What is tonglen meditation?

Tonglen meditation is a compassion mind-training practice., but the method and purpose are frequently misunderstood in the West.

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Tonglen brings happiness and health anywhere and everywhere

Tonglen is a meditation practice where you exchange suffering for happiness, both literally and as a metaphor. It highlights the unlimited nature of human compassion. That we can at any moment, make our experience of the world more joyful by altering our cognitive understanding of self and others. By transforming ourselves into the solution of suffering for others, we also become the catalyst for positive self-development. In any meaningful way, tonglen cannot simply be used to benefit one’s health without reference to others. This truth is self-evident to people seeking holistic solutions to health problems. The idea that only I matter doesn’t seem to be positively correlated with good physical and mental health.

Through tonglen meditation, we transform ourselves, but not necessarily in any mystical way, we reorganize our understanding of the interdependence between people. In doing so, we gain the confidence to challenge the self-centred dualistic thoughts that are the source of many of our day-to-day problems. Tonglen is a compassionate practice; traditionally, you breathe in others’ suffering and breathe out the solution to solve their problems. It is this selfless act that also brings benefits to the practitioner. Depending on the knowledge of teacher and student, the nondual foundations of the practice might also be taught as part of the preliminaries, but this is becoming quite rare.

As a simple example of how to apply this meditation consider when you have a difficult day at work, you can practice tonglen, taking on the problems of workers who have also had a challenging day. You mentally exchange their problems with compassionate wishes and solutions. If you can generate a strong sense of relative compassion, then your ability to overcome your own problems can be greatly increased. Tonglen meditation also develops your own real world compassion. This same approach can be used to address almost any aspect of suffering. But be advised; you can’t trick your own mind; the curative potential rests in the compassion for others.  

Where does tonglen come from?

Tonglen (giving and taking) has a documented history of at least 1,000 years in Buddhism. The theoretical framework of this practice can be found in the slogans used to illustrate the Seven Points of Training the Mind (lojong). Tonglen has been popularized in the West by a range of meditation teachers, and modifications to the original practice appear from time to time. New meditators often undertake compassionate meditation as an essential preliminary to tonglen. It is also possible to encounter Westernised forms of Tonglen more accessible to non-Buddhists. However, it is essential that modified versions of the meditation are consistent with the original elements of the training. I tend to base my tonglen teaching on the Jamgon Kongtrul commentary translated by Ken McLeod. This is generally regarded as one of the most reliable expositions. As I’ve already suggested, because of ontological conflicts, there are no secularised equivalents of tonglen.

What do you have to do?

No text can fully explain what tonglen is and how to practice it. I highly recommend you receive training from a qualified and experienced meditation master if you wish to practice. In its essence, tonglen meditation is the breathing in of suffering and problems followed by the exhalation of happiness, virtue and solutions. The breath is the device, the method by which the meditator exchanges suffering for happiness as a psychological and physiological training. A key point to remember is that you begin the practice with your own conditions; you (the meditator) are always included in the transformation of suffering into happiness and joy. The object of the meditation can be as narrow or as wide as you wish, for example you can exschange with someone in particular, such as a sick relative or perhaps everyone in a hospital or even all living beings.

You should not think of yourself as a filter that absorbs suffering but rather as a catalyst to solve problems and transform negativity. This is a crucial point and one an experienced teacher can help you with. The tonglen meditation should not be seen as a passive, passionless exercise, but the meditator should attempt to generate a sense that they are transforming suffering. You visualize all suffering, limitations and obstacles as thick black smoke; you imagine it entering your nostrils on the in-breath. On the out-breath the black smoke is transformed into white smoke or’ rays of moonlight’ bringing happiness, surplus and solutions to the object of your meditation. Consider that in one breath you have taken in many difficulties and instantly transformed them into joyful solutions. You can’t trick your own mind; if you don’t generate compassion, the practice will be limited and may even make things worse for you. If you naturally struggle to feel compassion for others, tonglen should be seen as progressive training, starting with some simple objects of compassion and extending your reach as you become more experienced.

Tonglen is a spiritual practice that should be taught by someone of relevant experience and practiced within the appropriate context. This is a meditation method to persevere with, if you put your heart into tonglen and practice diligently, it can offer significant benefits to both experienced and novice meditators alike.

How does tonglen work?

From the neuropsychological perspective, we don’t have a complete understanding of the brain networks and cognitive processes linked to compassionate behaviour. For example, the scientific understanding of absolute compassion is in its infancy. However, there is preliminary evidence that compassion for others might be associated with increased health and wellbeing through mirror neurones and network correlations. The Buddhist theoretical framework of tonglen considers that selfishness and lack of compassion are causes of mental and physical suffering. By training ourselves in compassion, we rebalance the brain networks to restore our ‘natural state’. It is the return to this condition that improves our health and wellbeing.

As always, email us if you have any concerns. And please post your thoughts and experiences below.

Author: Stephen

Neuropsychologist researching what happens when a spiritual practice (meditation) is translated to a psychological intervention; what is lost and what is gained from the curative potential? A PhD candidate writing the scientific history mindfulness. Also researching how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health. Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation, he has also been trained in the Himalayan Science of Mind and Perception (Tsema). Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen practices.

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