"In practice, tonglen is a frontal assault on the defenses of the ego-self. Ego is a tenuous construction of thought, and therefore vulnerable to counter-thought. Because of its contrived nature, ego can't allow even the slightest doubt to threaten the credibility of its own self-view, sustaining itself by a more or less constant vigilance against the mental infiltration of discordant contradiction. Ego's defensive strategy is one of entertaining only those thoughts favorable to its continuation, admitting what serves this purpose and excluding what doesn't, subsisting entirely on the basis of acknowledging only what's wanted and studiously ignoring what isn't. The practice of tonglen, with its pattern of taking and sending, reverses this situation and thereby defeats ego's essential strategy.
"In defending its worth, ego depends on the tactic of favorably comparing itself to others, a sort of 'I'm glad I'm not like that!' perception of the world. Such a tactic, one so selective with its sympathies, forfeits the capacity for compassionate response. If I'm unwilling to identify with who you happen to be and what you happen to be doing or experiencing, I lose the essential basis for empathic understanding. Tonglen offers a way out of such self-imprisoning incapacity and teaches one how to relate to the suffering of others.
"With the continued practice of tonglen, the division marking the boundary of self and other falls away and your person and situation becomes my person and situation. And when that happens, I move beyond isolated identity and awaken to the radically integrated identity of all beings, human and otherwise, sentient and non-sentient. In 1976, a poem by Native American activist Ila Abernathy was published in Akwesasne Notes that speaks to this awakening:
"I am grass growing and the shearer of grass,
I am the willow and the splitter of laths,
weaver and the thing woven,
marriage of willow and grass.
I am frost on the land and the land's life,
breath and beast and the sharp rock underfoot;
in me the mountain lives, and the owl strikes,
and I in them. I am the sun's twin,
mover of blood, and the blood lost,
I am the deer and the deer's death;
I am the burr in your conscience:
"If I am 'the sun's twin,' am I not as well twin to the shopper with a package in hand crossing the intersection at Fifth and Broadway, the father picking his daughter up at Chico High, the nurse at Enloe Hospital fitting an IV to the arm of a patient, an old man at Sycamore Pool wishing for something to eat not found between two slices of bread?
"While it might seem strange to lose the little separate person I have mistaken myself to be and find myself dispersed into my surroundings in this way, it's a loss that sets isolated longing to rest. Compassion breath is a journey of will into the heart of another only to find there your own heart, which is all our hearts."