For mental health practitioners and others in the healing arts, it’s helpful to have a way to sit with people’s suffering and distress without getting caught up in it ourselves. In reality, for everyone, regardless of the focus of your work, it’s helpful to have a way to cope with the suffering and distress in the world so that you don’t become swept away by it.
For me, doing therapy with an open heart is essential and yet having my heart open means that I can’t ignore, deny, or distance myself from the suffering of others. Instead, I use the Buddhist practice of Tonglen to metabolize and manage the emotional experiences—my own and those of others—that touch my heart or threaten to overwhelm it. What I want to share is my version of this practice. In Sanskrit, Tonglen means taking and sending, and it’s a breathing practice that focuses on neutralizing activating emotions in oneself and in others in the world who feel the same way.
Because I’m not a practicing Buddhist, I imagine that the way I do Tonglen for myself may be different from what is officially taught. Also, because of the world I grew up in as a child, with a grandmother who was both a healer and happened also to be clairvoyant, I tend to add in some of the energy protections and imagery elements she taught me when I was very young.
The basics of the practice involve remembering that the energy of love in your heart is a fiery presence and it’s the fire of love in your heart that will neutralize and metabolize whatever suffering or distress you focus on. Let’s say you’re feeling anxious about something and you can’t seem to calm down. Take a moment to focus your awareness in your heart as you attune yourself to the anxiety you feel. Then, remember that, in this same moment, there are countless people all around the world who have that same feeling. Breathe in their anxiety, combined with your own, into the fire in your heart and allow the fire to burn away the anxiety, leaving neutral energy that is now available to embody a different quality. Then, choose a quality you’d like to experience—perhaps calm, ease, or some other—and, in your imagination, fill the neutralized energy in your heart with that quality. As you breathe out, fill your body with the positive quality you have chosen and then continue to breathe that quality out into the world, sharing it with everyone. Do this for as many breaths as it takes for you to feel a shift in your experience.
There is another step you can use if you’re uncomfortable breathing distress or suffering directly into your heart. You can imagine that you are surrounded by a cleansing white light and that whatever you breathe in becomes neutralized by that light before it reaches the fire in your heart. Then you can follow the process described in the paragraph above. I began this way until I became confident of the fire in my heart, which Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says gets stronger as you do the practice. I have experienced that to be true so I no longer use the white light, but it’s a fine way to begin.
Here are the links to this practice on my website.
I’ve shared these in other weekly practices as I feel that Tonglen is an important contribution to being able to move through suffering and distress with less overwhelm and, at the same time, to offer support to others in our human family. In these current times, I make it a “mental hygiene” practice for myself, using it when I need to in order to be able to be centered and open-hearted as I move through my daily activities.
As with all these practices, please explore what works best for you. Remember to bring along curiosity as your constant companion and to pat gently on the head any judgments that may arise. Even though I’ve shared the particular way I do this process, with apologies to the official Buddhist practice, it’s important to find what comes alive for you. One of the things I have always done is only stay with processes and practices that feel alive to me. Once something no longer feels alive to me, I allow myself to be open to other practices or approaches. That said, one of the profound benefits of regularly practicing Tonglen is that it strengthens the power and openness of the heart and that is a beautiful gift we can offer to ourselves and to the world around us.