Tonglen: A Practice in Compassion

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed about a compassion-based practice I’ve been turning to quite a bit lately – Tonglen. Stephanie Gailing, an astrologer and wellness consultant based out of Seattle, had been noticing a theme among her clients and friends – they have been increasingly feeling overwhelmed by the amount of suffering they’re experiencing and witnessing. A highly compassionate person herself, this inspired Stephanie to explore Tonglen as a potential go-to practice for herself and others in the midst of difficulty and suffering. Keep reading below to learn more about our conversation on Tonglen, click here for Stephanie’s full article.

STEPHANIE: WHAT IS TONGLEN?

Ashley: Tonglen is a visualization meditation practice with roots in Tibetan Buddhism. It involves a special focus on the breath; with every inhale, you breath in the suffering of yourself and others, and with every out-breath you send out compassion.

HOW IS IT PRACTICED?

A: I learned how to practice Tonglen from Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist. It involves four basic stages:

  • Take a few moments to simply rest in stillness.
  • Explore the idea of the breath’s “texture”—breathing in hot, heavy, claustrophobic-type feelings and breathing out cool, light and fresh sensations.
  • Consider a painful situation—for example, a loss or challenging health condition—that you or someone you care about is experiencing. As you breath in, imagine taking in this pain. As you exhale, imagine sending out recognition, compassion and love.
  • After several moments of practicing in this way, then extend the practice out bigger—breathing in the suffering for everyone who might experience hurt in this particular way, while also giving compassion and recognition with your out-breath to everyone who may experiencing this painful situation.

MANY PEOPLE SEEM REALLY OVERWHELMED NOW BY THE HURT AND SUFFERING THAT THEY PERCEIVE AROUND THEM AND IN THE WORLD. HOW CAN TONGLEN HELP?

A: In directly pairing suffering with compassion, Tonglen is a practice that can help in a number of key ways. It can help us move past our fear of suffering and reduce our direct experience of suffering.

Hurt is a part of life, no doubt about it, but from a Buddhist perspective, real suffering comes in when we chase pleasure and push away pain. Breathing in suffering while sending out compassion helps us invert this pattern. Over time, we start to recognize that pain is not as solid as it may appear at first blush; rather, it’s a shifting and nuanced experience. This level of recognition reduces the edge of suffering, calming that sense of overwhelm.

Additionally, in both relating to the hurt in others and evoking compassion, we begin to foster more kindness. We see that everyone hurts. We see how others hurt in ways we can relate to. We experience how helpful compassion is for us all. In turn, when we root into high levels of connectivity we tend to take better care others and ourselves.

ARE THERE ANY OTHER BENEFITS OF TONGLEN WE’VE YET TO DISCUSS?

A: Tonglen can also be a wonderful way to become more intimate with the way emotions reveal themselves in our body. Tonglen is a powerful practice, often stirring up a lot of feelings, pleasant and unpleasant. That stirring up tends to make itself known on a physical level (our breath may become more spacious or constricted, our chest may relax or tighten, our feet may steadily ground themselves or fidget, etc.). Getting familiar with how our emotions show up physically can help during other emotionally charged situations—we become more discerning, having a better sense of whether we’re in a good place to respond or if we might benefit from tending to ourselves before taking action.

WHAT RESOURCES WOULD YOU RECOMMEND FOR PEOPLE WANTING TO LEARN MORE?

A: I’m a big fan of When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. Written in a highly accessible manner, it’s a book about moving through life openheartedly, even when things get pretty rough; and, in Chapter 15, she specifically focuses on Tonglen.

I also love Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff. Dr. Neff is both a self-compassion researcher and mindfulness teacher. In her book, she offers a number of strategies for growing compassion in ourselves and towards others. She also highlights research on how self-compassion practices can reduce “compassion fatigue.”

Folks new or newish to mindfulness may want to consider an introductory meditation series at a local meditation or yoga center. They’re a great way to gain tools for navigating challenging emotions and situations. They can also provide a wonderful opportunity to connect with like-minded people. And from my experience, whenever we create the opportunity to directly experience a sense of shared humanity like that, it’s like we’re giving ourselves a big and beautiful gift.

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