This particular Tonglen practice was inspired by the work of Joan Halifax. You can listen to this practice as a guided meditation or scroll down for a text version.
Tonglen is a Buddhist meditation practice of giving and receiving. It’s a practice that intimately connects our own suffering with the suffering of others, in service of keeping our hearts open. We cannot fully participate in the healing of others’ suffering while running from our own. We need to hold both.
Find a comfortable position. Try a position that supports your back against a chair, floor, or wall, a position in which you feel supported and can lean into something.
Get in touch with your breath. Begin to notice the inhale and exhale; the rhythm of them. As you settle deeper into your position, notice the inhale entering your body, and the connection, and then notice the exhale, and where you feel it. Begin to connect your body to your breath.
On your next inhale, feel the heat of the breath coming in, and direct that hot breath toward your heart center. On the exhale, send out cool breath, noticing that it’s leaving and going out into communal space.
On your inhale, take in a hot breath that holds suffering and direct it to your heart space. On your exhale, breathe out a cool breath that holds healing and love.
Our hearts often have a metal armor around them that comes from years of hurt and suffering, years of protection and fear. It makes so much sense that we’ve defended our hearts in this way. If we can allow the heat of suffering—our own and of others—to melt that armor, as Joan Halifax says we can return our heart to its natural state of warmth and kindness.
Picture a loved one with whom you are deeply connected. Feel the heart tug of your willingness to do anything to relieve their suffering. What is one way that suffering has touched your loved one—addiction, fear, anger, despair, self-righteousness? Hold that in your consciousness. On your next inhale take in the heat of this particular loved one’s suffering, and allow it to wrap around your heart and begin to soften the armor. On your exhale, breathe out a cool spacious breath of healing and love for your loved one. Take two more breath cycles, breathing in the heat of your loved one’s suffering and exhaling the cool healing of love.
This one particular suffering is our connection to all suffering.
Now direct your attention to your own suffering. What’s the flavor of your own suffering right now? Don’t pick something that’s overwhelming, but take notice of what weighs on you—alienation, self-righteousness, confusion, grief, anger, fear, clinging? Just as you did for your loved one, breathe in the heat of your own suffering and let the armor around your heart melt even further. Now breathe out cool healing spaciousness; there’s kindness and surrender in the out-breath. Two more times, breathe in the heat of your particular suffering, soften the heart, and breathe out healing, kindness, surrender.
This process takes courage. It’s not an easy way through. We’re not here to analyze or justify or figure it out. We’re simply here to practice.
Next, call into conscious connection all those who are also suffering with your particular sort of suffering. If you are suffering from alienation, call into your mind everyone else who is suffering from alienation. Connect with the truth that others suffer as you do. Breathe in the heat of this particular universal suffering, let it wrap around your heart and melt the armor even further, and breathe out clarity, kindness, and connection. Do this at least three times.
Finally, call forward someone who is challenging to you—perhaps someone on Facebook, a family member, a particular group of folks. Be curious about what this person’s suffering might be. Don’t dive in too deep, but just consider what might have brought this person to this place in life. Breathe in the heat of this person’s suffering into your heart’s infinite capacity to hold suffering, allow your heart to melt just a bit further, and breath out kindness, care, connection, and healing. Do this two more times.
This Tonglen practice calls on us to embrace the paradox that taking in suffering and breathing our hearts wide open actually increases our ability to love and sustain compassion. It allows us to act wisely, from a place of communal care and responsibility.
Gently allow the visualization to dissolve while taking notice of the openness of your heart. What is the particular quality that your openness has? Is it tender, vulnerable, joyful, tearful, supple, strong? Place a hand on your heart or in some other way get in touch with your heart space. Take a deep breath in and out.
Slowly come back into the room and back into connection, and then remain in silence for two or three cycles of breath, and feel your connection to other human beings who both suffer and find a path through suffering. When we face unfathamable suffering together, we deepen the power to transform it.