Email as a Meditation Practice: Sending and Taking

By Katharine Bierce.

What does it look like to put meditation into action?

I’ve been pondering this ever since I took a class at the Berkeley Shambhala meditation center last year on the lojong slogans, which are about different ways to train the mind in wisdom and compassion. One of my favorite slogans is “When everything goes wrong, treat disaster as a way to wake up.”

One main component is the practice of tonglen, which comes from the slogan “Sending and taking should be practiced alternately.  These two should ride the breath.”  In Tibetan, tong means “sending out” or “letting go,” and len means “receiving” or “accepting” (as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche explains). In tonglen practice, you visualize breathing in the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath sending out happiness and success to all sentient beings. For me at least, the words “sending” and “taking” connect to my daily life since it reminds me of reading and sending emails, which I also do a lot of every day.

Lately, the lojong slogans and tonglen practice have been popping up in my daily life.  In particular, one of my friends has emailed me some very disturbing messages that seem to be a cry for help. His emails have included a lot of strong emotions and trying to respond to them from a logical point of view seems pointless. Indeed, as Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” And so it is with discursive thought—I see my friend getting stuck in his pain and his viewpoints about difficulties with career, family, and self-identity, and unable to find a way out.

Given that strong emotions are so sticky, I pondered a way to respond to his emails in a way that might be illuminating rather than devolve into an argument about what’s right or who’s right.

What might it be like to send emails as if I were practicing tonglen?

Here’s the basic process I followed.

  1. Read the email once to get a sense of what the person is working with. Look for the tone of the emotion, if the words or arguments or ideas are strong in one direction. How does this feel?
  2. Take a few breaths to get centered. Connect to your own basic goodness. Dedicate the merit to the welfare of all sentient beings (if that’s part of your practice). Or simply aspire to shine a light and perhaps awaken basic goodness.  Let go of any results that you may hope for and focus on the writing of an email response as a practice like any other, with the journey being the goal.
  3. Breathe in the emotion that you and your recipient may be feeling right now. Breathe out what ay be needed—peace, calm in the family, a new job, financial security, a safe environment. Take a moment to practice a few breaths of tonglen before typing.
  4. Wait a few hours to respond. Let it percolate and respond when you feel ready—don’t respond immediately.
  5. When you do choose to write a response, speak to the underlying emotion. If there is disturbing or strong painful or negative language, acknowledge it but don’t react. Phrases like “I’m sorry you feel that way” and “I appreciate your sharing how you feel with me” can be helpful.
  6. If you have personal experience with what the person seems to be experiencing you could offer that, if that feels right. This might be better to do in person or on the phone. Don’t be preachy, but speak from the heart about your experience. Take a stance of empathy, gentleness and openness.
  7. After you “send” this, and if you receive a response, then really listen, feel and “take” their response. Again, in person or phone contact may be preferable at this point.

If you feel that it’s appropriate to the situation–though oftentimes, personal experience speaks more loudly than what teachers have to say—it can also be helpful to share a teaching that has inspired you. I personally find a lot of inspiration in quotes from Pema Chodron, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the Dalai Lama.  Some of my favorite quotes for tough situations are:

Awareness is the key. Do we see the stories that we’re telling ourselves and question their validity? When we are distracted by strong emotion, do we remember that it is our path? Can we feel the emotion and breathe it into our hearts for ourselves and everyone else? 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.
—Pema Chodron

“Openness is not a matter of giving something to someone else, but it means giving up your demand and the basic criteria of the demand…It is learning to trust in the fact that you do not need to secure your ground, learning to trust in our fundamental richness, that you can afford to be open. This is the open way. If you give up your psychological attitude of ‘demand,’ then basic health begins to evolve…”
—Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

How do you bring your meditation practice into your daily life?  What does meditation in action look like for you? Feel free to comment!

Katherine BierceKatharine Bierce cares about helping technology serve humanity. Her career has included work in startups, nonprofits, and large tech companies. In her free time, she enjoys practicing and teaching yoga, hiking, cooking and meditation. You can find her on Twitter: @kbierce and @BizCasualYoga

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