Pema Chodron Tonglen Guided Practice for Meditation and Transformation

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Pema Chodron Tonglen, Buddhist temple surround by water and trees.

Pema Chodron Tonglen meditation, also known as “giving and taking” or “sending and receiving,” is a powerful Buddhist practice for cultivating compassion. In this comprehensive guide, I’ll explain Tonglen, how to practice it, and the many benefits this transformative technique can have for your life.

Table of Contents

May the practice of “taking and sending” lead you and all beings to the heart of wisdom and compassion!

Key Takeaways: Nurturing Your Tonglen Practice

  • Make Tonglen a consistent, lifelong practice – work with it in some form every day.
  • Complement Tonglen with mindfulness and insight meditation to develop a balanced practice.
  • Read and listen to teachings on Tonglen repeatedly to internalize this approach.
  • Attend retreats where you can practice Tonglen intensely in a supported environment.
  • Connect with a community to overcome challenges and celebrate breakthroughs with Tonglen.
  • Most importantly, bring Tonglen insight into your everyday life and relationships.

What is Tonglen Meditation?

Tonglen (pronounced “tong-len”), which means “sending and taking” in Tibetan, is a meditation practice from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The renowned Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön taught and popularized it in the West.

The basic premise of Tonglen practice is that when we encounter suffering in ourselves or others, we “breathe in” this pain and “breathe out” feelings of compassion, loving-kindness, peace, or whatever the person needs.

By exchanging our self-centeredness for an openness to others, Tonglen reverses our habitual patterns of avoiding pain and holding onto pleasure activities. Through this practice, we open up to the full range of the human experience and uncover our natural, compassionate nature.

How to Practice Tonglen Meditation

The actual technique of Tonglen meditation is relatively simple, but it takes some practice to integrate its insights into daily life. Here are the basic steps to follow:

1. Visualize taking in the pain and sending out relief

Sit in a comfortable meditation posture with your eyes closed or open. Begin by visualizing yourself, taking in the pain, fear, anger, or any problematic emotion on your in-breath. Imagine this darkness or heaviness filling your body and mind.

Then, on the out-breath, visualize sending out relief—love, healing, spaciousness, or whatever that being needs. Imagine a bright light pouring out from your heart, soothing pain and bringing joy.

2. Work with the breath

Synchronize this “taking in” and “sending out” with the inhalation and exhalation. Breathe in negative energy and breathe out positive energy. You can even imagine the darkness entering on the inhale and light flowing out on the exhale.

3. Start with yourself

Begin Tonglen practice by directing it toward yourself. Focus on any pain or difficulties you may be facing. With each in-breath, take in this pain. With each out-breath, send yourself compassion and healing.

4. Move on to others

Once you have the visualization down, bring to mind other people and direct the practice toward them. Start with people you love, then widen the circle to acquaintances, difficult people, and finally, all living beings.

Breathe in their pain and send them relief. Take in their anger and fear and send them love. With each breath, continue the exchange of taking and sending.

The key is to let go of barriers and extend compassion to all. As Pema Chödrön often says, “The Tonglen practice dissolves the barriers between self and others”.

“When you see someone unwrap a gift or open a new book with a sense of anticipation, usually speed right past that person without noticing. You only dwell on everyday fleeting golden moments with just a few close friends and associates. Tonglen meditation teaches us to be mindful of all people.”

5. Conclude by resting in openness

After practicing Tonglen, it’s good to rest the mind in openness or “Shamatha” meditation. Let your mind relax in its essential spaciousness without elaborating or analyzing.

This allows the insights from Tonglen to integrate at a deeper level of awareness and concludes the meditation session on a positive note.

How Pema Chödrön Learned Tonglen from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

The contemporary practice of Tonglen took shape in the 1970s when the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche began teaching it to his American students like Pema Chödrön. However, Tonglen has ancient roots in Indian Buddhist practices.

Trungpa Rinpoche was a pivotal figure who escaped Tibet as a teenager after the Chinese occupation. He sought to translate Buddhism for modern Westerners creatively and was Pema Chödrön’s primary guru, along with other influential teachers like Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

In her books and teachings, Pema describes how Trungpa Rinpoche assigned his students to do Tonglen practices such as taking in fear and sending out fearlessness when passing a police car or taking in the loneliness and warmth when seeing a homeless person.

