Tonglen Meditation: What It Is and How to Practice

tonglen meditation for compassion

When it comes to meditation, there are many different techniques to help people get in touch with themselves and find the inner peace they’re longing for. These distinct meditation practices are designed to fit the different temperaments and needs of practitioners.

One such ancient meditation technique is Tonglen. It is similar to loving-kindness or metta meditation. Usually, you’ll find practices designed to help you develop mindfulness or concentration. However, Tonglen is a gift of Buddhism that allows you to overcome your fears and negative beliefs by changing your outlook on suffering.

In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know to get started with Tonglen meditation.

Table of Contents

What is Tonglen meditation?

Tonglen is a method to connect with the suffering of the world and overcome fear. It helps you get in touch with your compassionate nature and use that to help others. Tonglen meditation originated in Bengal around the end of the 10th century. It was brought to us by an Indian Buddhist teacher, Atisha Dipankara Shrijnana, who eventually moved to Tibet. Tonglen is now associated with Tibetan Buddhism.

The word Tonglen means “giving and receiving” in the Tibetan language. As such, the practice of Tonglen involves taking in the pain of ourselves and others and giving out purity and compassion to those in need.

Usually, as soon as we encounter pain or suffering, we react negatively and want to get away from it. Tonglen aims at changing our attitude toward pain and opening our hearts so that we heal ourselves and others. It helps us cultivate compassion toward ourselves by realizing that we’re not alone in our experience of pain and be kinder toward others who are in the same boat.

Ultimately, Tonglen teaches us that generosity is nourishing. When we are generous, we feel fulfilled and nourished. It also puts us in touch with our primordial abundance, helping us realize that no matter how much we give away, we’ll still be complete.

Why should you practice Tonglen meditation?

Tonglen is a wonderful technique to bring about radical inner transformation. This meditation is all about compassion and bringing peace to everyone. Its benefits are also unique, which is why it deserves to be added to your existing meditation routine. Here are some benefits of Tonglen meditation:

  1. It alleviates suffering. The central idea of Tonglen is to ease the suffering of yourself and others, and it actually works. You can reduce suffering in the world by taking in the negative energy from it and sending out positivity.
  2. It makes you grateful. While practicing Tonglen meditation, you’ll often breathe in the suffering of strangers or people you know. Although we shouldn’t use others’ suffering to feel better about ourselves, it does remind us of how fragile things are and how much we have to be grateful for.
  3. It makes you more compassionate. Tonglen is designed to invoke feelings of compassion and love within you. With regular practice, you’ll find that radiating compassion becomes a part of you, and you’re more available for others when they need you.
  4. It makes you kinder to yourself. Many of us have difficulties accepting ourselves. We may be nice to others but overly harsh with ourselves. Tonglen changes your relationship with yourself and increases self-love and self-esteem.
  5. It reduces fears and anxieties. Tonglen makes you realize that you’re never alone in the experience of suffering. It also teaches you not to hide from pain but to face it, accept it as a part of life, and transform it into something positive.
  6. It changes your relationship with others. When you regularly do Tonglen for your family members and friends, your relationship with them naturally changes for the better. You become more emotionally available and are less likely to lash out at others.
  7. It helps you grow spiritually. Practicing Tonglen promotes your spiritual growth in various ways. It allows you to get in touch with your true nature, understand the impermanence of the outer world, and become a source of compassion.

How to practice Tonglen meditation

The first step in any meditative practice is to sit comfortably in a stable posture. You can sit in a chair or spread a mat on the ground. Keep your back straight and look forward. It may be better to keep your eyes slightly open so that the mind wanders less. Do not focus your gaze on anything, simply rest your eyes at a 45° angle and defocus them.

Once you’re seated in your meditation posture, set the intention to stay present with suffering. This means cultivating an altruistic intention that all beings may benefit from your spiritual practice.

Then, start Tonglen meditation by following these steps:

1. Rest in open awareness

Begin by focusing on your breath. Feel the breath moving in and out of the body. Imagine breathing kindness into the center of your chest and relax as you breathe out. Meditate like this for a few minutes.

Do not speculate or examine, just be open to observe and connect with whatever is happening at this moment. Thoughts of the past or future will arise. Let go of them. When they arise again, let go of them again and stay with your breath.

When awareness feels stable, allow it to radiate out and gradually encompass your entire body. Let it expand further and include what is present around you. Open your mind to the greater space and let it be like a sky. Don’t chase or judge your thoughts; just let everything be. Keep breathing into your space and relaxing.

Another way to do this is to bring your awareness to the center of your chest. Experience your heart space or the cave of your heart. Rest your awareness in that lively darkness and see if you can get in contact with a feeling of spaciousness, vastness, or infinity in the center of your chest. This open awareness, not fixated on any object and just available to everything around you, is known as Bodhichitta.

