Tonglen is a Buddhist practice of “sending and taking.”
It helps to cultivate an attitude of fearlessness around our emotions and meet our suffering with grace. Tonglen asks us to invite in the pain, to turn toward it while our habitual conditioning asks us to contract and shield ourselves in the face of pain. In this way, the practice can lead us to a great deal of freedom, courage, and open-heartedness.
Tonglen can be broken down into an easy, approachable four-step practice.
The actions below are a great way to get started.
1. Open up.
As you’re feeling your suffering and intense emotional experience, turn toward the pain. Invite it in. Visualize pain and pleasure.
2. Visualize the pain as black, heavy, hot smoke and breathe it in.
Then, visualize pleasure or relief as white, cool light and breathe that out. Do this a few more times.
3. Visualize your situation.
Visualize the current situation and connect with the pain of it. Breathe that in, feeling it completely. This is the opposite of avoidance. When you breathe out, allow the sense of ventilating and opening. Breathe out relief in whatever form you need.
4. Practice for all beings.
Now, do this same practice for all beings. Breathe in, connecting to the reality that there are other beings suffering in the same way as you right at this moment. As you touch that pain that all human beings are experiencing, imagine that you can feel it so that no one else has to. Breathe in and imagine that you could relieve all beings who are suffering in this way as you inhale their pain. As you exhale, give away anything you have inside of you that you think could help.
With the support of visualizations, tonglen offers us a sense of agency, even in a difficult situation. We are reminded that we are not trapped by our old patterns or by external circumstances. We can meet our challenges with an open heart and turn them into something beautiful.