Tonglen is the Tibetan practice of “sending and receiving.” Tong means “sending out” or “letting go”; len means “receiving” or “accepting.” Tonglen is ordinarily practiced in sitting meditation, using the breath. Put simply, the practitioner breathes in the bad and breathes out the good, taking on the suffering of other sentient beings. At first the practice may appear self-defeating, but as the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, “The more negativity we take in with a sense of openness and compassion, the more goodness there is to breathe out. So there is nothing to lose.”

This practice is really the essence of the tonglen approach. Because I have found it very helpful for myself, I like to recommend it to all my students. Even if you choose not to do the formal tonglen practice, you can always do this on-the-spot practice. Once you get used to it and practice it regularly, it will make formal tonglen practice more real and meaningful to you.

This is a practice that you can do for a real-life situation. Whenever you meet a situation that awakens your compassion or that is painful and difficult for you, you can stop for a moment, breathe in any suffering that you see, and breathe out a sense of relief. It is a simple and direct process. Unlike the formal practice, it does not involve any visualizations or steps. It’s a simple and natural exchange: you see suffering, you take it in with the inbreath, you send out relief with the outbreath.

For example, you might be in the supermarket and see a mother slapping her little girl. It is painful for you to see, but there is really nothing you can say or do at that moment.

Your first reaction might be to turn away out of fear and try to forget it. But in this practice, instead of turning away, you could actually start to do tonglen for the little girl who is crying and also for the angry mother who has reached the end of her rope. You can send out a general sense of relaxation and openness, or something specific, like a hug or a kind word, or whatever feels right to you at the moment. It’s not all that conceptual; it’s almost spontaneous. When you contact a painful situation in this way and stay with it, it can open up your heart and become the source of compassion.

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