Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist practice of giving and receiving. You take in the suffering and pain of others, and breathe out love, compassion and understanding. It’s a very powerful practice that uses visualisation to develop compassion and unconditional love for all. Tonglen is practised for others, but it can also be done for yourself. In fact, it’s a good idea to start with yourself, especially if you feel you need healing.
It is extremely powerful and can be overwhelming, so it’s best not to practise if you’re feeling too vulnerable. Use other forms of meditation to work with your extreme emotions, such as self-hatred or grief, and 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 regaining 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.
- Focus on any problems you’re having and bring difficult emotions into your awareness.
- Breathe into the problems and take them into your heart. Visualise them being dissolved and transformed. As you breath out, see them pour out as joy and compassion, luminosity and fearlessness.
- 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 calming 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 back to them. Visualise it pouring into their heart as white light or something similar.
- Continue for a few minutes with this practise, 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 you return 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 quoted by Andrew Harvey 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.