Tonglen Meditation
by Diane Linsley

Tonglen is a meditation practice that increases compassion for
ourselves and others. It was developed by a Buddhist teacher in
India over a thousand years ago.

I first read about tonglen in Ken Wilber's book, Grace and Grit,
which is the story of his wife Treya's five-year battle with breast
cancer. During the last two years of her life, she practiced tonglen every day. Ken says it was her favorite spiritual practice. It gave her courage and kept her from sinking into self-pity and disconnection from the rest of humanity.

Soon after my introduction to tonglen, I came across references to it in three other books. I took this remarkable coincidence as a sign, and I started practicing tonglen. I was amazed at the results. Tonglen doesn't get stale. In fact, it becomes more powerful and effective the longer you do it.

Each of the books gave slightly different instructions for tonglen meditation. Here's how I do it.

How to Do Tonglen

Think about whatever is bothering you the most right now. Is it physical pain? A relationship issue? The fear of something in the future? Think of the person, thing or event that is causing your suffering. Notice how your body tenses when you think about it. Where is the tension? Is it in your stomach, your chest or your throat? Maybe it's throughout your whole body.

Now that you are in touch with your pain, take a deep breath in through your nose, filling up your belly, then your chest, then your head (so to speak). As you breathe in, say in your mind, "Breathing in ___." Fill in the blank with the negative thought or emotion. For example, if I'm feeling anxious about an upcoming event, I might say, "Breathing in fear of ___" or just "Breathing in anxiety."

Now, as you breathe out, say in your mind, "Breathing out compassion." Focus on feeling compassion for yourself. You can also breathe out relaxation, peace, love or freedom.

Once you have mastered the breathing and words, you can add a visualization, if you like. In traditional tonglen practice, you would visualize the source of your suffering as a dark cloud of smoke, breathing it in and transforming it through your heart chakra into the light of compassion.

It's okay if your breathing feels restricted or you are afraid of breathing in the "bad stuff." That's a normal reaction. You are feeling resistance, which is an automatic reaction to pain. Relax your muscles and breathe deeply. Some teachers recommend imagining a window opening in your heart. Tonglen opens the heart chakra, which is the energetic center for compassion.

In her book, Intuitive Healing, Dr. Judith Orloff recommends doing tonglen for physical pain. She says, "As you inhale, breathe all your pain in. Visualize it as a cloud of dark smoke. Let it flow throughout your body, right to the core of your compassion. Now picture every last bit of the black smoke dissolving, purified by love. As you exhale, imagine this love as clear white light. Send it back to your area of discomfort. Breathe in pain. Breathe out compassion."

This reminds me of what Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi mystic, said: "The cure for pain is in the pain."

You can also do Tonglen for someone in your life who is suffering. Breathe in their pain, and breathe out compassion to them.

Tonglen and Forgiveness

It's easy enough to do Tonglen for ourselves or for those we feel loving towards. But the next step is more challenging and more rewarding. It's the nail in the ego's coffin.

Think of someone who has hurt you. As you breathe in, say (for example), "Breathing in my mother's criticism." Really take it in and feel it. As you breathe out, say, "Breathing out compassion to my mother." Keep doing this over and over until all the negative feelings are neutralized.

In our example, the criticism happened in a moment in time and then passed away. If we had released the initial shock and pain as soon as it happened, we wouldn't be hurting right now. Instead, we went into resistance, and the pain got trapped in the body. As we do tonglen, the pain resurfaces, but this time we drop our resistance and release it. Soon, the pain is gone, and we are amazed to find compassion and forgiveness in its place.

The third and final step in tonglen is to take it to the level of the whole world. As you breathe in, say, "Breathing in the pain of every person who has suffered like this." As you breathe out, say, "Breathing out compassion to everyone who suffers." Or you can simply say, "Breathing in suffering. Breathing out compassion."

Why Tonglen Works

Whenever I first tell people about tonglen, they freak out over the instructions. A typical response is, "I don't want to breathe in the bad stuff! What if I get sick?" A dear friend told me, "I've been breathing in light and breathing out darkness for years. Now you want me to breathe in the bad stuff? How can that be good for me?"

Well, as Ken Wilber explains, this is the ego's reaction. It doesn't want to accept the negative side. And that's exactly why this practice is so powerful. It breaks open the shell of the ego. As a spiritual seeker, you say that you want to experience Oneness. That's the whole point of spiritual practice, right?

Your ego is in the way. When you reinforce the ego, instead of transcending it, you get stuck. You live in the fear and pain of separation, and you wonder why everything hurts - why your relationships don't work, why you fear the future, and why your achievements don't bring you lasting happiness.

We blame other things for making us suffer, but it's actually our resistance that causes the pain. Tonglen breaks the habit of resistance. Here's what Ken Wilber says about it:

"A strange thing begins to happen when one practices tonglen for any length of time. First of all, nobody actually gets sick.... Rather, you find that you stop recoiling in the face of suffering, both yours and others'. You stop running from pain, and instead find that you can begin to transform it by simply being willing to take it into yourself and then release it. The real changes start to happen in you, by the simple willingness to get your ego-protecting tendencies out of the way. You begin to relax the self/other tension, realizing that there is only one Self feeling all the pain or enjoying all the success.... A great equality consciousness develops, which undercuts pride and arrogance on the one hand, and fear and envy on the other."

Trust the process. Tonglen has been practiced for over a thousand years because it works. If, after a few years of practicing it, you don't feel any better, you can quit :)

Tonglen and Compassion

Tonglen takes us beyond ourselves and our egoic separation. We realize that everyone suffers, and we are part of the human race. If you are a Christian, you can imagine Jesus Christ taking upon himself all the sins and suffering of the world and transforming them into compassion and forgiveness. This is a powerful process!

In her article, How to Practice Tonglen, Pema Chodron says that tonglen reverses our usual habit of looking away from other people's suffering. Our natural inclination is to avoid suffering and seek pleasure. In order to develop compassion, we must be willing to face suffering - our own and others'.

So, that's tonglen in a nutshell. I hope you can imagine how useful this process can be in your life. Each day will undoubtedly present you with many opportunities to practice tonglen and develop compassion for yourself and others.

Soon you will find yourself automatically breathing in and releasing each little annoyance of life as it arises. And when something big comes along, you will already have a powerful practice in place to help you deal with it. You will also be able to help others in their suffering.

Here's a Tonglen guided meditation.

Be well,
Diane Linsley

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