Tonglen: Meditation for Compassion
Tibetan Buddhists have a type of meditation aimed at fostering compassion for the self, others, and the world at large. This practice is called Tonglen. The Tibetan word Ton means “to give” and Glen “to receive”. The act of giving and receiving makes up the process of tonglen, as one visualizes both receiving compassion for the self and giving compassion to others.
The meditation has four steps. First, sit quietly and comfortably and just begin to notice your breath. The black dot in the diagram below represents the process of connecting with your inner self. Start to notice the places in your body that feel tense or tight. Begin to notice the length of your inhales and exhales and focus on the texture of the breathe. Is it hot? Constricted? Is your chest tight? Do you feel restless? Does your back hurt? Is it hard to concentrate? What is bringing you discomfort in this moment? Bring those feelings to the forefront of your awareness.
Awareness of the Inner Self
Once you feel connected to your body and can identify the sensations you’re having inside, you’re ready to move outward. The green circle represents your outer-self. The self that operates in the world and engages others. Continue to focus on your breath. As you inhale, visualize drawing up all the physical discomfort you just noticed in your body. As you exhale, imagine breathing out cool air. Inhale the heat, tension, and discomfort. Exhale light and cooling relief. If it helps to work with color, inhale and visualize reds, oranges, and yellows. As you exhale, imagine blowing baby blue smoke out of your mouth. Visualize greens, blues, and deep purples on your exhales. Start to visualize this process of inhaling and exhaling as a way of releasing the inner tension you just noticed and transforming it through the breath.
Awareness of the inner self and the outer self
When you have a visualization down that works for you, you’re ready to move on to step three. The yellow circle in the diagram below represents the pain of other people. As we get better at visualizing our own process of transforming tension into cooling relief, we can also visualize this process for other people. In step three, bring to your mind someone else’s pain. It could be a sick family member, a relationship conflict you’re having, or a friend that is going through a difficult time. Choose someone that you want to understand more fully or someone that needs extra love and support. Remember your visualization from step two – breathing in pain, heat, and tension. Exhaling support, relief, and calm. Bring this person to your awareness and envision breathing in their pain. As you exhale, imagine sending them tenderness, sweetness, and relief from pain.
As you can see from the diagram, with each stage your breath and your awareness expands. You conjure up the compassion for yourself, and then send it out further and further until finally, in stage four, you send loving-kindness and awareness into the world.
In the final stage of Tonglen meditation, visualize holding the pain of the world and sending out loving-kindness to all living things. You could pick a specific world issue to focus on that weighs heavy on your heart, like the environment, domestic violence, poverty, or hunger. Or you could focus on the general suffering of other human beings. In this last stage of the meditation, allow your inhales to draw towards you the pain that inflicts itself on every living being. As you exhale, imagine sending compassion, beauty, and gentleness to other living creatures in their suffering.
Continue your cycle of inhales and exhales, allowing the rhythm of your breath to remind you that each living being is united in this cycle of inhales and exhales. Visualize how your breath links you to other living beings, and send them your compassion. Imagine how your decision to send compassion can improve the lives of the people you come into contact with.
Imagine how this trans-formative practice of Tonglen connects you to yourself and others more fully. Continue your breath cycles until you feel complete.