Being a Wounded Healer: Using the Practice of Tong-len in Hospital Chaplaincy

By Chaplain Patricia Myerson

Patricia Myerson and Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche at her Pastoral Care Graduation, May 19, 2013. Photo by Stephanie Colvey.

(Editor’s note: Patricia Myerson is one of four KTD students who graduated in May, 2013 from KTD’s pilot Pastoral Care Training Program. Since her graduation, and at Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche’s direction, three of the four graduates have undertaken training accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education.)

This training is considered the “gold standard” for chaplaincy training in the United States. Patricia is taking her training at healthcare facilities in Massachusetts. This article was written as part of a writing assignment for her ACPE training. In it, she discusses the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tong-len- “sending and receiving” meditation – as a method for training in love and compassion in the face of others’ suffering. May all beings benefit from Karmapa’s compassionate presence in the world!)

It is clearly not enough to say that because I have known pain that I can be of help to another who is in pain.  In fact, over-identifying with another’s pain can lead to poor caregiving; the caregiver may be subject to their own projections and lose track of who the pain belongs to.

We must be able to see the person in front of us clearly.  And yet I feel that working with my own pain is my strongest asset in hospital chaplaincy.  How does acknowledging my own woundedness transform me into a wounded healer?  Another way to ask that same question might be:  how is suffering transformed into compassion?

In my life, suffering has taken me on a deep spiritual journey that has led me to my strengths; following the trail of suffering, I’ve unearthed compassion and forgiveness in myself, as well as a deep faith in basic goodness.  I’ve found suffering to be a gift on the path.

The difference between being wounded and being a wounded healer comes down to two things.  The first is how I relate to suffering, and the second has to do with the strength of my faith in basic goodness: an unconditional goodness that is infinitely larger than any philosophical notion of good vs. bad.  In my experience, the second comes most profoundly out of the first.

In my role as an interfaith chaplain, I recently met with a woman who had been battered by her alcoholic ex-husband, disowned by her family, and had lost many dear friends over the years, many to drugs and alcohol.  Her life-long best friend had just died from a drug overdose.  She was overcome with grief; the enormous loss of her best friend triggered grief over her many other losses.  She said she’d always believed in God but this death had challenged her faith – how could God do that?  When I first listened to her story I thought, what can I possibly offer her to strengthen her faith?  She has known nothing but loss!

As I listened more, as she told of all whom she had loved and lost, I heard her heart in her grief.  I heard how much she had loved, in addition to how much she had lost.  Yes, she had probably loved in co-dependent ways, and although she didn’t appear to have a drug or alcohol problem herself, she had repeatedly chosen drug addicts and/or alcoholics to give her heart to.  But that wasn’t the point.  In her pain I heard her heart.  I was able to reflect her own love back to her and to show her how big her heart was; that it was because she loved so much that her losses hurt so much.  I was able to reflect to her some of the goodness in her own life.  I also offered her a prayer that spoke to her own faith, which I was finally able to hear in the love she articulated.  She left still grieving deeply but with a little more faith in love and in life.  She felt a little less alone and a little more seen.  Where did I find the insight?  I stayed with her pain and her pain led me to her goodness.

The first aspect of transforming pain into compassion is staying with the pain, allowing it to touch my heart.  This starts with being able to stay present with my own pain.  If I can’t be with my own pain then I will be unable to be present for another who is in pain.  I have learned about being present to my own pain – my limits, failings, regrets, losses, fears, and mortality – through the practice of sitting meditation.  Sitting and breathing has allowed me to touch the space around my emotions.  Through meditation I’ve learned to allow emotions to arise, dwell and cease without always needing to react to them.  In the non-reacting I’ve found some insight and some peace.

From staying with my own pain I become gradually more able to enter into the pain of another without fleeing.  However, being a healer requires more though than simply not fleeing pain. I have to be present to another’s pain without becoming emotionally pulled under by it; to touch it without sinking.  This requires faith.  If the pain of another causes me to lose touch with my own faith then it isn’t a safe situation for me to minister in.  Without faith, I cannot be a loving reflection for another; mirroring both their pain and their goodness.  Instead I become caught in trying to either fix or to deny their pain.  I am learning to recognize that I should not minister in situations when I can’t feel the unconditional goodness that always exists alongside pain and suffering.

So, the second necessary aspect to transform pain into compassion is my faith in basic goodness. How do I strengthen that?  I’m coming to believe that whenever I truly allow pain in, when I open my heart wide to pain, that act in and of itself illuminates my faith.  Pain that I fully allow in shows me the way to faith.  It is only the pain that I (usually unconsciously) try to deny or push away that cuts off my access to faith.  Wisdom comes from staying with suffering without trying to change it.

There is something counter-intuitive about this – how does staying present with suffering strengthen my faith in goodness?

For me the path to transforming suffering into both compassion and faith comes from the Buddhist practice of Tong-len Meditation.  Tong-len practice also seems counter-intuitive.  Normally in life we reject what we don’t want and hold on to what we love.  In the practice of Tong-len we visualize exchanging ourselves with others by taking in all that is bad in their life, and giving away to them all that is good in our own life. As a meditation practice we do Tong-len by become aware of the rhythm of our breath; on the out-breath we give away our happiness, and on the in-breath we take in suffering.

At times, my tong-len practice is dull or distracted.  But the fleeting moments when it is clear are invaluable for chaplaincy work.  In those clear moments of Tong-len, my out-breath is love.  My in-breath is tasting suffering; allowing it into my heart.  The in-breath opens my heart to pain.  The outbreath, giving away all that is good, allows me to glimpse the limitless nature of love.  A flash of wide open giving away on the out-breath leaves me available to take in more pain on the next in-breath.

Breathing another’s pain into my heart is only possible because of the goodness that is already innately there; covered perhaps, but always there.  Breathing in the suffering cracks open the covering on my naturally present light of basic goodness and opens me to how much love is naturally there to give away.  The two together, breathing in pain and breathing out goodness, open me to be able to glimpse both the reality of suffering and self-existing unconditional limitless love.  Suffering shows me compassion, compassion opens me to suffering.  Separation and alienation have a chance to dissolve in my heart.  Through the practice of Tong-len I can find a way to connect with another; I can witness and taste some of their pain without losing my faith in the ever available potential of space, of basic goodness.  Connecting with another through suffering grows my faith in love.

In my best pastoral visits, and despite coming from different religious traditions, doing this internal exchange guides me to the means to help another person to see and to reconnect with their own strength and with their own faith.  Through opening to their hurt I can also connect to their goodness.


One thought on “Being a Wounded Healer: Using the Practice of Tong-len in Hospital Chaplaincy

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Patricia.
    “…breathing in pain and breathing out goodness, open me to be able to glimpse both the reality of suffering and self-existing unconditional limitless love. Suffering shows me compassion, compassion opens me to suffering. Separation and alienation have a chance to dissolve in my heart.”
    What a beautiful description of Tong-len!

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