Tonglen practice at Karme Choling meditation retreat center in Vermont

Tonglen Meditation

How to cultivate loving-kindness & compassion

Why a loving-kindness practice?

We all have an innate ability to feel kindness and compassion. It arises naturally in us when we see someone we love or care about in pain or suffering. Without even thinking, we want to reach out to them with a desire to help.

We don’t necessarily extend compassion to everyone, however. We find it harder to feel any tenderness for those we are indifferent about and especially for those we feel negatively towards. We may even find it hard to feel kindness towards ourselves.

This is where the Tibetan practice of tonglen comes in. Translated as “Sending and Taking”, it cultivates the loving-kindness and compassion we feel towards our loved ones and extends it to people we don’t know or even to those we feel anger and aggression towards.

How does Tonglen Work?

We use tonglen to reverse our usual reaction to suffering and difficulties, which is typically to shy away from any negativity. We tend to be attracted to what we like and turn from what we don’t want. Tonglen enables us to be present for all of it.

Tonglen rides on the breath. As we breathe in, we open to the negativity; the pain and suffering we see in others, disappointment we have in ourselves, anger and even hatred we feel for certain people or situations. We open to it, feel it, acknowledge it.

We return the positive on the out-breath. We give back our sense of spaciousness, relaxation, courage or confidence, whatever we feel will help the person or situation.

By taking in the negative and returning the positive, we reverse our usual habit of gathering what we want for ourselves and rejecting the rest. This is how we can not only develop compassion, but liberate ourselves from the self-centered patterns of always focusing on our own happiness.

How to practice tonglen

In formal practice, Tonglen is always preceded by sitting meditation. This settles the mind, allowing you to focus on the practice with a clearer view of the situation you are contemplating.

Next we flash on a sense of spaciousness, openness and clarity. We don’t start with a feeling of claustrophobia or confusion, but from the strength of space.

In-breath of tonglen takes in dark heaviness. Karme Choling Meditation Retreat Center, Vermont

Then we imagine breathing in dark, sticky heaviness. This can be visualized as dark clouds, a dark heavy feeling, or just a claustrophobic darkness .

We breathe out fresh, airy, brightness. We give what positive qualities we have back in exchange for the heaviness.

We breathe in the heavy darkness and breathe out airy lightness until the dark and light synchronize with the in and outbreath.

Compassion for ourselves

Once you can really feel the textures of the in-breath (heavy, dark, thick) and the outbreath (light, clearing, spacious) it is time to introduce suffering into your contemplation.

This doesn’t need to be anything so painful that you don’t know if you can bear it. You can start with a small, everyday sort of difficulty. Perhaps you feel you are ugly, that you aren’t thin enough or don’t look fit enough.

Whatever it is, however you feel, you breathe it in. Breathe in the pain and the suffering; the hot, sticky, dark, thickness of it.

Now breathe out golden lightness and spaciousness. Air it out. Breath in your suffering, and breathe out whatever it is you need. Give it to yourself. If that is love, forgiveness, a long walk in nature, a warm cup of coffee. Whatever it is, give that back in return.

Compassion for those we love

Tonglen for loved-ones. Karme Choling Meditation Retreat Center, Vermont

Next, Think of someone you care about who is struggling. Perhaps it is a friend, a mother, a teacher, anyone you know and care about. They can be living or have already passed.

Continue the same breathing technique, but this time focus on the suffering of your loved one. When you inhale, take their pain in for them, and when you exhale, send out whatever you think would help them. If you are inhaling their loneliness, you can send friendship and self-love out to them, or even just a cup of tea. Whatever you think will help. Just remember to remain aware of the textures of the inhalation and the exhalation.

Compassion for those we feel neutral towards

Tonglen for neutral people. Karme Choling Meditation Retreat Center, Vermont

Think of someone you passed on the street, or a person at work who you don’t interact with. Your barista or your accountant. Whoever it is, think of that person who you feel ‘nothing’ toward, the person who falls into your ‘neutral zone’. Now do the practice of sending and taking for them. If you are hit with a feeling of, ‘what does it matter’ or ‘who cares’ then you have found the right person for your practice.

Compassion for our enemies

Tonglen for people we don't like. Karme Choling Meditation Retreat Center, Vermont

Now that you’ve begun to become comfortable with the practice of tonglen, it is time to think of someone who you find ‘difficult’. Your personal antagonist. Perhaps they are someone that you do not particularly want to alleviate the suffering of. If you feel that way, then you know you’ve landed on the right person. It’s okay if it doesn’t feel ‘real’ or like you ‘mean it’. That is part of the practice. Deepening your compassion through ‘practice.’

Compassion for all sentient beings

Finally, think of all of the people in your city, state, country, and the world who also suffer from the same feelings as you or your loved ones do. Open to the realization that you are not the only one feeling your particular pain and suffering, but that you share it with all sentient beings. For all of them (which includes you) breathe in the suffering, the darkness, the claustrophobia, and breathe out the lightness, the spaciousness.

You can also do tonglen for animals, both domestic and wild, the environment, those affected by climate change and so on.

Tonglen to infinity and beyond

Tonglen beyond infinity. Karme Choling Meditation Retreat Center, Vermont

At its heart, tonglen is an expansive practice. The people you can practice tonglen for can extend indefinitely. You do not need to always follow the above steps, they’re just an outline. If you are overwhelmed by sorrow for a loved one with a terminal illness, you can do tonglen for them, and then extend it outward to all people struggling with a fear of death. If you are overpowered by helplessness or frustration, do tonglen for all the people out there who also feel helpless and frustrated.

Tonglen is one the most powerful practices there is. We usually include tonglen in our evening practice session. View our daily Meditation Schedule.

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About Karmê Chöling

Dharma Teachings, Meditation and Community

We are a Buddhist meditation retreat center located in Vermont. As a community, we aspire to create a kind and compassionate society by integrating mindfulness into our everyday interactions and activities.

Learning to work with habitual thoughts and emotions is key to creating a meaningful and satisfying life. We provide support for developing self awareness through meditation with introductory Buddhist sitting meditation classes, dharma retreat programs, custom designed retreats, and solitary cabin retreats. For those interested in learning how to join a Buddhist community, we also offer Residency.

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