Get Out of Sync: Noncomplementarity & Tonglen

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One of the most terrifying experiences I’ve ever had was on the streets of Boston’s North End. I wasn’t mugged and no mafia bosses wanted me to sleep with the fishes, but it scared the life out of me just the same.

On a Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I were double-parked in front of our apartment so we could unload our car. As much as Bostonians love hockey, football, and baseball, their two favorite sports are double parking and yelling at each other for double parking. So it was no surprise that a man in a Jeep pulled into our street and yelled about how stupid we were for parking like that. What was surprising was when my boyfriend, John, said something back to him, the guy jumped out of his car, flew across the sidewalk and smacked John in the face.

As scary and upsetting as this was, it was only then that the truly terrifying thing happened: I. Lost. My. Mind.

In a flash of white hot rage, I ran up to the man, got inches from his face, and screamed at him about his cowardice and lack of intellectual acuity (not my actual words). I bumped his chest with mine. I told him what a craven loser I thought he was. I dared him to hit me. He didn’t. Instead, he spit some hot words and drove away.

What terrified me wasn’t the angry Boston driver. It was me. I had no idea I had a lunatic living just under my skin. No idea about the fire in me that could be released so fast. It wasn’t the fight with a stranger but my own explosive fury that scared the bejeezus out of me.

Compare my story with one of my favorites from “Flip the Script,” an episode in the latest season of the Invisibilia podcast*: two families gather on a summer night on a backyard terrace for dinner and celebration. In the midst of their happy evening, a man walks into their midst with a gun. He points it at one of the women and tells them that if they don’t give him all their money, he will shoot her. But the group was outside, having a meal. No one had any money. None. The gunman didn’t believe them and ramped up his threats.

Then a woman at the table spoke up. “Will you have a glass of wine with us?”

Her question disarmed him in every sense. He put down his gun, had a glass of wine, ate a little cheese and asked for a hug. He thanked them and quietly left, gently setting his empty glass on the steps as he walked away.

Psychologists call the woman’s offer of wine noncomplementarity or doing the opposite of what the other is doing. The most natural response in any interaction is complementary behavior: to treat the other person as they treat you. If they are kind, it’s most natural to be kind back. If they are aggressive to you, well, remember me and the Boston guy?

But sometimes, the most powerful thing to do is noncomplementary: to get out of sync with the other.

Noncomplemenarity isn’t easy. It requires us to override our natural instinct and intuition. And as the Invisibilia story (ans any nonviolent protest from Gandhi to civil rights) points out, making that unnatural choice can completely turn situations around.

Buddhists call it tonglen: a practice which Pema Chödrön describes as “…a method for connecting with suffering—ours and that which is all around us…. a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart.”
(read a helpful article about tonglen by Ani Pema here.)

Simply stated, tonglen is the practice of breathing in suffering and breathing out ease for that suffering. (Do a short tonglen practice with her here.)

My favorite description of tonglen and the one I return to over and over comes from the book How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach**. In it, we imagine suffering as inky black tar around the heart of another. As we breathe in, we draw the sticky black suffering out of their heart and pull it into the flame of our own heart which explodes the blackness into white light.

We can practice tonglen or noncomplementarity whenever we encounter suffering: in our own bodies or minds, in relationships with our nearest or with strangers, in our communities and organizations, and in animals and the environment, in countries and the world. Instead of meeting suffering with suffering, instead of turning away, meet suffering with the heat and light of the heart.

The fire that exploded in me on that Boston street was instinct and reflex. I regret it as it felt terrible and did nothing to put more love into the world. Although I haven’t witnessed that kind of attack since then, I see and am aware suffering every single day. I do my best to practice and breathe and use my flame as best I can.

It doesn’t always work. I can still get lit up with all kinds of complementarity especially when I see someone inflicting suffering on someone else. But I practice now with the intention of using my fire more skillfully to burn away suffering’s black toxic tar wherever it is happening.


* Did you click on the link to the Invisibilia show? The whole episode is great but at the very least, listen to the actual participants tell the story. Click here.

** I’ve included the complete passage from How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach here as it is visceral and powerful. May it be of benefit.

“’Inside your heart is a tiny red flame, like the flame at the top of a candle. This flame is the power of our selfishness – the habit we have of taking care of ourselves first, and neglecting what others need or want….Look into the Sergeant’s heart. Right there in the middle is a dark, rotten little pool of blackness. It is his sadness, it is his pain; it is the reason why he drinks, and it is his drinking….You want to take this pain away from him, forever. It’s the compassion we spoke about before; it is the real reason why you are doing yoga. And you decide that you want to take his black pain away so badly that you would even take it into yourself, if it meant you could save him from it….And so you begin to take say seven long, slow breaths. The first time you breathe in, that little evil pool of darkness in the center of the Sergeant’s heart stirs and moves; it starts to rise up out of his body, like an ugly cloud of blackness. And as you take more breaths it is sucked up out of his chest, up his throat, and then out of his nostrils. And knowing you would take it on yourself to save him from it, you take all his drunken misery in that little cloud of darkness and you keep breathing it in, and in again, drawing it towards your own face. And then hold it there, just outside your own nostrils….And now something will happen; it will happen a little quickly and so you have to concentrate well upon this part. In one breath you will suck the blackness in through your own nose; you will take it upon yourself. The blackness will come down your throat, into your chest and then slowly – very slowly – it will approach the little red flame of your selfishness: the part of you that would never even imagine taking away someone else’s pain, if it meant having it yourself instead. And the blackness floats slowly towards the edge of the flame, and then suddenly the black makes contact with the red, and there is a burst of beautiful golden light, like a bolt of lightning shining in the purest gold. And in that moment, because you are willing, in that moment, to swallow all the Sergeant’s pain into yourself, the crimson fire of your own selfishness is extinguished, forever. It is gone. And in this explosion too the blackness of the Sergeant’s pain is destroyed: destroyed for him, destroyed for you, destroyed forever. For this is the power, the power of the grace of selfless compassion for others.” (How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach pp 93-95)

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5 comments
  1. Pam said:

    Great post! I resonated with your surprise at your own anger. I loved that Invisibilia episode too and wondered if I would have responded like that and thought is was probably unlikely. Your post also reminded me of the story of the former white supremacist Derek Black, who went to New College, where Manu now teaches and came to completely change his views after being invited to weekly Shabbat dinners. Really an incredible challenge to us all in these times to reach out with love rather than hostility: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derek-black/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html

    • Wow, Pam, that’s an incredible and moving article. I’ll post it on the FP Facebook page so others can see it easily. May we all find the courage to turn toward suffering. ❤

  2. Liz Forney said:

    Grateful for your writing and moving the conversation forward! May we all move slowly enough and with enough presence to choose our response.

    • Amen to that. Presence is essential as is a willing to feel. ❤

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