Tonglen, which translates to “giving and taking,” is a type of meditation from Tibetan Buddhism. When one engages in tonglen, the goal is to take in the suffering of others and send out positive energy in exchange, to offer feelings of love, joy, peace, relief, relaxation.

Why Practice Tonglen?

Tonglen helps us to overcome our fear of suffering. Understandably, most of us try to avoid unpleasantness at any and all costs. By inviting pain in and being present with it, tonglen teaches us to stop putting up walls of resistance.

But just as important, tonglen also helps us develop compassion. As we absorb the pain of those around us, we learn to experience it as our own. We become a little softer, realizing we are all worthy of loving kindness. As Pema Chodron writes in her book, When Things Fall Apart,

“Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others. Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality.”

How To Do Tonglen

Tonglen can be done for anyone who is suffering, whether from sickness, depression, grief, or financial problems. Tonglen can be done with someone specific in mind, or it can be performed for all of humanity. Though tonglen draws from Buddhist principles, one needn’t be a Buddhist to practice tonglen. To help you start, here are a few basic steps from Chodron’s practice.    

1.     Find a comfortable and quiet space. Let your mind rest in a state of openness and stillness.  

2.     Breathe in feelings of discomfort, stuffiness, darkness. Breathe deeply and let the the feelings penetrate all of you. Then, breathe out a sensation of cool, bright, lightness. Do this until the feelings are in sync with your breathing.

3.     Think of someone you know that’s suffering and whom you wish to help. You can also start with yourself. If you choose the latter, consider something you’ve been personally struggling with and extend your thoughts to include all those who are going through a similar situation. For example, you might struggle with low self-esteem. When breathing in, you breathe for yourself and anyone else who also feels inadequate.

4.     Over time, try to extend your tonglen practice even further and wider to include more people. If you are doing your meditation for a sick friend, breathe in for everyone else who is struggling with the same sickness. This means strangers, enemies, and those you’ve never met. Think how they must suffer the same as your friend.

You can do tonglen as a formal meditation exercise, but you can also do it on the spot. Whenever you see suffering on the street or come across a person in pain, you simply breathe in their suffering and send out whatever you think will help.

Tonglen is an ancient practice, going all the way back to the 11th century. And yet tonglen is as relevant as ever. Everyday, we encounter suffering, be it in our ourselves, our loved ones, or when we turn on the news. Tonglen brings us to a place where we are ready to embrace everyone’s pain rather than turn away out of fear.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of suffering in the world. Let us make sure there is no shortage of compassion.