Tonglen, teaches Pema Chödrön, is a method for awakening our compassion by breathing in suffering and breathing out relief.

Photo by Mathilde Langevin.

Tonglen is a practice for connecting with suffering—ours and that which is all around us. Instead of fending it off and hiding from it, you can open your heart and allow yourself to feel that pain, feel it as something that will soften and purify you and make you far more loving and kind.

Tonglen is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us. We begin the practice of tonglen by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and whom we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send that child happiness, joy, and whatever else would relieve their pain. This is the core of the practice: breathing in another’s pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness.

In the process we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others.

Often we cannot do this practice because it brings us face to face with our own fear, anger, or whatever our personal pain happens to be at that moment. So at that point you can change your focus and begin to do tonglen for what you are feeling and for the millions of other people who at that very moment are feeling the same stuckness and misery. Maybe you are able to name your pain, maybe you can’t, but you can feel it—a tightness in your stomach, a heavy darkness, or whatever. Just contact what you are feeling and breathe, taking in the pain for all of us and sending out relief. 

People often say that this practice goes against the grain of how we usually hold ourselves together. Truthfully, this practice does go against the grain of wanting things on our own terms, of wanting it to work out for ourselves no matter what happens to others. Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure, and in the process we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others.

Gradually, as you do this practice over time, your compassion expands naturally and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought. As you do this practice, you will be surprised to find yourself more and more able to be there for others, even in situations that used to seem impossible.

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