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.

How can meditation improve mental health?

Can meditation really help with Alzheimer’s dementia, depression, anxiety and stress? If so, how?

Should you meditate to improve mental health

This is the big question in meditation research, the short answer is yes, but it depends. It’s important to point out that meditation also protects you against mental illness in several different ways. But before you start your online search for a meditation cushion and some incense, there are a few qualifications you need to be aware of.

Firstly what do we mean by mental health? From a psychological point of view, mental health is a broad term that encompasses almost every functional and structural mental disorder that a human can experience. If you take a look at the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), you’ll find over 150 conditions listed (I’ve included the main sub-headings and examples in a table below). Most scientific meditation and mindfulness research is linked to one particular condition or group of conditions. Therefore if you are looking for a meditation method to help treat a diagnosed disorder, you must take advice from an expert health care practitioner in that field. The idea that any one meditation or mindfulness method can be used to treat a range of mental health problems has no basis in evidence or anecdote. However, just as a walk in the open air or a visit to the seaside might make people feel happier, meditation can offer general support to many different people.

Lifelong happiness

We now have to consider a second qualification; there are profound differences between spiritual and medicalised (modern) forms of meditation. This is not surprising because traditional meditation seeks to offer a permanent, holistic cure to the more general issues we face in our lives. In contrast, medicalised meditation, at least those methods that have been scientifically validated, focus on treating a particular problem, not finding a solution. Without wishing to oversimplify, we see traditional meditation linked to improved overall mental stability, increased happiness, and subsequent benefits. Medicalised meditation has been developed to address quite specific psychological and physiological issues. Before you start any course of meditation or mindfulness it’s always good to share your goals with your teacher; they should be able to explain technically how the meditation works and what it is likely to do for you.

Resilience is the mental resource to cope with life’s problems; when we have good resilience we are much less likely to develop chronic or acute mental illness. This is probably the area where meditation is most useful, improving mental health and protecting us from illness. There is evidence that even a few weeks of meditation can help, but in all probability, only a lifelong meditation habit can deliver lifelong protection. For example, we know that meditation can create new brain structure in older adults with early stage dementia. So if you begin meditating in your 30s or 40s, you start to build the brain functions and structures to create resilience now and for the future.

Traditionally we associate meditation with happiness and joy. If you find the right teacher and the right method, regular meditation should be a pleasure that will offer a wide range of benefits for your life. Leading you to greater happiness and (probably) improving the quality of life of the people around you.

If you need advice on any particular meditation methods, drop me an email, and I’ll try to point you towards relevant resources.

The current categorisation of mental health disorders

CategoriesExamples
Neurodevelopmental disordersCommunication disorders, stuttering, autism spectrum disorder and Aspergers. Motor disorders, including tic disorders such as Tourette syndrome.
Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disordersIncludes delusional disorder and catatonia.
Bipolar disordersBipolar I, bipolar II and anxious distress.
Depressive disordersPersistent depressive disorder.
Anxiety disorders  Agoraphobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Trauma- and stressor-related disorders  Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorders.
Dissociative disordersDepersonalisation and dissociative identity disorder.
Somatic symptom and related disorders  Chronic pain (inked to certain psychological conditions).
Feeding and eating disordersBinge eating, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.
Elimination disorders 
Sleep–wake disordersInsomnia, narcolepsy, hypersomnolence, sleep apnea and sleep-related hypoventilation.
Sexual dysfunctionsSexual desire and arousal disorders.
Gender dysphoria 
Disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disordersPyromania, kleptomania, antisocial personality disorder.
Substance-related and addictive disordersGambling (addiction) disorder and tobacco use disorder.
Neurocognitive disorders  Dementia, major neurocognitive disorder and mild neurocognitive disorder.
Personality disorders 
Paraphilic disordersPedophilic disorder.

Meditation and long lasting happiness

Can meditation increase your lifelong happiness? The answer is yes but some methods are more helpful than others.

