Tonglen is an incredibly powerful Tibetan Buddhist compassion practice that increases our capacity to stay resourceful when confronted with the negativity or suffering of others.
Here’s how to do it:
Find a quiet place to sit and notice your breathing for a while with your eyes closed. Next, imagine someone you care about who is suffering. (Maybe you think of a friend who is grieving a loss or a colleague who is sick. Don’t worry about picking the ‘right’ person. You’ll benefit from the practice regardless of who you visualize.)
As you picture this person in front of you, imagine their suffering surrounds them like a cloud of smoke or a thick smog.
Then breathe in the smoke, allow it to enter your heart, imagining your heart as a bright light that purifies and transforms the suffering into ease, peace, relief and comfort. Breathe in the suffering, breathe out relief, light and peace.
Breathe in and breathe out, allowing the visualization to match your breath. Breathe in the person’s pain, allowing it to be transformed, breathe out compassion and ease. Practice for a few minutes with three targets – a loved one, a stranger and a person who is difficult for you.
Here’s another description of the practice from Ten Paths to Freedom:
“Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist practice of taking on others’ negativity willingly and purifying it for them for the benefit of all beings. The basic practice consists of becoming mindfully relaxed, visualizing another’s negativity as black smoke (or some other dark material), breathing it into your own Being (visualized as brilliant golden-white light in and around your body), purifying it, then breathing it back out as pure brightness and blessing for that person. This helps the world more than you could imagine, and it helps you awaken more powerfully than just about anything else. This visualization is compassion in action. Do it first with your loved ones and friends, then your enemies, if you have any. If you have no enemies, do it with public figures (such as politicians) who anger you. Do it with those you hate or perceive as ignorant or evil. Breathing in others’ negativity in this way cannot harm you , but can only help you and others. Because of the sacred tradition of Tonglen practice, by doing it you cannot take on more negativity than you can safely handle. Fifteen minutes of this practice daily is enough to give you full benefit.” – James Wood, Ten Paths to Freedom
And a few more tips
Tonglen is like a furnace, not a water water filter. It’s about transforming suffering, not collecting it. So when you breathe in the smog or smoke, it doesn’t stay with you.
Letting go of outcome is essential. This practice is not about trying to get the person you’re visualizing to change or be different. Notice if you’re more interested in outcome than the moment. Bring enjoyment to the practice itself, for its own sake.
Tonglen activates our spiritual nature as compassionate beings. It has been described to me as an ‘ego-reducing medicine,’ because it diminishes the narrow focus on self.
Rather than adding to the negativity on the planet, scattering it around like litter, with Tonglen we’re picking it up and transforming it into blessing and ease.
Tonglen can build courage, strength, and resilience. The way an athlete visualizes their race before running it, in Tonglen we’re rehearsing our readiness to help others when confronted with suffering.