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Practice of Tonglen Meditation

May 22, 2022 3 min read

There’s no shortage of suffering in the world. I once heard a monk say that you don’t have to go looking for suffering because it’ll find you; it finds everyone. Suffering is part of the human condition. A blip of passing compassion goes a long way. One way of cultivating compassion is through the meditation practice of tonglen.

Tonglen centers on holding and releasing suffering for the benefit of all sentient beings. It is a quiet, good Samaritan practice.

If you’re dealing with a dark period of grief, despair, or general malaise, it’s understandable that this might not be the right time to dive into tonglen. However, if you are strumming along in life with neither highs nor lows, you might try it in your repertoire.

Rather than repeating a mantra during meditation, tonglen’s primary premise centers on inhaling suffering and exhaling compassion.

Think of tonglen as the catalytic converter of cleaning the emotional atmosphere with intention. It’s less about you, more about others. The intentional output offers others space to catalyze, grow, and heal.

Basic Precepts of Tonglen

Pema Chödrön, anAmerican Buddhist nun, discussed tonglen in her book,Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. Chödrön states that tonglen follows four stages: pause, visualize, breathe, and extend.

Let’s look at each tonglen phase and how we may set it up. Hold each stage with the intention to help others, rather than judging yourself if you’re getting it right or not.

Step One: Pause.


If wisdom means giving yourself to something greater than yourself, compassion means giving yourself to something smaller or more vulnerable than yourself
.

- Shozan Jack Haubner

By centering yourself, you’re already bringing an element of equilibrium to an out-of-whack space. It’s a giant chill pill when someone cuts you off in traffic, when someone budges in line, or when someone isn’t being present with whatever they’re doing.

Sometimes you take on the emotional grind of an entire room, like at school or work, when everyone else is caught up in their stuff, not realizing how their intensity may be infecting a room. Observe, and remain neutral to the swirling energy.

Step Two: Visualize.

Honor someone suffering—physically, emotionally, or mentally. Hold and isolate their life’s pain for them. Use the mind’s eye to create a boundary around that emotional state.

For example, I continue to do this practice when I think of a cancer-survivor acquaintance who lost her beautiful son to suicide. I remember a story she told about him at his celebration of life; she reminisced how at the summit of a hike, not long after she completed chemo, he took out of his backpack a hammock and strung it between trees so she could nap.

I imagine her now, but I pack up her immense pain in a backpack and carry it up the mountainside for her to feel weightless, if just for a moment in real-time.  

Step Three: Breathe.

Hold your image, and then inhale to the count of four or six. Hold at the top. And exhale to the count of four or six with peace and harmony on to them. The goal is to inject softness and ease.

Yoga instructors teach their students to send the breath into discomfort. Rather than release and abandon a pose, dive into the resistance and examine it. How will the mind release the pain if the pain starts in the mind?

Step Four: Extend.

Tonglen Meditation | Mukha Yoga

Mood follows action. By bringing elements of calm and peace into the mind’s eye, you’re training your heart to emanate compassion when your default may be to be reactive, impatient, or irritated.  

Most practitioners would suggest you do Tonglen on a cushion, in lotus pose with an erect spine, and in a quiet room. That’s great. That’s ideal. But I realize most of us don’t live in perfect, monastic spaces. We have partners, kids, roommates, animals, coworkers, bosses, neighbors, nonstop news alerts, noise pollution, and social media muckety-muck in contention of our bandwidth. Hence, I encourage the use of Tonglen when you’re in the world, among others, and it’s anything but quiet.

Bring a meditative quality to times of unrest to live presently, intentionally, and empathetically. When we practice Tonglen out and about, then we become soft places for others to land when what they need most is being accepted with an open, kind heart.

May compassion become the connective tissue for meeting others when they are mired in their less-than-ideal state of being. Perhaps our default mode will become neutral to aching, with a baseline drip of compassion for ourselves and others.


By Tricia Louvar; All Rights Reserved @2022

By Tricia Louvar; All Rights Reserved @2022