A Derivation of Tonglen Meditation – A Form of Subtle Activism

One of the practices I have committed to over the years is now called “subtle activism”.  Subtle activism involves any activity we undertake to support positive change that involves prayer, guided imagery, directing intentions to local or global situations, etc.  One of the primary subtle activism practices I have used for many years is a Buddhist practice called Tonglen.

Tonglen is a process that invites us to breathe in the suffering of the world and breathe out ease, comfort, peace. Through identifying with the negativity 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 the suffering and chaos around us.

There is a more standard Tonglen practice in the meditation below this one.  Here, I want to offer a derivation that I have found some people prefer if they are just beginning to work with the process Tonglen offers. This derivation is for those who are uncomfortable breathing negative energy into their heart space and offers a way to move into this subtle activism process more gently than in the more popular versions of Tonglen practice.

Early in my life, my grandmother taught me about the importance of neutralizing negative energies before they enter the body. Because of this, I found myself uncomfortable with the Tonglen process as taught by Pema Chodron and others, and created the following meditation as a derivation of standard Tonglen practice:

The practice:

Begin by imagining yourself surrounded by a healing light – white, gold, or some other color that speaks to you of qualities that neutralize and transform any kind of negative, heavy, or difficult energy. This can apply to thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations.

Then, identify the energy you’d like to transform. You may choose to focus on hatred, violence, fear – whatever comes to mind as you focus on any upsetting or negative energy – in you or in others. Remind yourself that this energy represents a universal human feeling, thought, or physical experience – something that is possible as a potential in any of our lives and that many people are experiencing right now, in this moment. This allows us to resonate with our connectedness, with our underlying unity.

Then, begin to breathe in through your heart.  Imagine that this negative quality/energy becomes transformed and neutralized by the healing, transformative light that surrounds you. As you breathe the negative energy into your heart space, notice that the fiery energy of love further transforms it into neutralized, available energy, ready to receive the intention you have for it.  You may want to turn it into compassion, ease, love, whatever quality you feel is needed to alleviate or comfort the suffering you chose for this meditation.  Notice the power of the fiery love in your heart and remember that the negative energy was already in the process of being neutralized as it passed through the light surrounding you.

When you exhale, send out to the world energy that is now characterized by ease, comfort, peace, or whatever healing quality comes you chose.  Notice that the 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.  It also strengthens and magnifies the fiery love in your heart, making it possible to manage to address even more of the suffering in your life and in the world.

If you have enjoyed this description of Tonglen Meditation, you might also enjoy “Another Version of Tonglen Meditation”, which follows this one.

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