Over the past few years, I’ve continued to be impressed by Pema Chödrön and her focus on the topic of tonglen. Tonglen is a cornerstone Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice for generating compassion in the world. The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. First and foremost, it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we may appear to be. In the practice, one visualizes taking onto oneself the suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving happiness and success to all sentient beings. As such it is a training in altruism.
Tonglen is a traditional practice that helps us to unlock our natural capacity to love. Tonglen is a practice where what we usually resent and push away becomes the very means by which our heart and mind become open and free. As Pema describes it, each of us has a soft spot: the place in our experience where we feel vulnerable and tender. This soft spot is inherent in appreciation and love, and it is equally inherent in pain. Often, when we feel that soft spot, it’s quickly followed by a feeling of fear and an involuntary, habitual tendency to shut down. This is the tendency of all living things: to avoid pain and to hold on tight to pleasure. In practice, however, covering up the soft spot means shutting down against our life experience. Then we tend to narrow down into a solid feeling of self against other.
One very powerful and effective way to work with this tendency to push away pain and hold on to pleasure is the practice of tonglen. Tonglen is a Tibetan word that literally means ascending and taking. The practice originated in India and came to Tibet in the 11th century. In tonglen practice, when we see or feel suffering, we breathe in with the notion of completely feeling it, accepting it, and owning it. Then we breathe out, radiating compassion, loving kindness, freshness; anything that encourages relaxation and openness.
In this practice, it’s not uncommon to find yourself blocked, because you come face to face with your own fear, resistance, or whatever your personal “stuckness” happens to be at that moment. At that point, you can change the focus and do tonglen for yourself and for millions of others just like you who, at that very moment, are feeling exactly the same misery.
Pema particularly encourages tonglen on the spot. For example, you’re walking down the street and you see the pain of another human being. On-the-spot tonglen means that you don’t just rush by; you actually breathe in with the wish that this person could be free of suffering, and send them out some kind of good heart or well-being. If seeing that other person’s pain brings up your fear or anger or confusion, which often happens, just start doing tonglen for yourself and all the other people who are stuck in the very same way.
When you do tonglen on the spot, you simply breathe in and breathe out, taking in pain and sending out spaciousness and relief. When you do tonglen as a formal practice, it has four stages:
- First, rest your mind briefly in a state of openness or stillness.
- Second, work with texture. Breathe in a feeling of hot, dark, and heavy, and breathe out a feeling of cool, bright, and light. Breathe in and radiate out completely, through all the pores of your body, until it feels synchronized with your in- and out-breath.
- Third, work with any painful personal situation that is real to you. Traditionally, you begin by doing tonglen for someone you care about. However, if you’re stuck, do the practice for your pain and simultaneously for all those just like you who feel that kind of suffering.
- Finally, make the taking in and sending out larger. Whether you’re doing tonglen for someone you love or for someone you see on television, do it for all the others in the same boat. You could even do tonglen for people you consider your enemies—those who have hurt you or others. Do tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same confusion and stuckness as your friend or yourself.
This is to say that tonglen can extend infinitely. As you do the practice, gradually, over time, your compassion naturally expands—and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought. As you do this practice, at your own pace, you’ll be surprised to find yourself more and more able to be there for others, even in what used to seem like impossible situations.