It sometimes feels like we’re living in some of the most challenging times human beings have yet endured. Despite all our modern conveniences, levels of loneliness, disconnect, depression, anxiety, and division are sky-high. Not only are we struggling more individually, we increasingly witness immense human, animal, and planetary suffering. This awareness of collective suffering often has the side effect of making us feel guilty for even acknowledging, let alone addressing, our own pain.
It is when we feel stuck in our own pain, disconnected from each other, and helpless about the suffering in the world that we can turn to the ancient practice of Tonglen.
What Is Tonglen?
Tonglen is a Tibetan word that means “to give and receive.” As a meditation practice, Tonglen builds on the understanding that while our experiences across the world are unique, human emotions are universal. No matter your title, location, generation, or any other superficial division, we all feel pain and desire healing. This means that whether you’re Julius Caesar stabbed in the back in ancient Rome or a modern-day 5th grader feeling double-crossed by a friend, betrayal feels like betrayal in the body. Fear feels like fear, shame feels like shame, and loneliness feels like loneliness—no matter who you are.
Across all our differences, our emotions and our pain connect and unite us. It is through this connection that we come together to give and receive compassion.
The Origins of Transmuting Pain Into Healing Energy
When I first learned the practice of Tonglen in 2007, the teaching came with a story:
A master had three pupils who went out into the world to share the practices they’d learned. Years passed. One day, the master grew curious about his students’ work, so he sent an assistant out to find out more.
The assistant returned, weeks later, with the news. The first two students were easy to locate, as their names were known by many around the city. They were following in the footsteps of the master. The master was pleased.
It took some time, however, for the assistant to locate the third student. No one knew her name, or what had happened to her. Eventually, the assistant found a villager living on the outskirts of town. This villager spoke of a woman who could be seen sitting in a window for hours, a handkerchief covering her eyes.
The assistant went to the window and sure enough, he saw this third student, sitting quietly, with a handkerchief over her eyes. The assistant returned to the master with this strange story. After he explained what he had witnessed, the master bowed in this third student’s direction.
The assistant asked, “But what is she doing?”
The master replied, “She is practicing the ancient art of Tonglen, a meditation practice steeped in giving and receiving compassion.”
“What is the handkerchief for?” the assistant asked.
“To keep her tears from disturbing her practice,” the master answered.
This student was so advanced in the practice of Tonglen, she was breathing in the pain for everyone in the world and transmuting it into healing energy. Before you feel overwhelmed by the idea, don’t worry—few of us are called to practice at this level. Yet, the basics of Tonglen—transmuting pain into healing energy—are accessible to all.
How To Practice Tonglen
- Find a pain inside you that is unhealed, and perhaps unacknowledged until now.
- Breathe in the fullness of your pain, feeling it in its raw, unfiltered state.
- Exhale a healing, compassionate energy to yourself. Let your whole body move into a new space of wholeness.
- With each round of breath, feel the intensity of the pain decreasing while the healing energy increases.
Repeat steps 2 through 4 for as long as needed. In the beginning, this may be the entirety of your practice. Learning how to give ourselves compassion and healing is a crucial part of being able to offer it to others.
When you feel ready to move on:
- Imagine another person, someone who is experiencing this same emotion, taking a seat across from you. This can be someone you know by name or it can be an imaginary person.
- Breathe in the pain for both of you, and exhale compassion to yourself while also receiving it from the other person.
- As you progress, invite more people into your circle. Breathe in the pain for the whole group as you imagine them doing the same, and then send out and receive healing and compassion.
With just the power of your attention and your breath, you can move from feeling paralyzed, overwhelmed, or disconnected. Like alchemists turning lead into gold, you can transmute the world’s pain into potent healing energy.
Try this 10-minute guided Tonglen meditation: