Have you ever come across a situation where you find yourself “Helpless”?
Let me give you two scenarios to elaborate my point.
Scenario 1: Your close friend or a family member is going through a hard time or is suffering in pain and you want to help them however find yourself stuck with your own problems or commitments in life.
Scenario 2: You are going through a rough patch in life or are struggling with your career or lost a dear one and all of a sudden life has become a misery. You find yourself stuck in life, feeling helpless.
Have you come across any of the above scenarios in life?
If you are nodding your head in ‘Yes’ then today I shall share with you a 900-year old (Yes! it’s a very old secret) Tibetan meditation practice, which will help you to connect with suffering (yours and others suffering) and awaken the compassion inside yourself to help yourself and others. It is called as “Tonglen Meditation”.
Have you come across this before?
The word ‘Tonglen’ means “giving and receiving”. The objective of this meditation practice is to reform our attitude towards pain and open our heart to be more kind and loving. Tonglen meditation helps in providing support to those in need by increasing compassion towards others and develops within us the ability to aid in addressing distress of self and others.
Let us delve deeper into this practice and understand how did it evolve and what are the exact steps to practice tonglen meditation.
History of Tonglen Meditation
Tonglen was traditionally taught as one of the practices in the Tibetan mind-training techniques, this is often attributed to a famous teacher, Atisha (980 – 1054 CE), who brought the second dissemination of Buddhism to Tibet. However, this technique was widely taught by Geshe Chekawa (1102 – 1176) in the twelfth century. He was one of the greatest masters, who had learned and accomplished different forms of meditation.
In the beginning Geshe Chekawa taught Tonglen only to closed group of individuals / disciples thinking that it would work only with people who have faith in it. At that time Leprosy was common in Tibet and ordinary doctors were not able to treat or cure it. Knowing this Geshe Chekawa started teaching Tonglen to group of lepers and the lepers who practiced Tonglen were cured. The news spread fast and soon the lepers flocked to his house which began to seem like a hospital. This convinced Geshe Chekawa to teach Tonglen far more widely.
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The Core of Tonglen Meditation: Awakening Compassion
One of the core elements in the practice of Tonglen Meditation is being able to awaken compassion in yourself. Evoking compassion is easier said than done because the sources of our love and compassion is often hidden from us. Fortunately there are special techniques that were taught in the mind-training teachings which can be of help to us. Let us look into two most powerful techniques to generate compassion.
Always know just like you, others are in pain…
Dalai Lama says “All human beings are the same – they are made of human flesh, bones and blood”. Everyone is seeking for happiness in some way or manner, desires will be different for different people but the ultimate goal every soul is seeking is happiness. Similarly, everyone has problems, issues and challenges. These sufferings may not be the same for all however, in some sense, each soul on this planet is suffering or is in pain – Do you agree with me ? It is important to realize this sameness as human beings.
If you have read the above para, then let me ask you a question: Are you upset with someone or having difficulties with a loved one or friend or co-worker or sibling or parents? Be honest with yourself.
Now this ‘person’ with whom you are upset, for this moment consider this person not in his or her role of ‘spouse’ or ‘friend’ or ‘co-worker’. Instead, look at him as another “You”, another human being, with same feelings as you, the same desire for happiness, the same fear of suffering.
When you have such a perspective, when you think the other person is just like you, another human being (with no labels or roles), then there is a different connection you have with this person. Do you notice a feeling of compassion arising within your heart at this moment? This feeling of compassion will help you to open up your relationship and give it a new richer meaning.
See your loved ones in pain…
Was this your reaction, when you read that line.
This technique may sound insensitive (or wierd) however this is the best technique I have found to evoke compassion within me. Let me explain you how this works.
When you see someone suffering, imagine your sibling or parent or grandparents or best friend in a similar kind of painful situation. When you see your loved ones in a painful situation, your heart will naturally open with more love and compassion. You would want them to be free from suffering and be safe. The compassion which comes naturally to you, can be directed to the person who is actually going through a tough time.
If I imagine my loved one in pain, will it not harm them?
This is where the holy secret comes to rescue, when you are thinking about your loved one and evoking compassion and love for them, it will only help them and will even bring about healing of whatever suffering and pain they may have gone through in the past, may be going through now or have yet to go through.
