Lilly Greenblatt takes a look at our readers’ favorite meditation of 2020 and shares three similar teachings that you might find helpful in the early months of this new year. Each Friday, we share three topical reads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. Sign up here to receive the Weekend Reader in your inbox.
There’s a wide range of instructions for Buddhist practices on the Lion’s Roar website. Whether you’re looking to learn how to work with Zen koans, practice walking meditation, or try out a little mindful eating, we have a number of helpful guides written by Buddhist teachers from various traditions.
At the end of 2020, I looked back at the year’s traffic on our website and saw that Pema Chödrön’s instruction for Tonglen practice was our most popular practice of the year. Tonglen meditation, or “sending and taking,” is an ancient Buddhist practice to awaken compassion. 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.
With each in-breath, we take in others’ pain. With each out-breath, we send them relief.
Considering the events of 2020, it’s no surprise that so many found themselves turning to this practice. 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.”
Below you’ll find two different instructions for Tonglen meditation, as well as a personal account of how this practice can help us to strengthen our inherent capacity for compassion.
“Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us,” writes Pema. “We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.”
—Lilly Greenblatt, digital editor, LionsRoar.com
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.
Usually, we look away when we see someone suffering. Their pain brings up our fear or anger; it brings up our resistance and confusion. So we can also do tonglen for all the people just like ourselves—all those who wish to be compassionate but instead are afraid, who wish to be brave but instead are cowardly. Rather than beating ourselves up, we can use our personal stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world. Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.
On the inbreath, says Judy Lief, take in what is bad, freeing others from it. On the outbreath, 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.
Tonglen is like a prayer that rides the breath, similar to how Tibetan prayer flags ride the wind. It enhances our trust in our ability to be kind and, at the same time, it enhances our understanding of the selfish and negative energies that are also a part of us.
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Tonglen moves us from pushing pain aside to inviting it in. We invite anger and sadness into our space as a means to connect with each and every person also experiencing painful emotions. With each inhale, we imagine a friend or a stranger experiencing sadness. We breathe in, for both of us. With each exhale, we breathe out compassion for ourselves and for others in need.
Tonglen can feel challenging, until we realize that we are not alone. We practice to connect with others who are also suffering, and to remember that we are all interconnected.