind you, or you read an upsetting story in the news, or see someone begging on the street. Whatever the emotion is - irritation, anger, disgust - you don’t have to suppress it or berate yourself. Just take a moment to feel it, examine it with a sense of curiosity, and reflect on all the other people on the planet who are going through something similar. Then you breathe in for all those countless people, including yourself, and you breathe out relief.
The next time the baby cries - when something or someone upsets your - see if you can practice “sending and taking.” Catch the initial feeling; breathe in suffering; breathe out compassion. As you practice, you become kinder to yourself and others, and you see just how related and interconnected we all are.