Trungpa encouraged an immediacy of practice, applying Tonglen’s insight to everyday challenges. Pema Chödrön has carried on this experiential style of conveying Tonglen rather than presenting it as an abstract theory.

The Meaning and Benefits of Tonglen

On one level, Tonglen may seem counterintuitive. Why would we want to take in pain and send out happiness? Isn’t that masochistic? According to Pema Chödrön, Tonglen has a deeper purpose:

“The logic of Tonglen is that we become more comfortable with pain and pleasure being right next to each other. We begin to feel that we could be fear or anger without pushing it away or walling it up.”

Here are some of the critical benefits and objectives of the Tonglen practice:

  • Develops compassion – Tonglen cultivates compassion both for oneself and others. Rather than walling off pain, we open our hearts to it.
  • Equalizes self and other – The barriers between self and other fade as we realize others suffer just like us. This interchange leads to greater connection.
  • Works with difficult emotions – By fully feeling pain and challenging emotions, Tonglen keeps us from repressing or expressing them destructively.
  • Expands capacity – Our capacity to be with suffering grows as we breathe it in. We touch previously cut-off parts of ourselves.
  • Transforms adversity – Tonglen transforms pain into a stepping stone on the spiritual path by using it to awaken compassion.
  • Generosity practice – Giving others relief and sending them good energy is the essence of generosity, expanding our circle of care.
  • Awakens Bodhichitta – Exchanging self for others is the heart of the bodhisattva path. Tonglen opens this enlightened aspiration of benefiting all beings.

In short, Tonglen helps us courageously connect with suffering and empathize with all who suffer – including those we might consider enemies. This is the radical insight that we all wish to be happy and free from suffering through selflessness. With this realization, our hearts open beyond limits.

“Let go of your storyline and open your heart beyond limits with Tonglen meditation. You never know when painful situation might transform into compassion for yourself and others.”

How to Practice Tonglen According to Pema Chödrön

Several excellent Pema Chödrön books contain detailed Tonglen instructions and advice. Some key sources are:

  • The Wisdom of No Escape – Introduces Tonglen fundamentals
  • Start Where You Are – A complete Tonglen commentary and guide
  • The Places That Scare You – Working with Challenging Emotions
  • Comfortable with Uncertainty – Tonglen for anxiety and fear

Across these teachings, Pema emphasizes the following wise approaches for practicing Tonglen meditation:

Use Tonglen for everyday difficulties

Apply Tonglen on the spot for emotional reactions rather than just during formal sittings. Notice the pain you usually avoid – the anger as someone cuts you off driving or the discomfort of seeing a friend suffering. Breathe it in and send relief.

Don’t indulge in storylines

When Tonglen stirs up emotional energy, refrain from spinning into storylines and mental dramas. Stay present with the rawness of experience.

Relax fixation on outcome

Let go of wanting to “do Tonglen correctly” or achieve a certain state. Relax into an open-ended process without expectations.

Don’t suppress emotions

Allow feelings aroused by Tonglen to flow freely. Don’t grasp at positive states or repress negative ones.

Balance wisdom and compassion

While Tonglen develops compassion, integrate it with practices that cultivate insight into the empty, luminous nature of mind.

Take loving care of yourself

Practice Tonglen in considerate, intuitive ways that honor your limitations. There is no need to overwhelm yourself aggressively.

By following these wise instructions, we can engage in Tonglen practice in ways that are sustainable, balanced, and attuned to our inner landscape.

Integrating Tonglen Meditation Into Daily Life

Pema Chodron Tonglen location with a beautiful river in a forest.

Tonglen is a practice we can integrate into our daily lives through informal mini-practices. Here are some simple ways to cultivate the “giving and receiving” insight of Tonglen throughout your daily routine:

  • When you wake up, breathe in sluggishness or pain and out awakened energy.
  • If feeling stressed before an event, breathe in the anxiety and release relaxation or excitement.
  • Waiting in line, breathe in impatience, and breathe out spaciousness.
  • In a rush, breathe in urgency and breathe out care.
  • Feeling ill, breathe in the discomfort and send out healing.
  • If a loved one is struggling, breathe in their pain and send relief or strength.
  • When irritated by a person, breathe in their anger and send them loving-kindness.
  • Passing people suffering poverty or homelessness, take in their hardship and send care.

These mini Tonglen meditations gently introduce the insights of Tonglen into everyday scenarios. With practice, this exchange of breathing in suffering and breathing out compassion can become a natural, instinctive response – transforming adversity into empathy every step of the way.

