Healing with Atisha’s Heart Meditation

Healing & Meditation

Nirbija shares a meditation he loves doing: breathing in sorrow, breathing out joy.

Meditator with Buddha statue

Starting with one’s own miseries and wounds

In Osho’s discourses collected in The Book of Wisdom: Talks on Atisha’s Seven Points of Mind Training, he describes a real jewel: breathing into the heart as a meditative technique to transform suffering. In Tibetan Buddhism it is known as tonglen and means Giving-Taking. The eminent 11th-century Master, Atisha, made it one of Tibet’s timeless gifts to the world.

The method is simple: You breathe in suffering and send blessings and compassion with your out-breath. This technique is often described as a method to take in the suffering of the world. Osho points out that it is important to start with one’s own miseries and wounds. For me it has become a helpful tool and I will focus in this article on self-compassion.

“And before you can do this with the whole of existence, you will have to start first with yourself. This is one of the fundamental secrets of inner growth. You cannot do anything with others that you have not done in the first place with yourself. Whatsoever you can do with others, you must have done to yourself before, because that is the only thing that you can share. You can share only that which you have; you cannot share that which you don’t have.”

Osho, The Book of Wisdom, Ch 5 – longer excerpt

The CD: Osho Heart Meditation

Atisha’s Heart Meditation started a new life as an Osho meditation CD in the 1990s. It was a great idea to structure the traditional technique into four stages, accompanied by three musical tracks. It made the meditation more inviting and accessible to practise. (It is I think unfortunate that the reference to Atisha, which we find in the Orange Book for example, got lost in the birth process.)

I immediately fell in love with the heart-warming soundtracks composed by Kai. He artfully plays on string instruments and creates a welcoming space like a womb for the meditator, allowing intimacy and inspiring trust.

The 50-minute meditation is divided into stage one (5 min): breathing in and out through the heart chakra; stage two (15 min): breathing in our misery and letting it be transformed; stage three (15 min): including all the people; stage four (15 min): coming back to ourselves, lying down and being still.

Detailed instructions: Osho Heart Meditation

My personal experience with self-compassion

I have come to know myself over my sannyas years as a wounded being, in spite of all the healing groups and therapies that I have done. A harsh word, a condemnation, a fear can still trigger old wounds. These deeply ingrained patterns and memories in my neuronal system are a great chance for self-compassion. Like a mother caring for her crying child, I can go into these feelings with acceptance and understanding.

Atisha’s Heart Meditation was a major healing force for me in a recent challenging encounter. I will describe it in time lapse as an example. In an already unfriendly conversation with my neighbour Mrs. C., I was mistakenly condemned for something I did not do. I burst into a fit of anger. For days, I tried to figure out what had happened.

Looking deeper into my unconscious reaction I remembered that I had asked Osho once about a similar anger attack. I got back a little letter explaining: “Anger arises as a protection against pain. So every pain is suppressed by anger – layers and layers of anger on pain. Just watch, step by step …”. He advised me to dig deeper, like creating a well in the earth, till finally “….clean, pure pain will be available. And pure pain is tremendously beautiful because it will give you another birth immediately.”

Osho's answer to Nirbija

The heart meditation now became my inner spade. I explored my angry outburst with the help of ‘riding the breath’. Memories of being accused and punished in my childhood came up. With the in-breath, I visualized my five-year-old boy self being condemned and found guilty. With the out-breath I imagined this child being surrounded by a golden, warm light and gave him all my love and friendship. Listening to Kai’s music was so touching and comforting. With every out-breath I was holding this innocent child’s hand. The angry feelings vanished. Instead, the pain experienced by the child in me triggered tears of compassion.

When the music switched to the third stage I focused on Mrs. C. Recognizing and taking in her misinterpretation, exhaustion and loneliness with my in-breath, understanding arose in me. With my out-breath I sincerely wished her well. When we met again days later, I apologized for my screaming at her. She started crying and expressed how sorry she was, too. We made peace.

Pema Chödrön, a contemporary Buddhist teacher of tonglen and an abbess in the USA, describes tonglen in her excellent instructional book on Atisha’s meditation as the way to make friends with yourself and others. That is exactly its miraculous power. Two months later, Mrs. C. unexpectedly became partially paralysed. She had to undergo an operation to remove a tumour on her upper spine. I felt so thankful that we had cleared up our encounter and I could then wholeheartedly wish her healing and strength.

