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After receiving last week’s Martians and Meditations post, a reader wrote: “Meditation tries to unhook us from thoughts and thinking. But doesn’t tonglen do the opposite when we’re asked to think about someone while we’re doing the practice?” That’s a good question and leads to an interesting topic: the relationship between contemplation and activism.

As many spiritual teachers point out, meditation and contemplative prayer are not activities, but states of un-doing. They guide attention to the inner body, a point of access into the realm of being which is beyond name, beyond form, and beyond incessant thinking.[1] Thinking hijacks consciousness and reduces it to thoughts. In the process, we become hostage to endless stories about the past (whether it’s yesterday’s argument at work or decade’s old rumination about a difficult relationship) or the future (worries about the consequences of climate change or what the doctor will say tomorrow about test results). But, in between past and future is the pause where we can come into direct contact with Nature consciousness, where the Animals live. This is also where tonglen practice is grounded.

“Setting up” for tonglen is not done in haste. First centering in presence is essential. Tonglen instruction begins by asking us to come into stillness and flashing on bodhicitta, the awakened, open heart. [2] Once in touch with inner stillness, gently attending to our breath, we are ready to engage in the practice. As we inhale, we take in heavy negativity – what Pema Chödrön describes as a feeling of claustrophobia. As we exhale, dark negativity transforms into light, fresh, and positive energy. Taking in and sending out in the medium of the breath occurs without thinking. It is an embodied, inclusive practice of compassion. [3]

The next phase of tonglen asks us to bring to mind a difficult personal situation or, in a more expansive engagement, those who are experiencing widespread suffering – the millions of Fish dying from pollution or Seabirds choked by plastic refuse. Thoughts that conjure an image or sense of those in need inform the practice. While meditating, Seabirds are held in presence without thinking. This active connection with others for whom you are bearing witness takes place in the space of clear consciousness, William James’ sea into which all minds are plunged.

In this way, tonglen is a form of activism. It is engaged in the space where we are connected with all life. Practiced in stillness, tonglen is 100% embodied accompaniment because it is being with another in the substrate of love. “I” and “Thou” are linked at depth. This brings an incredible potency to material activism that uses our bodies, thoughts and words in support of others in diverse ways – through petitions, nonviolent protests, actions, letters, speeches and writing, and how we live every day. As bell hooks noted, “The civil rights movement was such a wonderful movement for social justice because the heart of it was love—loving everyone.”[4]

Abstinence from consuming Animals as food, clothing or other uses and abuses is a critical, material act. It is the external expression of our inner connection with Animal kin which we nourish and cultivate through practices such as tonglen and prayer. Inner practices are vital because without profound internal transformation, external change will only reach so far. Words and actions need to be deeply rooted in consonant consciousness, what Franciscan Father Richard Rohr calls, “full bodied knowing.”[5] Oak trees stand tall and long because they are firmly planted in the Earth. Elephant society thrives generation after generation because their consciousness is rooted in Nature’s love. Contemplation in action is the path to becoming Nature. Contemplation in action is the path of human transformation.

Learn More

[1] Tolle, E. 2004. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New World Library.
[2] Chödrön, P. 2021. How to Practice Tonglen. The Lion’s Roar.
[3] Brach, T. 2018. Tonglen: Radical Compassion – Tara Brach leads a Short Talk and Meditation.
[4] hooks, b. and Thich Nhat Hanh. 2017. Building a Community of Love: bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh. The Lion’s Roar.
[5] Rohr, R. 2012. Franciscan Mysticism: I AM That Which I Am Seeking, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation.

Photo credit: William H. Majoros

~ Dedicated to Tommy ~

Mariposa Reflections is a weekly e-post paired with Mariposa Meditations, a biweekly online Nature mindfulness and meditation gathering. Sign up here to receive weekly Mariposa Reflections. Learn more and register for Mariposa Meditations here.