The fact that they are the instrument of you arousing compassion, even if it is only for an instant, will bring them tremendous merit and benefit. As they have been responsible, in part, for the opening of your heart, and for allowing you to help the person with your compassion will benefit the person and your loved one.
You can mentally dedicate the merit of that action to your loved one who helped you to open your heart and you can wish them and pray that in the future he or she will be free of suffering.
So to think and ask that “Will my loved one be affected or harmed, if I am imagining him or her in place of the person who is suffering?” shows that you have not yet fully comprehended the miraculous power of compassion and love. True compassion blesses and heals all those involved: the person who generates compassion, the person through whom that compassion is generated, and the person to whom the compassion is directed, along with the blessings of Buddha, to the alleviation of suffering everywhere.
Compassion is far greater and nobler than pity
Pity has its roots in fear and a sense of arrogance and condescension, sometimes even a smug feeling of “I am glad it’s not me”.
As Stephen Levine says ” When your fear touches someone’s pain it becomes pity; when your love touches someone’s pain it becomes compassion”. To train in compassion, then, is to know all beings are the same and suffer in similar ways, to honor all those who suffer, and to know you are neither separate from nor superior to anyone.
So when you feel for the person, you know that whoever prompts you to develop compassion, is in fact giving you one of the greatest gifts of all, because they are helping you to develop that very quality you need most in your progress towards enlightenment.
That is why in Tibet they say that the beggar who is asking you for money or the sick old woman wringing your heart, may be the Buddha in disguise, manifesting on your path to help you grow in compassion and move towards buddhahood.
Now that you have understood two powerful methods to awaken compassion within yourself, we shall look into the practice of Tonglen Meditation.
How To Practice Tonglen Meditation
Find a comfortable place to sit: As for any meditation practice, find a quiet place to sit. You can sit on a chair or meditation cushion, make sure you sit with your back straight. Close your eyes and take few deep breaths, as you exhale relax your body, feel the sensations in the body and completely relax.
Infuse self compassion: For this purpose imagine two versions of yourself facing each other. Version ‘A’ is compassionate, warm, loves you unconditionally like your parent and never judges you or finds faults. Version ‘B’ of yours is angry, frustrated, has been hurt and has been suffering in practically all aspects of life.
Now imagine both your versions are standing facing each other, as you breathe in (inhale), imagine Version ‘A’ opening both arms and embracing Version ‘B’. It embraces all the negativity, hurt and suffering. As you breathe out (exhale) imagine Version ‘A’ sending out all the healing love, warmth, trust, comfort, confidence, happiness and joy to Version ‘B’.
Do this visualization exercise for few minutes until you see in your mind Version ‘B’ has completely merged into Version ‘A’ and transformed into Version ‘A’ who is worthy of love, happiness and joy. Infusing self-love and compassion within ourselves will make you ready for the next step.
Related Post: 5 Simple Steps To Practice Self-Compassion
Bring to mind the person who is suffering: As your heart fills with love, bring to mind the person you care, who is suffering or having a challenging time in life. Notice their pain – it can be loss of job or it can be illness or money related problems or tough relationship.
See their suffering as a black cloud of smoke hovering over them, they may have one or several black clouds of smoke surrounding them. You know by getting rid of these black clouds of smoke, you can instill within them more strength to face the challenges and can bring in peace, happiness and love. You now decide to breathe in (inhale) the black cloud of smoke which is surrounding your loved one.
As you breathe in the black smoke, imagine you take in all their suffering and pain. You notice this black smoke is made up of fear, anger, self-pity and negativity. As the thick black smoke reaches your heart it cracks and every single particle in the smoke transforms into a white cloud of love, peace and strength. Breathe out and send this white cloud towards the person suffering. Notice the change, as the white cloud heals the pain / suffering and the person feels better.
Breathe in the black smoke of physical discomfort and pain, breathe out the healing white cloud of relief and peace. Breathe in the black smoke of uncertainty, fear, anger and self-pity. Breathe out the white cloud of love, warmth, peace and compassion. Do this exercise for a while, keep sending the love in the form of white cloud as you breathe out.
Every time you breathe out the white cloud, feel the joy of ‘you’ transforming and helping the person you care about. There is no end to this transformation and healing. There is no end to the boundless love in you. You notice, the love only increases and your heart continues to send out healing and joy in the form of white clouds.
