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When I was just the age of starting school, there were two television programs, what would be called science fiction shows. They were not, however, just futuristic tableaus. Episodes always had some odd, almost eerie, twist and carried a message. Perhaps because I didn’t watch television much, I only recall one episode and just flashes of certain scenes that have stayed with me all these years. The details may be a bit muddled, but this is the overall story.

The episode opens with an early 1960’s man at home. He is wearing the business uniform of the time—a dark suit, white shirt, tie, and a hat in hand. After kissing his wife’s cheek and saying good-bye, the man gets into his car to drive to work. But he is startled to see that an unusually dense, enveloping fog has materialized overnight. Visibility is almost nil.

I’m not sure what happens next, but somehow he, his wife and neighbors realize that their entire block has been hijacked by outer space abductors. These un-earthlings look somewhat like giant Lizards. The purpose of the neighborhood kidnapping is to perform an experiment — use the neighborhood as a case study to determine whether Earth is a suitable place for colonization.

The outer space abductors go to great lengths to maintain isolation. Any contact with their subjects turns them into alien Lizards and the experiment fails. The humans, of course, are terrified. This fear changes everything. The once-friendly Saturday drinks and barbecue neighbors suddenly turn into paranoid, hostile, and aggressive enemies. If someone becomes “contaminated,” s/he is immediately thrown out (or it could be that they are killed).

One day, much to her horror, the wife of the business man, discovers a patch of alien Lizard scales on her neck while she is sitting at her bedroom dressing table brushing her hair. At first, she tries to hide the fact from her husband, but soon, he too knows. Both are terrified that the neighbors will find out and she will be expunged.

I don’t remember what happens next, but everyone eventually finds out. The episode’s final scene shows the neighbors, including the businessman and his wife, in a circle holding hands. They have decided to stand together, in solidarity—foil the outer-space experiment to save the planet by turning themselves into Lizard aliens. So how is this related to meditation?

These images arose during a practice of tonglen, what Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön describes as the “taking and giving in the medium of the breath” [1] At first glance, especially today when everyone is overwhelmed by images, experiences, and thoughts of Animal and Earth suffering and that of fellow human beings, tonglen seems utterly counterintuitive. The recent surge of interest in contemplative practices has come about not only because they facilitate the transformation of human consciousness from its course of destruction to one of loving wellness, but they help heal and alleviate the intense suffering we empathetically feel and experience.

Fear, anxiety, grief, and loss automatically create contraction, a pulling away from what is unpleasant. The body and mind are averse to what is perceived as potentially harmful or distressing. Our hand pulls way instinctively when we touch a hot stove, and Deer and Wild Turkeys run, fly, or leave when they hear loud human voices, motors, and noise. Also, when we witness someone in pain and suffering, there is the tendency to look away, resist and block out painful emotions that arise.

In the shadow of climate change, uncertainty, and pervasive violence, these emotions and behaviors of self-protection tear us from life’s substrate of oneness. The retraction into the hard shell of ego increases a sense of alienation and isolation, which in turn produces further fear and pain. Symptoms of this positive feedback loop manifest in a multitude of ways: strained and fractured relationships, increased aggression, and deepening despair. Tonglen seeks to reverse these mental states of contraction.

The practice can be engaged during a structured meditation or, as Pema Chödrön encourages, “on the spot,” in real-time, during a difficult encounter or situation. Tonglen is usually described as a several step process. [2] It begins with cultivating a spark of openness and extension. Then, from this sense of stillness, light, and spaciousness, we breathe in textures and colors of suffering, fear, and distress—a sense of heaviness, darkness, negativity, and heat. When breathing out, we send out freshness, light, and positive energy. In-breaths and out-breaths are accompanied by these visualizations. Notably, instruction for tonglen is accompanied by a caution: be careful to start out gradually and not become overwhelmed. As in any practice, the pace is personal and calibrated to individual capacity.

The next suggested step or phase is to reflect on a personal painful or distressing situation. For example, you may feel hurt and rejected by a friend. Breathe in these feelings for yourself, and at the same time for others who are having similar feelings and experiences. On the out breath, send out compassion, love, and acceptance for yourself and others.

Finally, expand this process to the “bigger picture” by going beyond the personal. This entails doing tonglen for those whom you may not know who are suffering widely. Pema Chödrön recounts how her teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche engaged in tonglen:

When he was eight years old, Trungpa Rinpoche saw a whimpering puppy being stoned to death by a laughing, jeering crowd. He said that after that, doing tonglen practice was straightforward for him: all he had to do was think of that dog and his heart would start to open instantly. There was nothing complicated about it. He would have done anything to breathe in the suffering of that animal and to breathe out relief…It is your connection with the realization that there are puppies and people suffering unjustly like that all over the world. You immediately extend the practice out and breathe in the suffering of all the people who are suffering like that animal. [3]

Millions upon millions of male Chicks in factories around the world are carried on a conveyor belt to be ground up and killed.[4] In the U.S. alone, approximately, 30,000 Chicks are killed every hour. [5, petition below] In addition to activism to stop these cruel massacres, you can accompany the Chicks with a practice of tonglen. You might breathe in their feelings of fear, confusion, and despair, and on the out-breath send relief, love, and blessings. Tonglen can also be practiced for those you consider agents of violence and suffering. The practice is the same. Breathe in the darkness and pain, and breathe out healing and compassion.

While tonglen  may seem counter-intuitive, it can be incredibly healing for oneself and others. By taking in pain and sending out healing, there is a recognition of connectedness, and appreciation that we are not isolated and not alone in our suffering. Neither are those for whom we practice tonglen. Similar to the abducted neighbors who decided not to abandon and attack each other, we can re-connect by reversing the contraction of pain to expanded inclusion. This sense of shared life and care brings us back into presence and oneness.

Learn More

[1] Chödrön, P. 2012. Opening the Heart. SoundsTrue.
[2] Chödrön, P. 2021. How to Practice Tonglen. The Lion’s Roar.
[3] Chödrön, P. 2021. Practicing Compassion with Tonglen Meditation. Spirituality and Practice.
[4] Egg Truth. 2021. Retrieved from
[5] Animal Equality. 2021. [petition] Baby Chicks Killed for Being Worthless.

~ 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.