A Guide to Tonglen (“sending and taking”): a meditation practice that awakens our compassion and kindles our sense of sympathy and connection.
Pema Chödrön’s instruction for Tonglen practice was our most popular practice last year. Considering the events of 2020, it makes sense: Tonglen meditation, or “sending and taking,” is a classic Buddhist practice wherein, with each in-breath, we take in others’ pain. With each out-breath, we send them relief. It can be done both as a formal meditation practice or on the spot in a moment of need.
As Pema writes in “How to Practice Tonglen,” this practice “awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality,” allowing us to “use what seems like poison as medicine.”
Considering the events of 2020, it’s no surprise that so many found themselves turning to a practice that focuses on kindness and sympathy.
“Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us,” Pema continues. “We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.”
Additionally, Tonglen meditation helps strengthen connections between ourselves and others. “We’re not separate from one another,” writes Judy Lief in “Tonglen: A Prayer That Rides the Breath.” “We’re linked. Tonglen begins with this quality of connection, of linkage: with oneself, with others, with the world.”
Below we’ve collected different instructions for Tonglen meditation. Make sure to check out Ethan Nichtern’s “Tonglen on the Spot” mini-meditation at the end of “Tonglen: In with the Bad, Out with the Good” for practicing “sending and taking” throughout your day when you encounter suffering.
Pema Chödrön teaches us “sending and taking,” an ancient Buddhist practice to awaken compassion. With each in-breath, we take in others’ pain. With each out-breath, we send them relief.
Tonglen practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we become liberated from age- old patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.
On the in-breath, says Judy Lief, take in what is bad, freeing others from it. On the out-breath, offer what is good.
The world today is in chaos, full of suffering, confusion, and greed. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and shut down, but closing our hearts isn’t helpful to anyone. We practice tonglen to touch into and strengthen our inherent capacity for compassion and courage—the inner qualities that sustain us as we meet the challenges of engaging with this suffering world.
“Accepting and sending out” is a powerful meditation to develop compassion—for ourselves and others. Ethan Nichtern teaches us how to do it in formal practice and on the spot whenever suffering arises.
Tonglen, which in Tibetan means “accepting and sending out,” is one of the most powerful and intense compassion meditations in the Buddhist tradition.
The Buddhist definition of compassion is inherently intense and expansive: the willingness to stay open and available to pain and suffering, both in oneself and others. So Tonglen does more than help us develop compassion for others. It also transforms our own lives. Using our imagination and respiratory system, it helps us stay present with difficult feelings and relationships that usually provoke resistance and distance. Tonglen gives us incredibly effective mental tools for meeting painful encounters throughout the day.