Discovering Tonglen Meditation: A Guide from Pema Teachings

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Cherry blossoms in japan at a small creek.

As a long-time meditator, I have found Tonglen meditation to be one of the most powerful practices for cultivating compassion. In this article, I’ll share my experiences with Tonglen and how this Tibetan meditation technique can open our hearts.

Key Takeaways:

  • Tonglen practice involves breathing in suffering and breathing out compassion.
  • It opens our hearts, even to those we dislike or have difficulty with.
  • Tonglen reduces clinging to pleasure and rejecting of discomfort.
  • With practice, Tonglen can be done anywhere, anytime – it becomes a way of life.
  • Those new to Tonglen should start slowly and work with smaller challenges first.
  • Tonglen shows our interconnectedness and helps transform pain into wisdom.

What is Tonglen Meditation?

Tonglen refers to a meditation practice found in Tibetan Buddhism where you breathe in the pain and suffering of others and breathe out feelings of compassion, loving-kindness, and healing. The practice involves visualizing taking in the pain and darkness of the world with each in-breath, then radiating light, joy, and compassion with each out-breath.

I first learned about Tonglen from great meditation masters like Pema Chodron. It sounded so radical – almost masochistic – when I first heard about it. Why would anyone want to take in the pain of the world? But I quickly learned it’s a compelling way to cultivate compassion and realize our interconnectedness.

How To Practice Tonglen Meditation

Once you understand the basic premise of Tonglen, you may wonder: how do I do this practice? Here are some step-by-step instructions for engaging in a Tonglen session:

Begin in a comfortable meditation posture with your eyes closed or slightly open. Then, allow your breath to find its natural rhythm.

When you’re ready, visualize someone you care about who is going through pain or hardship. This could be a friend with an illness or a family member who just lost their job.

Tricycle: When practicing Tonglen, open your heart to feelings of compassion and breathe out suffering in the form of “white energy,” bringing goodness to those afflicted; it’s recommended to practice under the guidance of a teacher due to the challenges of the practice​​.

As you breathe in, imagine you are drawing in their suffering – the tightness in their chest, their feeling of being lost and overwhelmed. Breathe it all into your heart.

On the out-breath, send this person relief. Imagine their suffering dissolving and, in its place, arising feelings of spaciousness, hope, and strength.

Continue this in-and-out breathing for a few more rounds. Feel your compassion expanding as you wish this person free of suffering.

Next, expand your awareness to include others in pain – people around the world living with war, oppression, and poverty. Breathe in their collective suffering. Send out comfort and justice.

As you conclude the practice, dedicate any merit or compassion generated to the benefit of all beings. Rest your mind in the open, tender presence you’ve cultivated.

Remember, there is no one right way to do Tonglen. Find a rhythm and style that feels natural. Work with whichever beings inspire compassion in you. Let the practice open your heart.

TIP: Start with loved ones’ suffering to arouse compassion. Then, gradually expand your Tonglen to include all beings.

How Tonglen Transformed Me

When I first started practicing Tonglen, I would breathe in my fear, anger, and confusion on the in-breath. This allowed me to meet my pain with compassion. I would then send out feelings of openness, wisdom, and love.

After getting comfortable with Tonglen for myself, I progressed to doing Tonglen for people I love. I would visualize breathing in their pain or suffering and sending them healing energy. This was very powerful and brought up intense feelings of compassion.

Finally, I worked up to a Tonglen meditation for all beings – breathing in the pain of mistreated animals, oppressed peoples, or those experiencing any distress and sending out peace, relief, and joy.

I was amazed at how Tonglen dissolved the barriers between self and others. I felt more connected to the oneness of all life, and my daily meditation practice took on a whole new meaning and depth.

TIP: Start Tonglen with more minor challenges, like breathing in your discomfort. Then, gradually widen your compassion to loved ones and all beings.

How Tonglen Reduces Attachment

One of the profound benefits of Tonglen is it reduces our attachment and aversion. We tend to want to avoid pain and cling to pleasure. With Tonglen, we learn to lean into difficulty and relax our grip on temporary joys.

