Tonglen is a Buddhist meditation practicing the art of receiving & giving. Generally, one will receive or take on the suffering of another & in turn sends out wellness & relief to that being. The recipient being could be a close friend or family member, a stranger passed by on the street, a whole group of people, a country, our planet, one’s own self.
Pema Chödrön says, “This is the core of the practice: breathing in others’ pain so they can be well & have more space to relax & open- breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever we feel would bring them relief & happiness.”
The practice at first seems to be the opposite of what we would “normally” do as a meditation. For example, we would want to take in something positive & exhale the negative. But in Tonglen, we are asked to selflessly greet & take on suffering & send out a wish for healing.
It takes a bit of bravery to be able to visualize taking on suffering & pain. One might at first be afraid that “taking on suffering” will cause harm or be internalized inside our being. One might experience fear, resistance, or confusion on how to take on suffering. One can come face to face with their own suffering as well. We use this practice of taking the suffering & pain, we hold it in our vast hears, diffuse & dissolve it for the benefit of others, giving them joy, harmony, healing.
Doing Tonglen meditation expands our Loving Kindness & compassion towards all beings, as well as expands our capacity to be present with the suffering of these beings, ourselves included.
Below is a poem you could recite before doing this meditation:
“Having recognized the futility of my selfishness
And the great benefit of loving others, may I bring all beings to joy.
May I send all my virtues & happiness to others through the strength of my practice,
And may I receive the suffering, obstacles, & defilements of all motherly beings in all realms.” –Joan Halifax
The following are steps to a Tonglen meditation:
1) Find a comfortable seated meditation posture or lie down. Visualize the person(s) you would like to dedicate your meditation to as if they are seated in front of you. Begin to breathe in the suffering & hardship they are going through. Suffering can show up as fear, illness, doubt, resistance, anger. Breathe it in & accept it. Be kind & compassionate about it. And then breathe out relief & well-being. Do this until you feel calm & well synchronized with your breath.
2) Now begin to bring texture & color to the breath. Visualize the suffering that you inhale as dark, heavy, hot matter. The exhale as light, cool, spacious, healing. Breathe like this as if with your entire body.
3) Visualize that in your heart there are no hard walls of armored protection. Your heart is a pure, beautiful cleansing vessel made of crystals, flowers & other soft, sweet qualities that you might imagine. Be creative with it. As you continue to breathe in that smoky, hot, tar-like suffering of your friend, deepen it further & then in one big sipping inhale take all that suffering in through the mouth & send it straight to your soft, healing heart. Your heart dissolves all that dark, heavy, ugly pain which disperses & disappears into great vastness.
4) Now you begin to send even more relief, well-being, love, joy, harmony to your friend with your exhale. You can visualize them as comfortable, cared for, safe, healthy, happy, & at their truest-highest-best self. Your cooling, soft, deep, & spacious exhale surrounds & holds your friend. Continue this breathing until you feel calm & peaceful.
5) Let go of the practice, expectations, & attachments to it. Dedicate the merit of your efforts toward the benefit of all beings.
Tonglen, or Giving & Receiving: A Practice of Great Mercy, Joan Halifax
Tonglen Instruction, Pema Chödrön
Tonglen- Sending & Taking, Thrangu Rinpoche
Inspiring teachings by Summer Quashie