Tonglen: How I Use This Buddhist Practice to Help People Die

Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice that involves giving and taking, often translated as “sending and receiving.” The origins of this practice can be traced back to the teachings of the Indian Buddhist master Atisha (982-1054 CE), who played a crucial role in its development.

In tonglen practice, the meditator visualizes taking in the suffering, pain, and negativity of others with each in-breath and sending out relief, happiness, and positive energy with each out-breath. This practice aims to transform self-centered attitudes and cultivate genuine compassion by reversing the habitual tendency to avoid suffering and cling to comfort.

The practice of tonglen has been transmitted through various Tibetan Buddhist lineages and remains an integral part of contemporary practice, especially within the Gelug, Kagyu, and Nyingma traditions. Prominent teachers such as the 14th Dalai Lama, Pema Chödrön, and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche have helped popularize tonglen in the West, making it accessible to a broader audience.

Bringing Compassion and Awareness To Each Day

I incorporate tonglen into my daily life through formal meditation and informal applications.

Formal Meditation Practice

I often dedicate a specific time each day for tonglen meditation, usually when I wake up or before I fall asleep. It can be as short as 5-10 minutes or longer depending on my schedule.

I choose a quiet and comfortable place where I won’t be disturbed. That’s not always easy to do in a small Chicago apartment! Many times I’ll actually meditate while in bed.

If I’m sitting, I get into a comfortable position with my back straight, either on a chair or a cushion on the floor. Then I begin with a few moments of mindfulness meditation to center myself. I’ll focus on my breath, noticing the sensation of each inhale and exhale.

As I breathe in, I visualize taking in the suffering, pain, or negativity of others. I imagine it as a dark, heavy smoke or cloud.

When breathing out, I visualize sending relief, happiness, and positive energy into the world. It’s often visualized as a bright, warm light.

Sometimes, I’ll start with a specific suffering person, then gradually expand my focus to include groups of people, all beings, and even myself.

At the end of the session, I dedicate the merit of my practice to the well-being of all.

Informal Practices Throughout the Day

During my day, whenever I encounter suffering (my own or a client’s), I take a moment to practice tonglen. I breathe in the suffering and breathe out relief and positivity. This cultivates a compassionate response in challenging situations. When I feel frustrated or angry, I breathe in the negative emotions and breathe out calm and understanding.

I incorporate this mindset into daily activities such as running and walking. This is helpful when I’m commuting on the CTA (and in need of patience!) or waiting in line at the grocery store. At the end of the day, I reflect and notice any changes in my mindset or behavior and appreciate moments where I could cultivate compassion.

Practical Tips

Here are some tips that work for me. Take what works for you and discard the rest.

  • Begin with short sessions and gradually increase the duration as you become more comfortable with the practice.
  • Tonglen can be emotionally intense. If you find it overwhelming, take a break and return to the practice later.
  • Integrate tonglen with other mindfulness and compassion practices, such as loving-kindness meditation (metta).
  • If possible, seek guidance from experienced practitioners, doulas, or teachers to deepen your understanding and practice.

How Tonglen Helps Reduce Pain and Suffering For My Clients

Tonglen helps dying people reduce their own pain and suffering through several key mechanisms.

  • Focusing inward often amplifies pain. Tonglen helps lessen the intensity of my clients’ suffering by calling to mind what others are going through and actively wishing to alleviate it.
  • This practice fosters a sense of connection and empathy with others. Recognizing that suffering is a common human experience reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness, which often exacerbate personal suffering.
  • After our sessions, my clients develop a deeper sense of compassion for others and themselves. This outlook transforms how they experience their pain, making it feel less burdensome and more manageable.
  • The practice also nurtures an altruistic mindset, where the well-being of others becomes a priority. This shift leads to a more positive and expansive state of mind.

Tonglen involves taking in dark, heavy suffering and transforming it into bright, warm relief. Regular practice builds emotional resilience. By repeatedly facing and transforming suffering in meditation, my clients become better equipped to handle real-life challenges and emotional pain.

Enhancing Mindfulness and Presence

This practice encourages mindfulness of one’s own emotional states and the suffering of others. This increased awareness helps practitioners recognize and address their pain more effectively, rather than being overwhelmed by it.

This present-moment focus reduces the tendency to ruminate on past hurts or future worries, both of which can intensify suffering.

Promoting Acceptance and Letting Go

Tonglen teaches acceptance of suffering as an inherent part of life. By acknowledging and working with this truth rather than resisting it, my clients and I reduce that additional layer of pain caused by denial.

The practice of sending out relief and positive energy helps us cultivate a sense of letting go. This alleviates the clinging and attachment that often underlie personal pain.

Spiritual Perspective

In the Buddhist context, tonglen is seen as a practice that can purify negative karma. By willingly taking on suffering and offering relief, practitioners accumulate positive karma, which can lead to a reduction in future troubles.

Tonglen is a powerful method for developing bodhicitta, the altruistic intention to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. This spiritual aspiration gives deeper meaning to one’s own suffering, transforming it into a path of growth and awakening.

Practical Application

By integrating tonglen into your daily life and maintaining a regular practice, you can experience profound shifts in your relationship with suffering. This leads to greater peace, resilience, and compassion. It helps you prepare for a better death someday while enjoying a better life right now.

Reach out to me anytime for more information and support.

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