Following the publication of Training in Tenderness: Buddhist Teachings on Tsewa, the Radical Openness of Heart That Can Change the World (Shambhala 2018) by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher sat down for a conversation with the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, who wrote the forward to his book.
In the video interview, Ani Pema and Dzigar Kongtrul discuss the innate tenderness of our hearts called tsewa in Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhist teachings say that we can uncover and cultivate this aspect of our nature, making us more compassionate and feel more connected to others.
In the following excerpt from their talk, Dzigar Kongtrul explains how tsewa training helped him overcome feelings of alienation during periods of his life when he struggled with depression. He also tells us how we can cultivate affection toward ourselves and others when it is most elusive.
Watch the full video here, courtesy of Dzigar Kongtrul’s Mangala Shri Bhuti sangha, which recorded the conversation in Crestone, Colorado.
Pema Chödrön (PC): I remember reading once that receiving tsewa is like a transmission—in the sense that if you receive it, then you know how to give it. But when you don’t receive any, it’s difficult to know how to give it. In Buddhism, and as you say in your book, the “mother’s love” is the reason why you flourished and why you’re still alive. If no one had ever cared for you, then you wouldn’t be here. But I’ve encountered a tragic number of people who never received this kind of love. Something allowed them to survive and someone gave them nourishment, but they often experienced abandonment and cruelty as well.
That brings up two questions for me. The first is, how do you develop tsewa when you don’t have it? And the other question is about people whose lives have not presented them with any tsewa—what is their potential?
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche (DKR): I understand what you are saying because I’ve also met a number of people who say that they have not received much love in their youth or childhood. They have some trauma, and they have some blockage in expressing warmth toward others. That’s a very challenging thing to overcome.
Yet at the same time, I think if there is an aspiration to have the warmth of an open heart, or open mind—perhaps not toward everyone, but at least toward some people like one’s own children or family—then that, in itself, is an expression of that warmth. That [aspiration] is sown as a seed that you have to really appreciate. You want that kind of happiness for yourself, and you want that kind of happiness to be able to express itself as tsewa toward others. To do so, you have to kind of think about where you already feel warmth.
I don’t think it has to be in the traditional sense, as in affection for your parents. If you do have [a feeling of warmth] toward your parents, that’s one way you could develop tsewa. From there you could move on to spread that [tsewa] toward others. But if you had a traumatic relationship with your parents, then you have to investigate somewhere else you might feel that warmth. It could even be with non-human beings. It could be with, let’s say, pets. If you don’t have pets, what do you have in your life that makes you feel that kind of love and care? Perhaps a flower, or some other inanimate thing. All that we need is a sample of how [tsewa] feels in one’s heart.
Try to do some research into when and how you feel that warmth. Try to deeply notice and deeply experience that feeling in your heart. Then, in the areas of your life where you want to spread tsewa, see first whether you can hold those beings in your mind. At the same time, see whether or not you can access that feeling of warmth.
Related: Nurturing the Intelligent Heart
At first, this feeling may seem tied to the particular thing that makes you feel this way. You may think I only feel tsewa from this one condition or object, but when you have the aspiration for tsewa, that in itself ensures that this feeling of warmth is capable of spreading. In order for this aspiration to be truly successful, there has to be joy—the joy to practice more, which comes from positively knowing how tsewa touches you on a very personal level. So you should cherish when you’re able to feel tsewa in your heart, and notice how that feeling elevates your life, your mood, and your way of relating with the world and others in general. Through this practice, you might be surprised to learn that you feel that warmth in many different areas of your life.
PC: What about people who can’t bring themselves to make the aspiration because of deep depression, for instance? What if someone who had a traumatic childhood (or can’t immediately access feelings of tenderness for another reason) follows your instructions and feels I have warmth for this plant or I have warmth for this animal, but then they can’t bring themselves to make the extra effort to allow that aspiration to grow and flourish and benefit others?
DKR: A lot of people stop trying to cultivate tsewa when they feel that it’s not possible to go beyond [their initial feeling]. They don’t have a strong motivation or will to go beyond their perceived limitations. They know that they are limiting themselves, but they don’t want to cross over, or they don’t want to try to cross over. Yet, we all continue to live day-to-day and, in some way, care for our well-being. We’re not going to stop eating, for example, and we’re not going to stop breathing. Knowing this, we can try to discern what we do to nurture ourselves and what makes us happier. If we actually see that tsewa is the source of our happiness, then we might find more motivation.
You might not immediately become a lovey-dovey or warm, embracing person. You might feel shy, embarrassed, or a little awkward, or think it’s too corny. But when you can see how it deeply touches your own core and helps you become a much happier person, then [those feelings of discomfort] become secondary.
With depression in particular, one of the causes is feeling disconnected.
PC: With other people, with everything.
DKR: Including one’s own heart. You feel alienated. To break out of that, you have to feel connected, feel part of the bigger world. What could be better than having some tsewa brought into one’s life?
PC: From the outside, you mean?
DKR: From the inside. Warmth for one’s own happiness can be a remedy for depression, for disconnection and alienation. Tsewa can really do that. Depression has many other causes, but if you are feeling this type of depression, tsewa could provide a way to turn that feeling around.
When I had some experiences of depression, I’d try to remember something that warmed my heart. An event, relation, something that I did that filled my heart with warmth, even if it was just a memory. That can really lift up the depression. Then, I tried to recall that [feeling] more, and more, and more. It was very helpful for myself to break through that density of the depression.
You don’t have to necessarily feel connected with everyone in the world, like in bodhisattva training. Even when you feel connected with someone or something for a moment, you feel lifted up from that kind of depression, and you feel less alienated.
I think, generally, people are stubborn in their depression; I often notice people feel that their depression is unique, that it’s un-overcome-able, and that nobody knows the way they feel. These are very common symptoms of depression.
PC: I have a student who has serious, chronic depression. It lifts sometimes, but it comes back over and over. So, her doctor recommended that she adopt a little dog, who is trained to work with people with severe depression. Having the little dog already brings that tsewa in, because, of course, she loves the little dog. She also says that the dog knows when she’s going into depression before she does. Somehow the dog picks up on it energetically before she even realizes that she’s sinking down into it, and starts to calm her by jumping on her lap or asking to be petted. Isn’t that wonderful?
DKR: I think that’s a great example of tsewa. I think especially because he’s a vulnerable and petite dog, you can easily feel your natural tender heart for him. Most of all it brings out your own love or care. Then, if you could look beyond dogs, to ask, what else brings that out of you? It’s a more proactive way to feel that connection and warmth.
You can practice with memories, too.
PC: Right, like you were saying, to think back. I think that’s wonderful.
DKR: Also, imagining something in the future that is better than the present condition. Both can work. One is more imaginative—it has not really happened—and the other has happened, but the memory may have faded.
When we do get depressed, there are a lot of times our mind and our heart are closing down and contracting—contracting with fear, with insecurities, and with the sense of our own negative thinking. These thoughts can get the better of us. When that’s happening, we can switch into more simple methods of staying open mentally and emotionally, at the heart level.
[Edited for brevity and clarity.]
Pema Chödrön will give a public talk on July 17th from Mangala Shri Bhuti’s Nyingma Summer Seminar. You can register for the VOD of her talk here or find more information on Nyingma Summer Seminar, Mangala Shri Bhuti, or Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s book, Training in Tenderness, here.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.