Breathing in pain and sending compassion flips our habitual patterns upside down. Instead of pushing away suffering, we develop the courage to feel it fully. This reduces our attachment to comfort and security. We also find that we can access love and kindness even amidst challenges, reducing aversion or negativity.

Tonglen meditation has taught me not to flee from discomfort or grasp at ephemeral pleasures. I’m better able to relax with whatever arises and respond with care.

TIP: Use Tonglen to open up to challenges you usually avoid. Discover the compassion that exists even amid difficulty.

Tonglen In Everyday Life

While I do Tonglen as a formal meditation practice, I’ve found simple ways to integrate it into everyday life:

  • Waiting in line at the store, I’ll breathe in the impatience rising around me, sending back patience.
  • Stuck in traffic, I breathe in the stress and frustration in the cars around me, sending out calm.
  • Watching the news, I breathe in the fear and anger in the world, sending back love.
  • Seeing homeless people on the street, I breathe in their discomfort, sending warmth.

These mini-Tonglens have helped me stay open and caring amidst the challenges of daily living. I’ve realized I can do this practice anywhere at any time – it’s always just a breath away.

TIP: Make Tonglen a daily habit by practicing mini-Tonglens throughout your day. Breathe in any pain or negativity, and send back positive energy.

How Tonglen Opens the Heart

Tonglen Meditation

The more I practice meditation, the more open-hearted I become. At first, it was challenging to breathe in suffering. But over time, it feels natural to take in pain and wish to relieve it.

Tonglen is particularly effective for cultivating compassion for those I find challenging. Instead of judging them, I can breathe in their pain and confusion. I see how they’re caught in their patterns of clinging and aversion, just like me. This allows me to open up and send them wisdom, relaxation, and peace.

Tonglen provides a direct experience of exchanging self for others. As the walls between self and others dissolve, we are left with an immense feeling of tenderness and care for all beings. In Tonglen, there is no separation – we all share this experience of wishing to be happy and free from suffering. This is the heart of bodhicitta, the awakened heart.

TIP: Use Tonglen to soften your heart, even for those you find challenging. Discover the humanity in all.

My Advice for Beginning Tonglen

For those new to Tonglen meditation, I have a few suggestions:

  • Start slowly and gently. Don’t judge yourself as you get accustomed to this radical practice.
  • Use Tonglen for minor first challenges – physical or emotional discomfort, conflicts with loved ones, etc. Then, gradually widen the circle of your compassion.
  • Find an experienced, authorized teacher. They can provide essential guidance and point out any misunderstandings.
  • Don’t suppress emotions that come up. Allow yourself to experience them fully.
  • Send out joy, relief, or whatever positive feeling arises naturally. Don’t struggle to manufacture feelings.

-Remember, Tonglen is a practice of imagination. You don’t take on others’ suffering. You work with it in your mind.

Tonglen might seem scary or impossible at first. However, if you stick with it gently, it can transform your life. You’ll find an infinite source of care and compassion within.

How Tonglen Helps People in Pain

As someone who lives with chronic pain, I was initially hesitant to try Tonglen meditation. I already felt overwhelmed by my suffering – how could I take on others’ pain as well? However, I decided to approach it slowly and see if it could help transform my relationship with difficulty.

I started by just breathing in and out the sensations of pain in my own body. This helped me relax around the pain and stop resisting it so much. I saw I could open up and allow it, even welcome it.

Yogapedia: For Tonglen meditation, find a comfortable position that you can maintain for at least 15 minutes, such as sitting cross-legged on a cushion, in a chair with a straight back and feet on the floor, or lying down with a blanket​​.

Then I began doing Tonglen for others with similar chronic pain. As I breathed in their suffering so they could have relief, my pain seemed less solid and oppressive. I saw how much we suffer when we feel cut off from others. Sharing this sense of solidarity and compassion helped lessen my isolation.

I also found that sending out care and blessings to others with pain made my suffering feel more workable. Instead of being so focused on my struggles, I could see how we’re all in this together. This brought a sense of meaning and optimism even amidst difficulty.

