What is Tonglen?


What is Tonglen?

Most everyone these days has heard of mindfulness meditation. It’s meteoric rise as the primal wellness practice on the planet continues unabated. It’s everywhere: in schools and prisons, hospitals, government departments and the military. Its ascendency can be put down in part to the explosive growth of the wellness industry that is now three times the size of the global pharmaceutical industry. Mindfulness has also come to dominate, however, largely due to its secularisation back in the 1970’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn who stripped it of its Buddhist content and turned it into a modern mind-training with many, scientifically verifiable, therapeutic benefits. Its scientific credibility having given it the edge, the world has rapidly gone mindfulness crazy.


There is another Buddhist meditation that you should take note of, however. It’s called Tonglen. Tonglen has been called, with good reason, the nuclear weapon of developing loving-kindness and compassion. It’s one of the most powerful practices within the Buddhist canon and can build directly on to a good solid mindfulness practice.


Tonglen vs Metta


Metta (which means loving-kindness in the Pali language) is another Buddhist meditation, often practiced within the context of a broader engagement with mindfulness. The Metta meditation focuses on the development of genuine loving-kindness or appreciation for oneself and for all others without discrimination. The practice involves, firstly, feeling loving-kindness for oneself and then extends outwards to encompass a loved one, someone that is neutral (someone you see in the street every day or someone that serves you in a shop, for instance) and then finally to someone that you don’t get on so well with. It can also encompass groups of people such as your teachers, friends, work colleagues, extended family, people in war-torn locations etc. Eventually, just like the sun shines on all indiscriminately, we aim to embody Metta and radiate loving-kindness to all without exception.


Tonglen is of a different order to Metta, however, and requires that you have at least a modicum of self-awareness or stamina for deep spiritual practices and preferably not suffering from such afflictions as depression or anxiety or any other mental health disorder. Tibetan Buddhism is famous for its mind-training techniques, and this is one of the most powerful within the tradition. It’s also known as the giving and taking or sending and receiving meditation and uses the breath as a support for removing suffering and negativity and sending out happiness and wellbeing. Tonglen requires some patience and diligence to really feel that you are making headway and certainly, it requires a degree of fortitude.


Just like in the Metta meditation, Tonglen for self is a good place to start, which can then be extended out to encompass other individuals and groups of people.


How to Do Tonglen Meditation


How to do Tonglen meditation

The practice of Tonglen should become your core spiritual practice and can be done at any time that you are experiencing pain or discomfort, suffering of any kind, fear, or anxiety. Any time that life gets tough. It is a very advanced meditation that will reap extensive rewards if you stick with it. It’s important not to trivialise it. Essentially, the main focus of Tonglen meditation practice is the wish to free others from suffering and the causes of that suffering. We imagine during the practice that we are taking away their suffering and absorbing it into ourselves and then send back out happiness or whatever they need as an antidote to their suffering. This may sound very counterintuitive and when I have offered to take my students through a Tonglen practice, many have shied away because of the fear that they might genuinely absorb the other person’s suffering into themselves.


It is, of course, our default mode to push pain and suffering away because it can often be hard to bear. Certainly, we don’t want to be adding to our own suffering by absorbing the suffering of others. Many of us have been taught to breathe out our pain, worries, fears and anxieties and to breathe in positivity, wellness, health, and happiness. Tonglen tips this whole construct on its head and stamps all over it.


In the practice of Tonglen, we sit with our suffering and welcome it as a dear friend. We try to understand it and feel its inner core. It’s the sort of approach that any good therapist might advise you to take. On an inhale, we take in the pain and suffering of ourselves and others and on the exhale, we send out space, healing, compassion, and whatever other antidotes are appropriate for those whom we are focusing on. We are, in a sense, using our own experience of pain and suffering to develop compassion for others. As we experience our suffering and see that the suffering of others is of the same order as our own, we can spontaneously generate a field of compassion for those others.