Continued Guide to Tonglen Meditation

In this guide to Tonglen meditation, I’ll keep exploring what makes this practice so transformative and how to engage it with wisdom. I’ll discuss common misunderstandings, working with various emotions, and advice for starting with the “taking and sending” technique. Through Tonglen, we open the door to genuine compassion.

Common Mistakes and Misunderstandings

Tonglen meditation is simple but can be challenging to practice. Here are some common mistakes or misunderstandings to be aware of:

Pushing too aggressively – It’s easy to try taking on too much pain at once. Go gently with Tonglen, and don’t override your limits. Breathe through resistance.

Suppressing emotions – Bottling up feelings that arise during Tonglen leads to inner tension. Allow your experience to move fluidly.

Judging yourself – There’s no need to criticize yourself for how well you’re practicing Tonglen. Renew your intention with kindness.

Using Tonglen to feed the ego – Some grasp at Tonglen as a way to feel superior in compassion. Honor your wholeness beyond self-judgment.

Bypassing other practices – Tonglen complements other meditation techniques. Don’t abandon mindfulness, inquiry, or tantric visualizations.

Ignoring daily life – Don’t let Tonglen be a mere conceptual exercise. Integrate its insights into how you meet everyday challenges.

By avoiding these pitfalls, we can undertake Tonglen practice with humility and openness – a willingness to connect with life.

Working Skillfully With Challenging Emotions

One of the foremost benefits of Tonglen’s practice is learning to relate difficult emotions like anger, fear, and jealousy with wisdom and compassion.

Here’s some advice for specific emotions that may arise powerfully during Tonglen:

Anger – Breathe in hot, sharp energy and send out cool, spacious non-reactivity. See the pain beneath anger.

Fear – Breathe in the gripping, tight quality and send out trust in your inner resources to handle challenges.

Sadness – Breathe in the heavy darkness and send out sympathetic concern, appreciating how vulnerability opens the heart.

Shame – Breathe in constricting feelings and send out the warmth of self-acceptance just as we are.

Envy – Take in the contracted feeling of comparing yourself to others and send out the joy of appreciating everyone’s unique gifts.

The key is to meet these challenging energies with unconditional loving presence – contacting our shared essence beyond fixating on negative mind states.

“Underneath anger, fear, shame, and envy is the soft heart we all share. Tonglen meditation helps unlock the door to our basic goodness.”

Advice For Beginning Tonglen Practice

If you’re new to Tonglen meditation, here’s some practical advice to get started smoothly with this “taking and sending” practice:

  • Start short – Begin with 5 or 10 minutes to familiarize yourself with the technique. Slowly increase the session length.
  • Use an object – Focus on an object like a stone or flower to easily access the feelings you want to breathe in.
  • Find support – Practice Tonglen with an experienced friend or group to help overcome initial resistance.
  • Read/listen – Study Pema Chödrön’s teachings so you understand the Tonglen approach in your bones.
  • Journal – Note experiences each time you practice to clarify your relationship with this technique.
  • Go easy – Don’t force yourself into intense pain. Work gently with where you are right now.
  • Balanced effort – Relax and trust the practice while also applying yourself with patience and discipline.

I hope these tips help you get started and inspired with Tonglen! Reach out anytime if you need guidance.

Additional Keys to Tonglen Meditation

This is the final section of my complete Tonglen guide. In it, I’ll explore how to use Tonglen to develop Bodhichitta and discuss the practice’s role in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I’ll then end with key takeaways to support your ongoing Tonglen journey.

Tonglen For Cultivating Bodhichitta

An important Mahayana Buddhist concept connected with Tonglen practice is Bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is the mind of enlightenment aimed at liberating all beings from suffering. It has two aspects:

Absolute Bodhichitta – Recognizing the empty, luminous nature of the mind beyond concepts.

Relative Bodhichitta – Having unconditional compassion for all those who suffer.

Tonglen meditation cultivates relative Bodhichitta by erasing the false boundaries between self and others. As Pema Chödrön says:

“Training in Tonglen opens us to the possibility of feeling the pain of others as our own without withdrawing or fogging over into denial.”

In this way, Tonglen dissolves our self-absorption and radically awakens our compassion. It’s a direct path to wearing down the ego and bringing the force of Bodhichitta into our lives.

