Tonglen practice for awakening compassion

Children have an innate capacity for generating kindness towards others.

One of my favorite meditation practices is Tonglen and a well-known teacher of this practice is Pema Chödrön.  The word tonglen comes from Tibetan language and translates as giving and taking. Tong means giving or sending, and len means receiving or taking. Pema explains that in tonglen practice “we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we … begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.” In basic terms, tonglen meditation uses visualization and breath-focus to transform negative energy into positive.

I first learned about tonglen during a meditation-leader program at Sage Institute for Creativity and Consciousness from which I graduated in 2021. I was so intrigued with tonglen that my final paper was about comparing the practice to the heart language found in poetry. 

Historically, tonglen originated in India and was brought to Tibet around the 11th century as a way to help those who were suffering from serious diseases, and also so people might heal themselves so they could continue to help others. 

Tonglen is similar to Loving Kindness (Mettà) in that we are using the transformative power of the heart to channel healing. Although the overall intention of these practices is similar, tonglen is different in that we actually welcome suffering into our hearts. We feel the pain and sadness before allowing the heart to feel compassion and extending it outward into the world.

Compassion is not the same as empathy. A working definition of compassion says it is “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” Empathy is “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” (greatergood.berkeley.edu) So, we can understand the subtle difference to be that empathy is an ability to understand another’s emotions, whereas with compassion we also desire to relieve their suffering.

Pema explains the compassion practice further: “Usually, we look away when we see someone suffering. Their pain brings up our fear or anger; it brings up our resistance and confusion. So we can also do tonglen for all the people just like ourselves—all those who wish to be compassionate but instead are afraid, who wish to be brave but instead are cowardly. Rather than beating ourselves up, we can use our personal stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world. Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.”

The following short tonglen practice can be offered for those who are ill, those who are dying or have already passed, or those people in pain of any kind. Although this is a shortened version, tonglen is traditionally an extended meditation practice.

Tonglen practice for families and groups. Young children can be invited to draw during this practice and use their creativity to channel compassion.

  1. Sitting in stillness with eyes closed. Generate open awareness as you watch the breath go in and out, inviting the desire to fully awaken to compassion. Bring your attention to the heart and welcome feelings of love – this could be a golden light, an image of the Buddha, a “feel-good” being, or just an overall feeling of warmth. You may also choose to place your hands on your heart.
  2. Visualization of a person’s suffering using the breath and sensations. Breathing in and out, welcome awareness of yours or someone else’s suffering. Name the suffering (sadness, grief, pain). See the situation as it is in as much detail as you wish. 
  3. Receiving and taking in suffering. Focus on the situation by seeing an image of the suffering. Use the in-breath to receive the image and with the out-breath, transform it into something more positive. You may try using smoke that changes into healing white light. You can also see the person as being in pain and then visualize their face turning into a smile. As you do this, recite several times: May this pain and suffering be released.
  4. Expanding compassion by extending it out to all who are in the same situation. Using the same in-and-out breath practice described above, visualize and welcome awareness of all who feel the same kind of suffering. On each out-breath offer them the mantra: May this pain and suffering be released. 
  5. Conclusion of the practice. Sit in silence for several more breaths, enjoying the feeling of release and transformation, Recite the final mantra: May all beings be well and live with ease. When ready, open your eyes slowly, bringing awareness back to the space you’re in, noticing your surroundings and all sensations that are present within you. 

(Please note that mindfulness and meditation are not a substitute for medical therapy.)

Originally published in The Taos News, January 5, 2022

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