Repeat it: This is not a one-time practice. You can continue the practice of breathing in pain and breathing out peace over and over again. This meditation practice will take around 15 – 20 minutes and it is suggested you do it regularly for your loved ones, who are in pain.
Remember, this does not just apply to others, if you are in pain, you can do self-tonglen as well. When it comes to self, assume two versions of yourself (A & B) as stated above and carry out this practice.
Expand your circle: This is an advanced stage wherein you include all people, animals, birds, the whole planet at large. Breathe out the white cloud to all beings in the world, feeling everyone becoming lighter, peaceful and more joyful.
That’s it – You can take few more conscious breaths and rest in the vast sense of openhearted healing for yourself, loved ones and all other beings.
If you are still with me, reading this, I hope you enjoyed this post. I appreciate your time and urge you to practice this meditation and look forward to hearing from you. Feel free to leave your comments and do not hesitate to ask any queries ~ Stay Blessed 🙂
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This Post Has 14 Comments
Wow, thank you for that great post, I have not tried meditation before and never heard of Tonglen Meditation but I will give it a try, The pandemic has created a lot of stress , frustration and anger, that sometimes are hard to deal with, so I’ll give it a try. My wife did yoga and meditation before so, I’ll ask for guidance on this one, so we can do it together.
Thank you for the comment, I am glad you are using the current situation to start a new habit. I am sure if you practice and follow a daily meditation practice then the concerns which you have expressed will definitely abate and you will start to experience lot more at peace and stable. Wishing you all the best with your practice ~ Stay Blessed 🙂
I’ve never heard of this meditation before, sounds very interesting. I completely agree that compassion and gratitude are the strongest and noblest emotions. Your life will improve drastically if you incorporate if you are grateful and if you have compassion for others, it will make you less irritable, and stop you from getting caught up in yourself. Great post.
The core of Tonglen Meditation is awakening compassion for self and others. I completely agree with your standpoint on compassion and gratitude. Wishing you all the best with you meditation practice ~ Stay Blessed 🙂
This is great information here. What struck me the most was the analogy you mentioned about imagining the other person suffering was a close friend or family member, and how you will have a different sense of compassion towards that person. I will implement that technique the next time I come across a situation as such. Thank you for this great article!
Yes it’s a perspective which helps compassion to flow more naturally from you to others who are in pain. Wishing you all the with your practice ~ Stay Blessed 🙂
Your post is so timely… I have been thinking lately that meditation may provide some answers that I seek, but I just don’t know enough about it. Meditation is not highly valued in much of the western world… certainly not on the mean streets of NYC, but still I have a subtle “pull” from within to learn more. Tonglen Meditation was new for me. Thanks for posting!
I am happy you came across this post as you were seeking answers, I wish you all the best with your meditation practice and if you wish you can explore this website to find more information on different types of meditation ~ Stay Blessed 🙂
Having read the post I had to leave a comment.
The questions asked had me asking myself for answers which had me hooked for more information..
I loved the black smoke analogy which was so true. I found the article very uplifting, well written and the link to other pages gave even greater depth to what you wanted to say in this. Thanks so much…
I am glad to know that you found the post helpful. These analogies do help in making the meditation practice more effective. Wishing you all the very best with your meditation practice ~ Stay Blessed 🙂
Thank you for this timely post. I was feeling a little restless because of this lockdown and losing my focus. Will start practicing this from today 🙂
I am happy to note that this post encouraged you to start your meditation practice, use this lockdown to incorporate meditation as a daily habit. Wishing you all the very best with your meditation practice ~ Stay Blessed 🙂
This article was the most informative thing I’ve read today! Meditation is something I practice (inconsistently) but am still learning the art of. The benefits of meditation are so numerous that I cannot escape the desire to learn and consistently put it into action. This is the first time I’m hearing about Tonglen so I am bookmarking this article to read again and grasp with a better understanding. Apparently, this is the next step on my meditation/growth journey… Thank you for writing.
I am glad to know that you found this post informative. Inconsistency is struggle for many when it comes to meditation, however if you know the “Why” for meditation then it will be more easy to stick with the meditation practice. Make “peace of mind” your top priority then you won’t skip meditation even for a single day. I wish you all the best on your next step to meditation ~ Stay Blessed 🙂