The Practice of Tonglen

Tonglen is a Tibetan practice of breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out love and compassion to them.

It is important when doing this meditation to have a centering point to continue to return to as the meditation continues. It can be done for someone close to you…start with someone easy for you then progress to several people if you feel called to do so.

There are several parts to the meditation.

First, acceptance. We must accept where we are and what we can and cannot do. If we overextend in our attempt to help another, we help no one. A good example of this was the other day when I went to visit a friend in hospice. For 2 days before, I had waves of grief that seemed out of proportion to the event of going. I say it this way only because I was aware she was my friend and felt grief for her going, she is the mother of someone I consider one of my dearest friends…the waves seemed very personal. As I sat with the sensation, I “remembered” I had just lost my mother a year ago. So I took my time getting settled inside until something in me settled and felt clear peace for all. It was there that I became aware of what I could extend, what I could do for my friends with integrity. I didn’t necessarily have to cry or have grief for getting there, but it was part of the acceptance of where I was that made this process important. I had to start with where I was.

Second, extend your love and acceptance to others. I breathed in where I was and felt a glimmer of love…the treetops waved gently overhead, the fall sun sank below the horizon, the temperature dropped and became cooler. I was aware of the embrace of nature around me and extended this embrace to encircle those I was going to see at hospice. In this process, it is important to remember to have compassion when first starting this and to encircle what you can, not what you think you should. Forgiveness and connection have a flow of their own when sitting in presence. Start with extending to what is natural.

Third, begin the practice. Breathe in their suffering, breathe out love. Keep returning to that which you are. The nature around you, the place of center within.

Note: It is important to keep throughout the element of acceptance and returning to what grounds and center you. Sometimes the only suffering you can breathe in is your own. Learning to transmute and breathe in your own suffering, to be with it, can change the world alone without having to do much more. But in breathing in your own suffering, you open yourself to the world.

Fourth, follow the breath. Breathing in that what appears, yours, theirs. Breathe it in. Take in the darkness. Let it pass through you. You are the infinite light and this act is an act of healing, courage, and the expression of your divinity. You are larger than the demons that you breathe in. Breathe out light. Breathe out love. Breathe out the luminosity of the universe. Breathing in: “may all the suffering and pain before me be transmuted to the frequency of grace and love. may all beings have courage and faith.” As I sat with my friend, I became aware of dark energy and heaviness. A desire, stronger than the will to live…a desire to die, to leave. Her soul was searching for a way out of pain. I breathed in the pain and communicated my thought, “may you be well, may you be happy, may you feel loved, may you feel free. may you travel where you must, may you go when it is time.” Over and over. My system tightened with waves of pain at times, then I let go. Breathing out, we are grace, we are love. In time her breathing softened and she fell into a deep sleep. Holding her hand while she slumbered, the waves of grace overcame me. I was grateful and I did what I could.

Fifth: follow your sensation. It may shift inside from the hands, to the heart, to the legs. But remember your body. Your body and its sensations are a more reliable guide than your thoughts and perceptions.

To end: breathe out and declare gratitude for your courage and all those that guide you in the healing of suffering within the world and within yourself. Actively let go by word, by touch, by ritual that you are done.

My friend died several days later. But we connected in a deep way that allowed for her passage with increased sense and ease.