Now when pain arises, instead of tensing up and pushing it away, I breathe into it with a spirit of openness and compassion. Tonglen has taught me that we develop the inner resources to handle difficulty by leaning into suffering with care. The suffering becomes the path to compassion.

TIP: If you live with pain, use Tonglen to develop compassion for yourself and others. Discover how embracing suffering can transform it.

Pema Chödrön’s Influence on Tonglen Meditation

Woman meditating on the beach at sunrise.

When I first learned Tonglen, the teacher who most inspired me was the renowned American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. She was introduced to Tonglen by her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the 1970s and helped popularize this Tibetan practice in the West.

In her books and teachings, Pema Chödrön offers practical guidance on how to engage with Tonglen meditation. She stresses not turning away from suffering but developing the courage to feel the pain fully with an open heart. She says, “By doing Tonglen when things are going well, we are preparing ourselves to do Tonglen when things fall apart.”

Pema Chödrön encourages starting where you are and working with whatever arises in your experience. She suggests beginning with the discomfort of daily life rather than immediately taking on global pain. Even relieving a headache or anxiety prepares us to extend Tonglen to wider circles.

Pema Chödrön’s Key Contributions

Pema Chödrön has taught Tonglen in books, articles, and videos. Some of her significant contributions include:

  • Demystifying Tonglen through clear, practical instructions for Westerners
  • Emphasizing Tonglen as a powerful everyday practice, not just a formal meditation
  • Explaining how Tonglen develops compassion and insight into emptiness
  • Encouraging flexibility – Tonglen can be done for anyone in any situation

One of Pema Chödrön’s most inspiring examples is doing Tonglen for someone you dislike. Breathe in their pain and confusion, and send out compassion – even if you still feel anger. This shows how Tonglen can gradually melt our hearts, even for those we reject. It reveals our shared humanity.

Chödrön also stresses the role of imagination and visualization in the practice. We imagine, rather than experience, others’ suffering. This prevents us from taking on more than we can handle, especially as beginners.

Through her accessible, relatable teachings, Pema Chödrön helped demystify Tonglen and make its transformative powers available to Western practitioners. She carries on the lineage of this ancient practice in a way that speaks to our modern world.

TIP: For guidance on Tonglen from a renowned Western teacher, explore the works of Pema Chödrön.

Quotes from Pema Chödrön on Tonglen:

“With each in-breath, we take in others’ pain. With each out-breath, we send them relief.

“Tonglen reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure.”

“As you do the practice, your compassion naturally expands over time.”

“You begin to feel love for both yourself and others.”

The Dalai Lama’s Perspective on Tonglen

As the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has provided invaluable teachings on ancient practices like Tonglen. When introducing Tonglen to Western students, he stresses the need for proper motivation and a wise approach.

The Dalai Lama reminds us that the purpose of Tonglen is to cultivate bodhicitta – the enlightened wish to attain awakening for the benefit of all beings. We breathe in suffering with the motivation to free ourselves and others from its causes.

His Holiness says we should begin by doing Tonglen for those close to us. Once we’ve stabilized our compassion, we can gradually extend it to those we dislike and, finally, all living beings. Rushing into global Tonglen without proper preparation can lead to distress.

The Dalai Lama also emphasizes that Tonglen should be viewed as a training of the mind. We work with images of suffering, not actual people’s pain. Avoiding taking on unbearable suffering helps sustain the practice.

For advanced meditators, Tonglen can have profound effects. But those beginning should proceed carefully under the guidance of an experienced teacher. With the proper understanding and motivation, Tonglen leads step-by-step to fearless compassion.

His Holiness frequently praises Tonglen as a direct way to rupture our barriers between self and others. By exchanging self for other, the Dalai Lama says, we realize our interconnectedness and shared desire for happiness. This is the root of compassion.

TIP: The Dalai Lama advises starting Tonglen with loved ones and approaching the practice as a gradual training of the mind and heart.

