Tonglen is a process that invites us to breathe in the suffering of ourselves and the world, as we breathe out ease, comfort, peace. Through identifying with the negativity and distress around us – recognizing that it is part of the human experience and, as such, not separate from us, and that many people are experiencing exactly the suffering or negativity that is the focus of our meditation or experience right now – we diffuse some of the intensity of this suffering and chaos. In the Tonglen process, we breathe into our heart any suffering, distress of whatever kind, 360 degrees around, through every pore, and then breathe out – through every pore, again – ease, calm, comfort, peace, compassion – whatever transforms the suffering we have taken in.
Pema Chodron tells stories of interactions with people that were literally transformed by applying Tonglen on the spot. For example, she tells a story of a therapist who was in the presence of a parent who was extremely angry. Instead of becoming defensive – as was the therapist’s usual response with confronted by such intense aggression – he began to breathe in the anger and breathe out ease. Shortly, the client calmed down and was able to get to the pain under the explosive anger of just moments before. The therapist was convinced that the Tonglen not only helped transform the energy in the room, but also shifted his own state of mind into one much more receptive and at ease.
In this particular version of Tonglen practice, you begin by identifying a feeling you may have that causes you discomfort. It may be anxiety, fear, anger, despair, insecurity—any feeling that creates a sense of distress and/or overwhelm. Then, you expand your awareness to acknowledge that, in this same moment all over the world, countless other people also experience this same feeling.
Begin by noticing that the energy of love in your heart is like a fire. You might imagine the fire of love burning in your heart now. This is the energy into which you will breathe the distressing feeling. Love neutralizes and transforms whatever it touches and, as you do Tonglen regularly, the strength of the fire of love in your heart increases.
As you get in touch with the feeling that’s causing you distress, remind yourself that this energy represents a universal human feeling, thought, or physical experience and that countless people you will never know also experience this feeling.
Then, begin to breathe in this collective distress, along with your own, bringing it into your heart space where the fire of love neutralizes and transforms it. As you exhale, send peace, compassion, ease – whatever quality you choose – first to yourself throughout your whole body and then out to all those other people who suffer from the same distress.
Continue to breathe for as long as you want, noticing what shifts in your experience as you do so.
Regular practice of Tonglen creates not only your own internal comfort and ease, but a deepened sense of connection with others that is, in itself, comforting.