From Fear to Love: Using the Buddhist Practices of Tonglen and Loving Kindness to Expand the Love In Your Heart

Posted on Jan. 15, 2007 at 8:34 a.m.

By: Daniela Abbott

By: Daniela Abbott

Since starting iTHRiVE,  Randi and I have challenged ourselves to broaden our cultural definition of love from romantic love to an honoring of love in all of its forms.  We encourage you to reconnect with our “love for” energy, our collective abilities to love so many people and so many interests-- from partners and lovers to our parents and children, beloved friends, mentors, healers, spiritual teachers, service providers, athletics, the arts, nature, cuisine, our careers, our crafts, and what we choose to do (or not do) in our solitude.  In truth, our capacity to love is tremendous.  It is only limited by one thing:  fear. 

A teacher I knew once used the term, “stingy heart.”  When I heard it for the first time, I took it to mean someone who could or would not give.  The teacher had a different definition and explained instead that “…a stingy heart is one that cannot receive, cannot be given to, will not be vulnerable.”

It’s odd to think that some of the most generous of givers (people we think of has having “big hearts”) may also suffer from “stingy hearts”- -  from the fear of letting love in. Though they are comfortable with giving, fear barricades them from receiving.  Their early needs created rejection.  Thus, in a corrective move, these generous hearts decided to give, give, give (and limit themselves to only half of the flow).

All of us have needs, some more some less.  And all of us have the capacity to give.  Just as blood flows in and out of our hearts, carrying nutrients in one direction and waste in the other, so does love flow in and out of our hearts, bringing the replenishment that comes with receiving, and carrying away the pain we are ready to let go of.

How do we keep our hearts open to giving and receiving? How do we allow love to flow in and out of our lives?

People have various ways of keeping the flow.  Some set an intention to remain “loving” no matter what.  They visualize themselves being “loving” and think of mentors who exemplify this skill.  They ask themselves how that mentor would handle the challenges they face, and in asking the question, they open themselves to guidance and inspiration.  

Some people make a daily goal of being their “highest” or “best self” especially with regard to stressful situations.   Others meditate, pray, or make a practice of allowing enough time between a trigger and a response to be balanced in their approach.  Through reflection, they trust that they will come to a loving place. 

These are a few examples of how we keep our hearts open.  The common theme, though unspoken, is finding ways to transcend or relate to our primary obstacle, fear.

Being loving doesn’t mean ignoring your fear.  Instead, it means understanding it before acting upon it.  Though fear is often looked upon as wholly negative (as in the expression, “The only thing to fear is fear itself”), fear serves a function.  It is our protective wall to pain. When we feel fear we are sensing that something bad is going to happen or is happening.  Fear can be triggered through our own discomfort (i.e. feeling uncomfortable feelings, then fearing that more will follow) or through our physical pain. Essentially, we fear pain, whether it’s emotional or physical.  And we protect ourselves from people or situations we believe will hurt us.

Fear creates a tenseness that signals the body to shift gears from the openness of receiving to the closed-ness of protecting.    Fear puts us on alert.  For some of us, that means standing guard- -  being quiet, listening, watching, and assessing the situation. For others, it means taking action- - going on the offensive before getting hurt.

In either case, whether you find yourself cautious or reactive, as your body tenses, so does your heart.  It is difficult to remain open-hearted when you are seized by fear.  And yet, with reflection and intention, it IS possible to return to an open-hearted place.

Start by remembering that fear is a feeling, and like all other feelings, it is of the moment.  It may or may not be the basis from which to make final decisions.  It DOES however, invite further exploration, such as:  “What am I feeling right now?”   “What am I scared of?”  and “How real is this danger?”

As explained earlier, we’re usually afraid of some kind of pain.  And in the case of our hearts, we’re protecting ourselves from emotional pain, anything from mild irritation to total overwhelm. 

When it comes to the give and take of having an open heart, the Tibetan Buddhists have a practice called “tonglen.”  This word translated, means “sending and taking.”  It is a practice of compassion and loving-kindness that helps us take in the pain and suffering of ourselves and others and send out happiness to all of us.

Pema Chodron describes this practice in her book, “The Places That Scare You.”  She writes, “…the essence of the practice is always the same.  We breathe in what is painful and unwanted with the sincere wish that we and others could be free of suffering.  As we do so, we drop the story line that goes along with the pain and feel the underlying energy.  We completely open our hearts and minds to whatever arises.  Exhaling, we send out relief from the pain with the intention that we and others be happy.” 

Traditionally, people first learn tonglen by practicing it on behalf of those who inspire their compassion easily; it may be for someone we love and it can also be for ourselves, when we are suffering and feeling overwhelmed.  As we breathe in their or our suffering, we also visualize our hearts opening wide to accept the pain; and we make a wish that will bring relief.  The wish can be simple; it may be for a cup of tea or a smile.  Or your wish may be more dramatic, such as for a new job, cancer remission, or the capacity to love.  Over time, our hearts learn to stay open rather than to automatically close at the first whiff of pain or at our fear of losing comfort.

Heart doors open and close, open and close.  That’s normal.  Staying open-hearted requires effort, especially around those who irritate us or in situations that frighten us.  Chodron adds, “If we can remember to experiment like this even occasionally, we are training as a warrior.  And when we can’t practice when distracted but know that we can’t, we are still training well.  Never underestimate the power of compassionately recognizing what’s going on.”   

On this day, we wish you the joy of loving what comes easily; of recognizing those passions and people for whom your love flows naturally, effortlessly and abundantly.  We bow to this free-flowing reservoir of goodness!

On this day, we also wish you the blessings of two practices, tonglen and loving-kindness, to help you keep your heart open when it more readily would close.  In those moments when you feel irritated, hurt or tense, we send you the following wishes:   “May you and those you love be free of all pain and suffering”   and “may you and those you love experience happiness and the roots of all happiness.”  

In gratitude for love in all its form, and for the many opportunities to open our hearts to loving fully.


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