Happiness is dependent on how you view the world

Throughout the Western industrialised world, we have more psychological data than ever before, yet many nations are experiencing declining levels of happiness, particularly among young people. In the UK, as many as 25% of young women demonstrate signs of clinical depression. In the USA happiness scores, have been on a downward trend for decades. However, despite the importance of happiness, psychological understanding of the concept is limited. In particular, a paradox exists between our individual experience and scientific models. Experimental psychology uses objective measures to establish levels of happiness/unhappiness in groups of people. In reality, the happiness of everyday life is a unique and personal phenomenon. Several scientific studies have demonstrated the potential of modern mindfulness to influence happiness, but there’s almost no replicated evidence that the effects are permanent or long-lasting.  Conversely, many traditional forms of meditation do not have the inbuilt paradox because there are not based on a dualistic world view; their goal is to address the long term causes of unhappiness rather than just the symptoms.

Traditional meditation is essentially nondual in nature; it allows an individual to mediate their own happiness. Medicalised or psychologised forms of meditation are dualistic, aggregating individual experience and thus categorising the world’s population into archetype models of human behaviour. Although this dichotomy is a limiting factor in meditation research, it’s not new to psychology. William James raised the question over a century ago; noting that observing a psychological phenomenon is not the same as the experience of that phenomenon. Meditation research is still wrestling with this problem; how can individual experience be understood using generalised measures? The obstacle of generalisability occurs because of the ontological nature of psychology; it is based on positivism, which is dualistic. It allows the artificial separation of people from their lived experience. Traditional meditation methods are generally nondual, so it seeks to address the problems encountered by people without reference to abstract, generalised models.

If we continue to emphasise treating symptoms rather than causes of unhappiness, there is a risk that chronic unhappiness will become normalised. Such a process might lead to sections of the population fluctuating between chronic and acute sadness for their whole lives. For people experiencing critical mental health problems, immediate action is necessary and desirable. But if we don’t attend to the underlying causes, we risk creating a treadmill of relative despair. For thousands of years, meditation has been used as a life-changing technology rather than a psychological bandaid. Despite the rise of meditation interventions within psychology, there are almost no operational models of traditional meditation describing their theoretical frameworks. This lack of understanding means that we still don’t know how traditional meditation works despite the publication of over 7,000 scientific studies during the last 80 years. Therefore the curative potential of spiritual types of meditation is still hidden from psychology.

Traditional meditation typically seeks to cure problems, to offer permanent solutions. By comparison, medicalised forms of meditation target a symptom rather than a cause, allowing new symptoms to manifest over time. These ideas of permanent and temporary solutions are central to the differences between nondual and dual forms of meditation. In psychological sciences, we tend to think about people from an objective perspective, even though we know mental health and human consciousness are, by their nature, subjective.  Trying to understand the personal subjective experience by generalised objective measures is problematic on many levels.

Researchers have been aware of this issue for several decades. When Ruut Veenhoven considered if happiness was relative in 1990s, his conclusions suggested that processes may have commonality but individual circumstances play an important role.

Happiness in the sense of life-satisfaction depends only partly on comparison, and even standards of comparison do not fully adjust to circumstances.

Veenhoven, Ruut. “Is happiness relative?.” Social indicators research 24, no. 1 (1991): 1-34.

Unfortunately, psychology is still a long way from understanding what happiness is and how it is regulated. Medicalised meditation methods generally fall within this paradigm. Earlier this year Jennifer De Paola, Wolfgang Wagner, Anna-Maija Pirttilä-Backman and Josetta Lehtonen published a study researching understandings of happiness among Finnish Women. Their findings reflect some universal truths about how psychology evaluates human behaviour. Observing happiness is not the experience of happiness; this is an area of contrast between traditional and modern understandings of the mind. The failure of science to recognise the real-world importance of the subjective is visible in medicalised forms of meditation.

The two take away points from this short discussion are i) psychology’s understanding of happiness is at a preliminary stage and that, ii) traditional knowledge systems have a much more holistic appreciation of the human experience. It is precisely for these reasons that I usually recommend traditional meditation methods for people who are looking for solutions rather than treatment. Modern methods could harness the health and wellbeing potential of Buddhist forms of meditation. But first meditation scientists need to take a more systematic approach to the study of Eastern non-positivist models of meditation and mind.

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

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