Laying a foundation for active compassion in your meditation practice
Tonglen is an ancient form of meditation that focuses on compassion: connecting with it, developing it, and learning how to apply it in everyday life. The practice centers on imagining that as we exhale, we are sharing the light of well-being and its causes with everyone who needs it. As we inhale, we are relieving others of the darkness of suffering and its causes.
While its roots are Buddhist, in recent years, tonglen meditation has found favor in a variety of contexts, from spiritual to therapeutic to secular. Its popularity is a bit surprising given how different it is from the usual “I need to focus on myself first” self-help mantra, but people from all walks of life have found it beneficial on many levels. As it turns out, one of the most powerful ways to be kind to yourself is to develop an eagerness and ability to help others.
The word “tonglen” is a Tibetan term that translates as “sending and taking.” The practice belongs to a great corpus of Buddhist teachings called Mind Training. Based on contemplation, meditation, and active compassion, this spiritual path trains the mind to be more empathetic and awake. The meditation aspect of Mind Training incorporates mindfulness, awareness, and tonglen.
Every spiritual path offers guidelines on how to be more compassionate. By and large, traditional compassion meditations focus on the wish to alleviate suffering, for example in the Buddhist prayer known as the Four Limitless Thoughts or Immeasurables. To even have this wish, there has to be a willingness to acknowledge the existence of suffering in our lives, in the lives of those we care about, and in general. Our usual response to unpleasantness is, “How do I avoid it? How can I help those I care about escape it?” But this form of meditation is radically different: we work with accepting the presence of suffering and we use it to open our hearts.
The urge to escape pain and discomfort is a deeply ingrained survival mechanism. In many cases, however (and notably when our survival isn’t at stake), rejecting what’s happening only adds to our discomfort. There will always be unwelcome situations that we simply can’t correct just now: separations, losses, illnesses, and failures; injustices, pandemics, upheavals, and catastrophes. Instead of reacting with “fight, flight or freeze,” we can use our meditation practice to accept the present moment as it is, and to open our hearts and connect with others. Then we can make use of our composure and compassion to fix what can be fixed.
The practice of tonglen meditation
Tonglen practice begins with breath awareness and continues with a wish to establish beings in happiness and free them from suffering. This wish is expressed in an image. You imagine that as you exhale, you share the light of freedom, of well-being and its causes, with everyone who needs it. And as you inhale, you relieve beings (including yourself—self-compassion is a natural part of the process) of the darkness of distress and its causes.
On the outbreath: soothing rays of light—like moonbeams—that fill the world with their benevolent healing power. On the inbreath: a smoky, pitch-like darkness. Inviting it in on the inbreath relieves the world of its negative presence. The darkness is transformed by your positive intention and the natural goodness of your heart.
There are many different versions of this practice, both traditional and modern. The simplest form is simply connecting motivation and breath while you meditate. You are essentially accepting the unpleasant and sharing the good.
As taught today, tonglen is often practiced in stages. After settling the mind in meditation, we choose an object of compassion: a person, animal, or group whose situation touches our hearts. We breathe in the smoky darkness of that specific distress, imagining that the object of our meditation is relieved of all difficulties, whatever they may be. We breathe out the soothing light of compassion; it touches the object of compassion, bringing comfort and peace. This is followed by a phase of expanding the visualization to others who experience similar distress. And expanding yet again until all suffering is alleviated and all goodness is shared.
To illustrate the practice in stages, here’s a tonglen meditation script that can be freely adapted or used as is.
A sample tonglen meditation script
- Sit comfortably and settle in.
- Begin with mindfulness meditation, maintaining your focus on the breath. As you breathe in, be present with breathing in. As you breathe out, be present with breathing out. Acknowledge distracting thoughts and emotions as they arise, let go of them, and return to connecting with the breath.
- Now link intention to the breath. On the exhale, breathe out the light of basic goodness: your wish to help alleviate pain and suffering. On the inhale, invite the smoky darkness of negativity and suffering to enter your heart where it will be transformed into light.
- Imagine that your initial object of compassion is a frightened stray dog cowering in a cage at an animal control facility. Begin the exchange by breathing in the darkness of her fear, isolation, and bewilderment so that she is relieved of it.
- As you breathe out, your affectionate heart radiates soothing, gentle light beams that touch, reassure, and comfort her. She becomes confident and happy, cared-for and loved.
- Extend your meditation to other scared dogs, other caged animals, all beings stuck behind bars, and so on. Breathe in the darkness of their distress, breathe out the light of freedom and peace; imagine their relief and allow it to touch your heart.
- Expand the circle of goodwill—the scope of your imagination is the only limit. Breathe out happiness and its causes; breathe in suffering and negativities. Allow your heart’s natural goodness to shine unreservedly and touch the world with its grace.
- Finally, relax into open meditation and sit within that for a few more minutes.
A few things to consider
Tonglen can be simple or elaborate. It can be practiced on the spot any time you encounter distressing, unwelcome situations in everyday life, as well as on the cushion or chair as part of a meditation session. Tonglen is very adaptable; the wish to help others is at its core. It provides a template for how to be compassionate even when faced with challenging circumstances, people, emotions, and information by using them all as a training ground.
Acknowledging and accepting what we and others are struggling with does not equal resignation. The practice gives us a sense of agency and takes the factors that compound distress—a sense of isolation, lack of connection, self-focus, and rejection of what is—and turns them around. It helps us realize that pain is not necessarily a mistake or a problem that needs solving; it’s simply part of the human condition. Every situation is workable and can be folded into the path. That’s the radical beauty of tonglen.