Facilitating the heart meditation

At Osho Parimal in Germany we used to facilitate Atisha’s Heart Meditation during meditation camps. It was a real treasure for our weekend gatherings. Even newcomers practised it easily. For all of us it was so uplifting to sit in a room with many friends pouring out our heart energy. And there were tears, too.

Already in the first stage we can choose a specific hurt or suffering that we feel in this moment or that we remember. But we do not start with something overwhelming or traumatic. And, because focussing on our wounds needs strength and dedication, it is helpful to warm up our ‘spiritual heart’ by remembering Osho or the spiritual guides of our tradition. This supports us to create a strong motivation to heal ourselves and others.

Participants shared that while sending out and taking in, it was difficult to synchronize the in/out breath with the visualization or the sentence. Yes, it is possible to make as many relaxed in-between breaths as we need. But being already familiar with breath awareness is helpful. Pema Chödrön suggests practising Giving-Taking together with sitting in Vipassana, so that a slow breath rhythm can be established.

Remembering one’s miseries and creating compassion towards them does not require one to suffer or be angry again. Neuroscience has found that sending out feelings of love, understanding and care makes our bodies warm and relaxed. Sometimes tears come up, but more as a relief rather than as a catharsis. Try to feel hurts or irritations with the in-breath, and joy, gratefulness and light with the out-breath.

In this technique, suffering is traditionally visualized as something like dark smoke. This image can help us focus our awareness on the misery before us. It is just a symbol we give to something invisible in order to approach it and bring it closer. Can imagining taking in black smoke be harmful? No, and a doubtful participant will soon find that out for her or himself. If the visualization is difficult, you can use a sentence describing your feelings. In a self-compassion session, for example, you can say “Breathing in, I feel my anger, I feel misunderstood.”

In the third stage, we move from self-compassion to bodhicitta, compassion towards others.
Self-compassion can be so healing and nourishing that in this stage we might feel strong
enough to face the suffering of another person. For example, you can say or visualize: “Breathing in, I am aware of the suffering of my neighbour in hospital.” Breathing out, you can practise visualizing light pouring out of your heart. In our Western psychological understanding, we send out feelings of friendliness, the motivation to heal and a change of perspective: “To stand in the shoes of the other.”

In the last stage, let all visualizations and sentences evaporate. Atisha advises us: “Don’t expect results.” And Pem Chödrön suggests accordingly that this technique, tonglen, is a practice for the rest of our lives.

One of the facilitators for Atisha’s Heart Meditation at Osho Parimal is Samarpan Johanna. She came to the commune long ago after raising a family and leaving behind a banking career. She coordinated our diverse bunch of meditators in the Meditation Department for years with aristocratic grace. Right now, she is a member of the community council of the village, which had to deal with the erection of huge windmills and a Covid-19 lockdown in and around Hübenthal. I asked her how Atisha’s technique supports her:

“Well, when we open up to the sorrows and needs of our families, friends, neighbours, the village, the city, the whole world, our hearts widen. We feel love, compassion and empathy for all living beings. Whoever practises Atisha’s Heart Meditation for some time, will experience that their heart becomes more and more sensitive and compassionate. This is urgently needed in a world dominated by the mind. At the same time, I am becoming increasingly aware of what hurts me and what I should avoid. The heart has a magic capacity to transform sorrow into joy. Whenever I realize that my heart is hurting, is sad or full of sorrow, just a few conscious breaths help me to lighten my heart and to feel joy again.”

Osho says:

“If you are unconditionally taking in all the suffering in the world, drinking it, absorbing it in your heart, and then instead of it, pouring blessings onto the whole of existence unconditionally – not to somebody in particular, remember; not only to man but to all: to all beings, trees and rocks and birds and animals, to the whole existence, material, immaterial – when you are pouring out blessings unconditionally, how can you be attached? Attachment, aversion, indifference: all disappear with this small technique. And with their disappearance the poison is transformed into nectar, and the bondage becomes freedom, and the hell is no more a hell, it is heaven. In these moments you come to know: “This very body the Buddha, this very earth the lotus paradise.”

Osho, The Book of Wisdom, Ch 2 (excerpt)

Sources and related articles

Nirbija is a writer, facilitator of Osho’s meditations, and enjoys life in the countryside.

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