Using Tonglen in Anti-Oppression Pedagogy to Encourage “Being in It” rather than “Getting It" by Tracy L. Davis, Ph.D.

There’s a scene in the movie Garden State where Natalie Portman’s character exclaims, “You’re really in it” as Zach Braff portrays someone beginning to feel more sentient coming out of a long-term, lithium-induced haze.  This phrase, to me, serves as enthusiastic recognition of someone working the space between the anxiety of existence and sheer exhilaration of being alive.  No longer disconnected from the emotions related to human consciousness and feeling, Braff’s character successfully faces the demons he previously avoided by increasingly “being in it”.

In our culture we seem to have an endless stream of strategies to numb or otherwise avoid the uneasiness of facing existential realities, difficult people, personal issues and so-called “problems” of the day.  While I acknowledge some individuals need medication to support them, I also believe we too readily anesthize ourselves through drugs, alcohol, social media, television, and a whole range of activities, including blaming others, which assist in avoiding discomfort and tension.  In other words, we promote “being out of it”.

Tension, however, appears to be key to evolution and anti-oppression work.  Human development scholars talk about the value of conflict in providing fuel for growth (Kegan, 1994; Marcia, 1966; Perry, 1970).  Too little conflict and we tend to remain comfortable with the status quo, too much conflict and we become overwhelmed and seek safety like a turtle in its shell.  Educators generally, therefore, seek an optimal balance that simultaneously challenges and supports.  This balance can be difficult to effectively maintain given the complexities of people and their various cognitive, affective and interpersonal abilities, as well as intersecting, mutually-shaping and dynamic identities.  I’ve made mistakes throughout my career performing either too much challenge or not enough, which is particularly true in my attempts at anti-oppression pedagogy and social justice practice.

I am at my best when I remember that I am also “in it.” Like Braff’s character, I can become impervious to the dynamic social field between me and another person.  Having learned the pain and material impact of oppression, I am primed and ready to attack even the most remote human manifestation of sexism, racism, or other forms of systematic domination. I am, in other words, ready to take inventory and condescend – as if I am the holder of Truth and it’s my job to correct another.  The central problem with this stance is that it is rarely effective in making the change I seek.

Fortunately, I was recently introduced to something called Tonglen practice in the book Contemplative Practices in Higher Education and by a video I discovered from well-known Buddhist Nun Pema Chodoron.

My focus in this essay is learning to “be in it” or effectively in the space between our own position and another’s through a technique taught by Pima Chodoron known as “Tonglen” practice. Tonglen is one of those Zen or Buddhist methods that seems appears intellectually seductively simple, yet proves very difficult to authentically and deeply bring mind and body together in order to effectively practice.  To practice Tonglen, we breathe in slowly and deeply as we mindfully request/wish to take another’s pain away, and breathe out compassionately to send joy or whatever would relieve pain.  Try it a few times.  Think of someone whose perspective, behavior or inappropriate statement has frustrated you.  Then, slowly breathe in seeking empathic understanding and exhale compassion toward that person. As Buddhism suggests, empirical expression is necessary to bring the body mind in synch with the cognitive mind.  I find that my thoughts can easily critique and dismiss deeper consciousness like the autocorrect on my Iphone.  The default implementation of my “Western” rationality needs to be mindfully balanced to access this practice.

I tend to practice Tonglen when I am met with situations that challenge my social justice sensibilities, like an expression of sexism or ignorance around a harmful policy that fails to account for human heterogeneity.   Rather than jumping to a corrective stance or judgmentally condescending to another person, I attempt to create space with my breath; breathing in the possible ignorance, pain or insensitivity that may have caused it.  I then breathe out compassion, remembering that I too have been blinded by the haze of hegemony and need to seek ways to respectfully explore the space between us that balances support and challenge.

I’ve found that this isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds.  My mind finds defensible rationales for putting another person in his or her place:  institutional oppression will never change until we all attack its manifestations…they deserved to be shamed because their behavior was shameful…I am simply providing an opportunity for them to learn, etc.  As bell hooks suggests in her talk at the Mind, Body and Soul - Women of Color Conference Keynote:

when we take on a the binary of bad and good guys, … we actually keep dominator culture in place.  For one aspect of that culture is the projection outward onto an enemy whenever things go wrong.  Casting blame is a crucial component of dominator’s thinking, it helps promote the culture of victimization.  When we are more energized by the practice of blaming than we are by efforts to create transformation we not only cannot find relief from suffering, we are creating the conditions that help keep us stuck in the status quo… Any critical examination of the history of civil rights in the United States will show that greater progress was made when leaders emphasized the importance of forgiving one’s enemies, working for reconciliation and the formation of beloved community over angry retaliation.


The practice of Tonglen helps dissolve the duality between right and wrong or good and bad to not only more authentically engage another human being, but also to more effectively make progress toward creating the kind of world in which I want to live.  I begin to model what I desire in myself and others.  It reminds me of Gandhi’s exhortation to “be the change”.

Another nuance that has helped me more effectively practice Tonglen is the distinction between “sitting with it” and “being in it.”.  I’ve heard many student affairs professionals encourage others to “sit with it” when they encounter someone who is experiencing development-oriented tension.  I think this instinct is good as it challenges the natural comfort-seeking and avoidance behaviors discussed earlier in this essay.  However, sitting conjures up passivity.  Being in the moment, being with someone else, or even being with your own thoughts signals a shift toward active engagement that is not focused simply thinking about whatever “it” is.  “Being with it”, for me, engages mind and body, thought and action in a manner that offsets the ego (or thinker of thoughts) so that the rational mind is quieted in favor of an openness to explore the emptiness created.  This mindful opening of space, in my experience, has been more effective in creating the kind of relationship necessary for promoting healthy change aimed at mutual liberation.


Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

DeVito, D., Shamberg, M., & Sher, S. (Producers), & Braff, Z. (Director). (2004). Garden state [Motion Picture]. United States: Double Feature Films.

Marcia, J. (1966). Development and validation of ego-identity status. Journal of

Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 551-559.

Perry, W. G. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. Troy, MO: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.


Tracy Davis Photo.JPG

Tracy serves as Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at Western Illinois University where he also coordinates the College Student Personnel Program. In 2011 he began serving as Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Masculinities and Men's Development.  He has published widely regarding men’s development, sexual assault prevention and social justice. Dr. Davis’s most recent book Advancing Social Justice was published in 2013. His sexual assault prevention work has won numerous awards including both ACPA and NASPA’s outstanding dissertation award. He recently was selected as an ACPA Senior Scholar. Tracy has served as Assistant Director of Student Activities at the University of Iowa and as Program Coordinator for the Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development. He is a frequent presenter, speaker and consultant on college campuses. Most importantly, he remains wildly unfinished.