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.
Related: Unlimited Friendliness
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.
You can do tonglen on the spot when strong emotions come up and you don’t know what to do with them. For example, you might be having a painful argument with your spouse or your boss at work. They are yelling at you, and you don’t know how to react. So you can start to breathe in the painful feelings and send out a sense of spaciousness and relaxation with the outbreath—for yourself, for the person who is yelling at you, and for all the other people who are dealing with a similarly difficult situation. Of course, at some point you have to react to the person who is yelling at you, but by introducing some space and warmth into the situation, you will probably deal with it more skillfully.
Related: Making Friends With Oneself
You can also do this practice when you feel some blockage to opening and developing compassion. For example, you see a homeless person on the street who is asking you for money and seems to be an alcoholic. In spite of your desire to be compassionate, you can’t help but turn away and feel disgust or resentment. At that point, you can start doing tonglen for yourself and all the other people who want to be open but are basically shut down. You breathe in the feeling of shut-downness, your own and everybody else’s. Then you send out a sense of space or relaxation or letting go. When you feel blocked, that’s not an obstacle to tonglen; it’s part of the practice. You work with what feels like blockage as the seed of awakening in your heart and as connection with other people.
From Tonglen, The Path of Transformation, © 2001 by Pema Chodron, edited by Tingdzin Otro. Reprinted with permission of Vajradhatu Publications, www.shambhalashop.com.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.