How to Meditate Tonglen

Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice to cultivate compassion, altruism, and bravery. It also serves us by acknowledging our own fears and anger, dissolving judgements on ourselves and others.

So often we are met with terrible news: illnesses, earthquakes, death, and people doing cruel things to others. Even when these things are not happening to us, we feel a heart-wrenching empathetic love for those who are suffering. In Buddhism, this love is called bodhichitta. It is the unconditional, everlasting love that sits underneath it all. We often build walls around our hearts in order to not experience this sadness for others, and even for ourselves. These walls we build to protect our hearts is the very thing that disconnects us, imprisoning us in a selfish state of apathy. Further, these walls lead to misunderstanding others, causing illusions and confrontations.

The Buddhist antidote to this wall around the heart is tonglen meditation, known as sending and receiving. Tonglen is at first counterintuitive. Our instinct in life is to avoid suffering and seek pleasure and happiness. But in Tonglen, rather than seeking comfort, joy, and happiness, we breathe in the suffering of another being. On the out breath, we exhale love, light, courage and comfort, sending love to those in need.

This meditation is not meant to bum you out, but instead break your heart wide open. It is an opportunity to experience what our family members, neighbors, friends, and even enemies are enduring, making us more compassionate and connected, seeing beyond the ego and its judgments.

Tonglen also helps us overcome our constant fear of suffering, so that we may not live our lives guided by that fear, but by love. Bringing this compassion and courage into our hearts leads to conscious decisions with positive ripple effects. The Dalai Lama is said to practice Tonglen meditation daily.

This is concept is not unique to Buddhism:

The Prayer of Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life

The Buddhist Tonglen meditation is broken up into four stages:

 1. Rest your mind on the bodhichitta state. Open up your heart in stillness.

2. Breathe in hot, dark, suffering. Experience the constriction of breath, fear or anger. On the exhale, breathe out light, refreshing, love. Stay with these sensations of hot/cool, dark/light, suffering/refreshing as you breathe in and out.

3. Think of the person or peoples that you would like to focus on. It can be someone whom you wish to help, or it may even be someone whom you consider an enemy. Focus on their suffering on each inhalation, and then send them love, comfort, and healing with each exhalation.

4. Incorporate more people in the same situation as the person you are meditating on. Think of all of the people that you do not know, suffering just the same. Breathe tonglen for them.

Commit to this meditation for a series of days, and see what shifts in you. Notice if you become more aware of and compassionate toward others. You may also discover a wealth of strength within, that you were unaware of before.  Yet, true to Buddhist thought, you have to try it for yourself.