I have been practicing daily meditation for 2 years, and 9 months, and I can tell you there are days when it is sheer bliss and others when I can’t control my “monkey mind” and I am all over the place. Yet, I persist, because the overall practice has not only informed my coaching but made me a more mindful person overall. I am paying more attention to my interactions with others, whether IRL (in real life) or online, and I have had more personal insights, especially in the last twelve months, as we were forced to slow the pace of our busy lives.
I recently came upon a practice that really intrigues and delights me – tonglen meditation. It delighted me because of the immediate feeling of wellbeing I experience after doing it. I am intrigued by the premise of giving and receiving, which for many of us is just damn hard (the receiving part). Let me explain.
Tonglen is an ancient Tibetan form of meditation in which we breathe in the darkness and exhale the light. “Tong” is Tibetan for “letting go” and “len” means accept. Let go and accept. The meditation is focused on acknowledging the suffering in others, and breathing in their pain. On the exhale, we send out love and peace to the person we envision in pain. It teaches us compassion for others and makes us more aware of those around us who are suffering. By practicing tonglen meditation regularly we open our hearts and connect with the pain of others in an expansive, inclusive way.
How exactly do we do this?
Pema Chodron explains it best -“Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.”
We start as we normally do, either seated or lying down on the floor, and center ourselves by taking in some deep, centering breaths. Inhala, exhala.
Next, think about the person you want to help. Perhaps it is someone close to you, a family member or a friend. They may be sick, dying or just depressed. Feel as best you can what is going on with them and their struggle.
Now, breathe in all the negativity that surrounds the situation, bringing it into yourself. You are breathing in their pain, to give them room within themselves for comfort, healing and positive energy.
When you exhale, send your message of light, positivity and peace to the afflicted. Keep doing this for several breaths, imagining this “good for bad” exchange between you two.
As you synchronize your breath with the accepting and the letting go aspects, you may feel this throughout your body as a heaviness, a darkness or stickiness on the inbreath, with a feeling of lightness and energy radiating out of you on the outbreath. It may not feel good. Stay with it though, visualizing healing, soothing energy radiating out of your body towards the person you are connected to and soon you will feel much better.
I remember doing energy work several years ago when I was training in massage and bodywork. Initially not knowing how to control these aspects, I felt ill as I took in someone else’s negative energy or sickness. When I learned how to protect myself, I was able to do this type of work, without negative consequences.
I would encourage you to first practice tonglen on yourself, accepting any fear or negativity and replacing that with compassion and kindness, as you breathe in and out.
This is how tonglen is formally done however the beauty of this practice is that you can use this practically in normal exchanges throughout your day.
For example, if you are having a fight with your partner, you may wish to practice tonglen right then and there, breathing in the other persons anger (or yours) and breathing out acceptance, understanding and compassion for the other person (or yourself). It could have a profound effect on the outcome of the misunderstanding and give both of you space to work through your differences.
Similar to lovingkindness (metta) meditation, we can start with ourselves, then someone close to us that we love, then someone we have no connection to, then someone we dislike, and further, to the entire world getting a message filled with love, kindness and compassion. As we send out the positive energy and healing to a bigger world, our compassion grows.
And that is a beautiful thing.