Empathetic people can sometimes feel a sense of burnout, especially when there are many people or situations in our lives that deserve compassion. Burnout occurs when we feel it’s impossible to meet the constant demands on our energy or when we feel there’s simply nothing we can do to improve a situation. When this happens it’s time to stop for a moment and take a breath—a Tonglen breath.

The Compassionate Breath

The practice of Tonglen meditation is from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It is primarily a method for overcoming the fear of suffering—yours or someone else’s—and increasing compassion. Put most simply, Tonglen in the act of breathing in the difficult emotions, allowing yourself to fully feel that emotion, and then breathing out compassion for the situation or person who is facing that adversity. Even if that person is you.

Beloved Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön defines Tonglen as a method for awakening and increasing the levels of compassion we’re capable of, all while replenishing ourselves.

Anyone can practice Tonglen, anywhere, at home, at the office or at the bedside of a sick loved one. The steps are simple, but the practice can bring up deep wells of emotion when you first begin.

  1. Focus on a person or situation where there is suffering. It’s perfectly fine if that person is yourself.
  2. Breathe in the suffering. You may be able to clearly define it as physical pain, grief or loneliness or less clearly as a heavy darkness or tight feeling in the pit of your stomach.
  3. Exhale love, compassion and caring. Imagine your love traveling directly to the person/people who is suffering and making them feel better.
  4. Continue steps 2 and 3. As you breathe in, expand your focus from just one person or situation, to all the people across the world who are experiencing the same suffering. As you breathe out, send feelings of compassion around the world.
  5. End your meditation when it feels complete.

For example, let’s say you want to practice Tonglen to help an elderly neighbor who is fearful of dying alone. First, you focus on that specific neighbor, breathe in those feelings of fear and loneliness, breathe out feelings of compassion and love directed to your neighbor. But as you continue, your own fears of dying pop up. Breathe those fears in, and direct compassion to yourself until you feel better. Then as the last step, think of all the elderly who may be lonely and fearful in their golden years, and send compassion out to them.

Typically, we’re taught to avoid suffering and avoid dwelling on uncomfortable feelings, especially if we can’t do anything about them. But Tonglen asks us to face suffering, to bring it into our bodies through the breath, because there is something we can do about it. We can become more compassionate. The practice of Tonglen helps prevent emotional burnout as it increases the levels of love and caring we have for ourselves, not just for others. The next time you’re feeling like the problems of the world are too much to bear, just breathe.