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.
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.