Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist practice of meditation. The word means ‘giving and taking’, or sending and receiving. The practice involves taking in the suffering and pain of others, and then breathing out love, compassion and understanding. It’s a powerful practice that uses visualisation to help you develop compassion and unconditional love for all.
The practise of breathing in the suffering and pain of others seems to be a crazy thing to do. But it’s really about moving towards the things you would normally avoid, such as painful feelings. Avoiding a painful experience doesn’t make it go away; it just gets buried in the unconscious and causes problems for you and others. So tonglen is a way to make friends with your mind and the things that scare you.
Tonglen is practised on behalf of others but it can also be done for yourself. In fact, it’s a good idea to start the practice with yourself, especially if you need some healing – and most of us need a little more love! It’s extremely powerful and can be overwhelming, so it’s best to not do it if you’re feeling too vulnerable. Use other forms of meditation to work with your extreme emotions first, such as self-hatred or grief. When you’re feeling stronger, you can return to practising tonglen.
The basic technique is to accept on the in breath and let go on the out breath. Tonglen can be practised in meditation but it can also be performed whenever you sense the need for it, such as when watching the news or dealing with challenging situations.
- Brings suffering into the heart of your practice for healing
- Helps you to stay present in difficult situations
- Develops compassion for yourself and others
Practise with the intention of healing your attitude towards yourself and with the aim of restoring your sense of wholeness. Inhale your own conflicted emotions, negativity, and suffering, and exhale compassion, love and joy directed at yourself.
- Sit in meditation on a cushion or chair. Or you can practise this whenever and wherever you feel you need it. Relax and focus on your breath. Spend five minutes or so calming your mind and preparing.
- When you’re ready, drop all your attachments and let go into stillness. Allow the spaciousness of your true nature to dissolve everything. If it help, visualise your mind as a clear sky or outer space.
- Breathe in the suffering of any problems you’re having and take them into your heart. Visualise them being dissolved into the open space of the sky.
- Breathe out peace and spaciousness and compassion.
- Continue to breathe in darkness, restriction, frustration, heaviness, stress, and tension – and breathe out relaxation, letting go, surrender and compassion.
- Continue for as long as you feel you need to.
- Sit in meditation on a cushion or chair. Relax and focus on your breath. Spend five minutes or so practising mindfulness to calm your mind and preparing.
- Select someone to be the focus of your practice, someone who needs compassion and healing. Imagine them clearly and see their pain and suffering.
- Breathe in their pain and suffering, taking it into your heart. If it helps, visualise the suffering as a dark cloud or something similar, pouring from their solar plexus or belly and into your heart.
- Breathe out love, compassion, hope and joy, sending it back to them. Visualise it pouring into their heart as white light or something similar.
- Continue for a few minutes with this practice, then turn your attention to the whole planet. Perform the same healing: breathe in the suffering of the world and breathe out compassion and love. Visualise it any way that helps.
- At the end of the session, spend a few minutes focusing on your breath before returning to your day.
It’s a good idea to dedicate this meditation to the benefit of all sentient beings before you begin and when you finish. It’s also important to remember something Andrew Harvey says in The Direct Path:
“Never be afraid that if you breathe in someone’s pain that it will somehow ‘get stuck’ in you. Remember that there is nowhere in you for it to get stuck; in your essence, you are the boundless space of Buddha-consciousness.”
Don’t underestimate the power of this meditation. It can have extremely transformative effects. Whenever you feel powerless to help others who are undergoing some calamity somewhere in the world, such as war, famine, or extreme hardship, remember that you can always practise Tonglen. Don’t think for a second that it’ll make no difference. It will and it does.
Tonglen forms part of a larger practice called lojong, which means ‘mind training’, that uses 59 slogans to train the mind. You can find out more about lojong and how to apply it to writing and creativity in my book: Free Your Pen: Mind Training for Writers or visit the Free Your Pen blog to explore the slogans.