2. Work with texture

Feel that you’re inhaling through all the pores of your body, from head to toe. Breathe in through every pore in your skin into the center of your chest and exhale in the same way.

As you breathe in, imagine hot smoke or darkness—a feeling of difficulty, claustrophobia, or negativity—entering your body. Breathe in all these feelings completely, through all pores of your body.

Now that you’ve connected with Bodhichitta, this negativity cannot affect you. There’s no place for it to stay in your body. It may help to imagine your body is made up of not solid flesh and bones but a kind of holographic substance. Bodhichitta can process and transform these feelings of negativity and obstruction.

As you breathe out, imagine releasing bright, pure air. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath. Keep doing this and synchronize your in- and out-breaths. Make your body a recycling plant, accepting impurity and radiating out pure energy. Do this for a few minutes.

3. Accept and send for yourself

Now that you’re resting in Bodhichitta, you’ll focus on the recipients of your Tonglen, starting with yourself. Traditionally, you start by doing Tonglen for someone you care about, but beginning this practice with yourself is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with it. Then, we can extend it to others who are in the same boat and do Tonglen for them too.

Imagine yourself sitting in front of you and get in touch with any aspect of your pain. Work with any painful situation that’s real to you. For example, if you feel unworthy or inadequate, imagine that suffering as black smoke and breathe it in.

As the smoke moves into the vast spaciousness of Bodhichitta, let it transform into pure, healing energy. Breathe out this awakened light into yourself. Imagine yourself getting healed and illuminated with this light.

You can take it a step further. Think: Just like me, many people suffer from anxiety. By my suffering this anxiety, may everyone who suffers from it be free.

Imagine all these people sitting around you. Imagine your own and everybody’s suffering as black smoke. Breathe in all of that at once and transform it into pure light. Exhale it and imagine everyone being filled with this awakened energy and getting healed with it. This stage should take you around 5 minutes.

Occasionally, keep coming back to yourself and stabilize the sense of yourself as Bodhichitta again.

4. Make it universal

Now, take it beyond the individual level. If you’re doing Tonglen for someone you care about, extend it out to everyone who is in the same boat. It’s the same thing you did with yourself. For example, if your loved one is suffering from high fever, do Tonglen for them, but also extend it to all the people who’re sick.

Contemplate their suffering and feel compassion for them. Breathe in their pain as black smoke and see it spontaneously transforming into white light. Exhale this pure light or energy into the person or people in front of you.

You could also expand spatially. Imagine breathing in all the suffering in your neighborhood, your city, and so on. Also, do Tonglen for people you don’t like—those who hurt you or hurt others. Imagine breathing in their confusion and turmoil and send them relief and healing energy. This stage should take you 10-15 minutes.

Occasionally, keep coming back to yourself and stabilize the sense of yourself as Bodhichitta again.

5. Dissolve

Once you’ve been doing Tonglen for some time and have radiated heartfelt compassion toward all sentient beings, it’s time to experience Bodhichitta again. Let go of all thoughts, concepts, or visualizations. Rest in open awareness for as long as you can. Experience that your mind is inseparable from this vast space and awareness.

Finally, dedicate all benefits of your meditation to the happiness and liberation of all sentient beings. Pray for all beings to get liberated from suffering. Close by following your breath and letting go of any pain or tension as you breathe out.

Practicing Tonglen on the spot

The beautiful thing about Tonglen is that you can practice it anytime, anywhere. Whenever you witness suffering in your daily life, you can do Tonglen for a couple of breaths. For example, if you see people fighting on the street, breathe in their anger, transform it, and breathe out understanding and compassion for them.

You can also do this for yourself. If someone hurts you, breathe in your negative emotions, let it transform, and breathe out support and positivity for yourself. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing to perform Tonglen. Just a few conscious breaths into and out of Bodhichitta will calm things down.

Remember not to overanalyze anything. Just be present with the suffering and remind yourself of your compassionate nature. If you do Tonglen on the spot a few times every day, you’ll experience remarkable transformation within you.

Takeaway

Tonglen is one of the many popular meditation techniques. It comes from Buddhism and involves taking in suffering and giving out compassion. Loving-kindness meditation is another similar technique that encourages us to cultivate heartfelt compassion toward all sentient beings.

Regular practice of Tonglen will help you become kinder and give you the ability to alleviate the suffering of yourself and others around you. As you progress, your compassion naturally grows, and you also realize that things aren’t as permanent as you thought they were. Gradually, you’ll develop the ability to be truly there for people when they need you.

Good luck.

About the author

I was introduced to spiritual practice at the age of 12. I didn't find it intriguing back then, but my curiosity about life has brought me to spirituality again, and I've been reading others' insights and learning from life for over three years. You can read more about me here.

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