The Freedom of Tonglen

The more I practice Tonglen meditation, the more I appreciate the profundity of its teachings. Tonglen shows us that what hurts us can – if embraced with care – open our hearts and connect us to all beings.

Rather than armoring ourselves against pain, we can open up and allow it with compassion. This reduces our attachment to comfort and brings stability. It also decreases aversion – we respond with wisdom and care instead of bitterness or resistance.

By breathing in others’ suffering and offering solace, we realize there’s no separation between myself and others. Just as their pain is mine, my joy and peace can also become a source of comfort for them.

At its deepest level, Tonglen teaches us the empty, interconnected nature of self and phenomena. By taking in pain and sending relief, we see that everything arises depending on causes and conditions – nothing is solid or lasting. This is the ultimate freedom.

Even after years, Tonglen continues to challenge and inspire me. It transforms pain into compassion, freeing us from the delusion of a cut-off, isolated self. May all beings benefit from these profound practices.

FAQ on Tonglen Meditation

Q: What is Tonglen’s practice?

A: Tonglen is a form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. It involves inhaling others’ negative energy or suffering and exhaling love and compassion. This practice helps practitioners achieve peace of mind and cultivate a more profound sense of compassion for all beings.

Q: How can I incorporate the practice of Tonglen into my daily routine?

A: Tonglen can be done as a formal meditation, but you can also practice it daily. For instance, if you encounter a painful situation, you can try to inhale or breathe in that situation’s negativity and exhale positivity or relief for it. You can also do Tonglen for someone you love who is suffering, where you wish to take away their suffering and exhale well-being for them.

Q: What sets Tonglen’s practice apart from other forms of Buddhist meditation?

A: Unlike other forms of Buddhist meditation, Tonglen meditation practice directly engages with the pain of others. This compassionate approach allows practitioners to experience and understand suffering in a whole new way, fostering an innate desire to work for the welfare of others.

Q: How can compassion meditation help me deal with a painful situation?

A: Compassion meditation, such as Tonglen, guides you to embrace, rather than avoid, painful situations. The practice allows you to breathe in that person’s pain, transforming it into positive energy on the out-breath, which offers relief. This process can bring peace of mind and alleviate suffering.

Q: What makes Tonglen a unique Tibetan practice?

A: Tonglen is a Tibetan unique practice due to its specific focus on breathing in the suffering of others and exhaling compassion. Unlike other meditation practices, such as loving-kindness meditation, Tonglen’s practice encourages the practitioner to confront and engage with suffering fully, aiming at cultivating compassion.

Q: Can I do the Tonglen practice for self-love and self-healing?

A: Absolutely. You can breathe in your pain and exhale love and compassion toward yourself. Pema Chödrön says, “If you would like to be selfish, be generously selfish by doing Tonglen for yourself first.” So, the practice promotes healing not just for others but for yourself as well.

Q: Is it possible to practice Tonglen in a busy or distracting environment?

A: Yes, you can also practice Tonglen in this way. The key is to bring your attention to the in-breath, where you picture taking in pain or suffering, and then the out-breath, where you envision spreading love and compassion. This can be done anytime, anywhere — at work, in traffic, or in a noisy environment.

Q: How does the practice of Tonglen enhance our in-breath and exhalation process?

A: In Tonglen’s practice, the in-breath embraces pain and suffering, while exhalation sends out relief, compassion, and positivity. This mindful inhale and exhale process transforms the act of breathing into a spiritual practice, fostering love and compassion for all beings.

Q: How is Tonglen different from mindfulness meditation?

A: While mindfulness meditation typically involves focusing on one’s breath or thoughts, Tonglen turns this focus outwards to the suffering of others. Tonglen goes a step further, involving physically taking in the pain of others and sending out love and relief, making it a more profound practice of empathy and compassion.

Q: Is Tonglen a form of mind training?

A: Yes, Tonglen is indeed a form of mind training. It trains your mind not to turn away from suffering but to lean into it and in the process, cultivate compassion. This is in tune with the Tibetan Buddhist philosophy that suffering is a part of life, and it’s through understanding and embracing it that we can genuinely foster love and compassion.

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