Role of Tonglen in Tibetan Buddhism

Most contemporary practitioners learn about Tonglen through the teachings of Pema Chödrön and her late guru Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. However, Tonglen meditation has been practiced for centuries as part of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Tonglen first emerged as a technique in India. Great Indian masters like Atisha then transmitted it to Tibet, where it became part of Lojong practice. Lojong refers to “mind training” with different slogans and meditation techniques to cultivate Bodhichitta.

Tonglen remains a vital practice taught in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama regularly encourages students to engage in it and train their minds toward universal compassion.

While Tonglen originates in Buddhism, it can benefit anyone regardless of religion. The insights of exchanging self for other resonate with our shared desire to live from the heart.

FAQ on Pema Chodron Tonglen

Q: What is Pema Chodron’s Tonglen-guided practice for meditation and transformation?

A: Pema Chodron’s Tonglen meditation is a transformational practice involving breathing in and sending out. It is meant to help practitioners cultivate compassion and awaken their hearts and minds. “Taking in” on the in-breath and “sending out” on the out-breath is a core aspect of the method, designed to promote well-being and empathy towards all sentient beings.

Q: How can I access the audio for compassion with Tonglen meditation guided by Pema Chodron?

A: The audio for Pema Chodron’s Tonglen guided meditation practice can be obtained through the Pema Chodron Foundation or other sources where her teachings are available. The audio can help practitioners get in touch with their compassionate side. Please check the foundation’s website for more specific information.

Q: What is the purpose of cultivating compassion with Tonglen meditation as described by Pema Chodron?

A: The purpose of cultivating compassion with Tonglen meditation is to allow individuals to fully appreciate both their difficult times and those experienced by other human beings. Through this deep understanding, people can foster an intimate connection with the pain and distress felt by others, potentially even those people they consider neutral or adverse.

Q: What is the first part of the practice in Pema Chodron’s Tonglen guided meditation?

A: The first part of Pema Chodron’s Tonglen practice involves focusing on the breath. Practitioners start by ‘taking in’ the pain or suffering of others on the inhale and ‘sending out’ relief, compassion or whatever may be beneficial on the outbreath. This process is pivotal in developing an open dimension of mind and a sincere wish for the well-being of all sentient beings.

Q: Do you need any specific environment, like a cabin, for Pema Chodron’s Tonglen practice?

A: No, you do not need a specific environment. Pema Chodron describes that Tonglen meditation can be performed anywhere. However, it can be beneficial to practice in a quiet, peaceful setting where one feels comfortable and undisturbed. Some practitioners may choose a cabin or a secluded spot, but it’s not a prerequisite.

Q: How can Tonglen practice help during illness or difficult times like chemotherapy?

A: Tonglen practice encourages practitioners to breathe in the pain or suffering of others on the inhale, and breathe out relief or wellness on the exhale. This process can help during difficult times like chemotherapy by allowing practitioners to get in touch with their suffering, thereby cultivating compassion not only for themselves but for all people who experience pain and illness.

Q: Can I find Pema Chodron’s Tonglen guided practice in any publication?

A: Yes, Pema Chodron’s Tonglen practice can be found in many of her publications. Her teachings are published by Shambhala and usually include the ISBN for easy reference. Be sure to check local and online bookstores for availability.

Q: Can everyone, including whoever is new to meditation, do Pema Chodron’s Tonglen Practice?

A: Yes, Pema Chodron’s Tonglen practice can be undertaken by anyone, regardless of their experience with meditation. Chodron guides people to become aware of their breath, feelings, and thoughts, making the practice approachable for beginners. The key principle is opening up to aspects of ourselves and others that we usually reject, thereby cultivating greater understanding and compassion for all beings.

Q: What does Pema Chodron say about ‘die before you die’ in regards to her Tonglen practice?

A: ‘Die before you die’ means letting go of preconceptions, fears, and fixed ideas, enabling transformation within the practitioner. It’s about allowing our old, inadequate ways of seeing ourselves and the world to die so we could be free of suffering. In Pema Chodron’s Tonglen practice, this transformational path is embraced as a means to awaken compassion and understanding.

Q: Can I learn about Pema Chodron’s Tonglen practice without the audio version?

A: Yes, while the audio version of Pema Chodron’s Tonglen practice offers a guided experience, understanding and practicing Tonglen is possible through her written works and teachings. The essence of the practice, based on the principles of ‘taking and sending,’ encourages us to meditate on our in-breath and out-breath, helping us to cultivate love and compassion for ourselves and others.

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