Tonglen meditation is an ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice that focuses on cultivating compassion and wisdom. Its name comes from the Tibetan words “tong” (to send or give) and “len” (to receive or take). The essence of Tonglen is the act of consciously breathing in the suffering and pain of others, then transforming it into compassionate love and liberation.
Although the concept of Tonglen may seem strange or even uncomfortable at first, it is a powerful practice that can help us develop greater empathy and compassion for others and ourselves. Instead of turning away from suffering, Tonglen meditation invites us to face it head-on, embracing it with love and compassion.
What is Tonglen meditation for, and what are its benefits?
Tonglen meditation is primarily used as a practice to develop and cultivate compassion, both for others and for oneself. It is a powerful practice for transforming the way we experience and relate to suffering and difficulty, both in our own lives and in the lives of others.
Tonglen helps us to develop genuine and active compassion for others. By directly facing the suffering of others in our meditation, we learn to connect emotionally with their struggles and challenges. This enables us to approach others with empathy and a greater willingness to help when possible.
By visualizing and breathing in the suffering of others, we place ourselves in their shoes and practice empathy. This allows us to better understand the experiences of others and prompts us to act with understanding and compassion in our daily interactions.
Breaking down emotional barriers
Tonglen meditation invites us to confront any resistance or aversion we may feel toward suffering. In doing so, we learn to approach difficult situations with courage and acceptance, which helps us to break down emotional barriers and better cope with pain both in our own lives and in the lives of others.
Freedom from selfishness
The practice of Tonglen meditation allows us to become aware that all beings share the experience of suffering. This helps us to dissolve the sense of separateness and selfishness that often prevents us from relating to others in a compassionate way. Tonglen meditation fosters a sense of connection and belonging to humanity as a whole.
Self-compassion and self-care
Tonglen is not limited only to others; it also allows us to work with our own suffering. The practice teaches us to treat ourselves with the same compassion and care that we bring to others. By learning to face our suffering and transform it, we cultivate self-compassion and the ability to heal our emotional wounds.
Releasing Negative Patterns
By transforming suffering into love and compassion, Tonglen helps us to free ourselves from negative mental and emotional patterns. It allows us to free ourselves from resentment, anger and attachment to the past, which contributes to greater peace of mind and emotional balance.
The importance of facing suffering
Siddhartha Gautama Buddha identified suffering (dukkha) as one of the fundamental truths of human existence. Rather than avoiding or denying it, Buddhism advocates facing suffering with courage and wisdom.
Buddhism recognizes that suffering is an intrinsic part of human life. All beings, without exception, are subject to the experience of pain, illness, old age and death. By facing this reality without evasion, Buddhism invites us to look squarely at the impermanent and uncertain nature of existence and to understand that suffering is an inescapable part of our life experience.
The Four Noble Truths, which are the core of the Buddha’s teaching, provide a structure for dealing with suffering. The first of these truths is precisely the existence of suffering (dukkha), the second deals with the origin of suffering, the third speaks of the possibility of the cessation of suffering and the fourth is the path to liberation from suffering. Facing suffering is the first step towards the path of liberation.
Facing suffering leads us to question the nature of existence and to seek deeper answers. This confrontation prompts us to seek spiritual awakening and to ask questions about the meaning and purpose of life. Buddhism holds that the quest for liberation from suffering guides us toward the realization of Buddhahood, which is a state of wisdom and enlightened compassion.
Facing suffering does not mean passively resigning ourselves to it or clinging to it. Buddhism teaches us to accept suffering as it is, without resistance, and to cultivate detachment from things and experiences that inevitably change and pass away. By facing suffering with detachment, we can reduce our negative emotional reaction and find greater inner peace.
By understanding our own suffering, we develop greater empathy for other beings who are also experiencing pain and hardship. Compassion is an essential quality in Buddhism and is seen as a source of benefit to oneself and others, hence its importance.
The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to achieve liberation from the cycle of suffering, known as Samsara, and attain the state of Nirvana. To achieve this, it is essential to confront suffering directly and develop a deep understanding of its causes and nature. By recognizing and facing suffering, we are taking an important step towards spiritual liberation and transcendence of pain.
Through the challenges and difficulties we encounter in our daily lives, we have the opportunity to learn important lessons, develop inner strength and cultivate the wisdom that guides us toward a more meaningful and fulfilling life.
Steps of Tonglen meditation
To practice Tonglen meditation, it is important to find a quiet, comfortable place to sit in meditation. There is no single way to practice; each teacher has his or her own script and adapts it according to the needs of the meditator. Here are the fundamental elements for you to create your personalized Tonglen meditation practice:
Begin by adopting a comfortable posture in which you can keep your back straight and relaxed. You can sit on a meditation cushion or chair, whichever is most comfortable for you. Gently close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath for a few minutes to calm the mind and focus on the present moment.
Generate the intention
Set the intention to perform Tonglen with sincerity and openness. Sincerely wish to alleviate the suffering of others and be willing to face it in yourself to transform it into compassionate love.
Imagine a person or a group of people who are suffering. It can be someone you know personally or a symbolic figure that represents human suffering in general. Visualize their pain and anguish vividly and realistically, without distancing yourself or judging.
On the inhalation, imagine that you are taking in the suffering and pain of that person or group of people in the form of a dark, dense energy. Do not worry about being contaminated by this energy; instead, trust that you will be able to transform it. Allow yourself to feel the fullness of that suffering and the humanity that accompanies it.
On the exhale, imagine sending love, compassion, wisdom and light to that person or group of people. Visualize how that dark, dense energy becomes a bright light that dissipates their suffering and brings them relief and happiness. Don’t worry about perfection at this stage; it is the act of giving and receiving that is important.
Compassion for oneself
Next, direct Tonglen practice toward yourself. Recognize your own sufferings and difficulties, and use the same process of breathing them in and transforming them. Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to release any judgment or self-criticism you may feel.
Once you are comfortable with the practice of Tonglen toward others and yourself, you can expand it to include all sentient beings. Visualize how the suffering of all beings in the world is absorbed into you and then transformed into universal love and compassion.
When you are ready to end the meditation, take several deep breaths and allow your attention to gently return to the present. Open your eyes if they were closed and carry with you the feeling of compassion and connection with all beings.
It is important to emphasize that the practice of Tonglen meditation can be challenging at first, as we are directly confronted with suffering. But do not let this be an impediment to your practice. With time and persistence this meditation can be transformed into a powerful practice for cultivating compassion, empathy and wisdom in our daily lives.