As human beings, we usually react to pain and suffering by attempting to avoid it or distance ourselves from it. Instead, we tend to gravitate towards the pleasurable, and the experiences, objects and people who bring us comfort. But what if we reversed that logic and actively welcomed uncomfortable feelings and pain into our lives for a moment?
Inviting pain and suffering of ourselves and others is the starting place for Tonglen meditation. And with huge amounts of global suffering present at the moment as a result of COVID-19, political and racial tensions and continued global disparities, now is an appropriate time to learn more about this ancient practice.
Tonglen is Tibetan and translates as 'giving and taking’. Tong means "giving or sending", and len means "receiving or taking.” Tonglen refers to a meditation practice found in Tibetan Buddhism which is used to awaken compassion.
The origins of Tonglen date as far back as the 11th Century. During this era leprosy wreaked havoc, causing many deaths in Tibet. Meditation masters brought Tonglen over from India to help those who were suffering from the disease, and also to heal themselves so they could continue to help others to recover.
Tonglen meditation is very much visualization and breath-focused and is used to transform negative energy into positive. With each in-breath during the practice, we visualize taking in the pain and suffering of others. With each exhalation, we send relief and healing light to those people so they can find peace.
In a similar vein to loving-kindness meditation, Tonglen breeds greater compassion: we become liberated from selfishness and open up to love for both others and ourselves. Indeed, the aim of Tonglen meditation is to change our attitude towards pain and to open our hearts so we can become more loving as we dissolve the pain that surrounds us.
Tongen meditation increases our compassion shutterstock/mimagephotgraphy
According to The Tibetan Book of the Dead by Sogyal Rinpoche, Tonglen is effective in countering the restricting and sometimes negative influence of our ego by opening our hearts to those suffering around us without losing ourselves in their personal drama. With distance we are compassionate teachers and observers.
Tonglen can be practised for those who are ill, those who are dying or have already passed, or those people in pain of any kind. While it can be done as a formal meditation practice (outlined below), we can also practise Tonglen on the spot at any given time: if we’re out and we see a stranger in pain, we can breathe in that person’s suffering and send them relief on exhalation. By practising Tonglen regularly, we start to connect with the open dimension of our being.
As just mentioned, you can do Tonglen at any moment. But if you wish to cultivate a more formal Tonglen meditation practise, here are the steps to follow:
The first step is to rest your mind in a few seconds of openness or stillness. This stage is traditionally known as ‘flashing on absolute bodhichitta’. Bodhicitta is a spontaneous wish to attain enlightenment motivated by great compassion for all beings.
Once prepared, it’s time to visualize the person or people who are suffering.Try to imagine them as possible and feel their pain and distress. Work with texture: as you feel your heart opening in compassion toward them, visualize all of their suffering gathering into a mass of hot, black, heaviness. Breathe it in. Inhale fully, imagining all the negative energy filtering through all the pores of your body.
Pema Chödrön explains Tonglen Meditation YouTube/OMEGA
When you exhale with Tonglen meditation, you should aim to breathe out feelings of light, brightness and coolness. Feel positive energy fully, passing through your whole body. Imagine you are passing peace, happiness and well-being to the person in pain. Develop a firm conviction that all of his or her negative karma has been eliminated. Keep breathing in and out in such a way until your visualization is synchronized with your inhalations and exhalations.
Finally, extend your taking in and giving out practice. If you’re doing Tonglen for someone you love who is ill, extend it out to everyone who is in a similar situation. Make it bigger. Furthermore, as with loving kindness meditation, you can also do Tonglen for people you do not have a close connection with or care for – perhaps those that have hurt you or hurt others. Practise Tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same suffering as your friend or yourself. Breathe in their pain and send peace their way.
Although Tonglen is an important therapeutic tool in Tibetan medicine, in the West, few studies exist regarding the efficacy of this specific meditation – both regarding the benefits to the meditator and those that are being meditated on. While there is an ever expanding body of research on various forms of meditation, research into Tonglen is limited.
“Tonglen meditation breeds greater compassion: we become liberated from selfishness and open up to love for both others and ourselves.”
Nonetheless, practised regularly, it's safe to say many of the usual benefits of meditation – such as stress relief, reduced anxiety, improved sleep, etc – will apply. In terms of the meditator, the visualization aspect of Tonglen may have advantages as it can lead to a number of cognitive benefits. Repeatedly visualizing scenes or images that evoke positive emotional situations can reinforce the production of brain neurotransmitters associated with positive emotional states, encouraging the pruning of synaptic relationships that are counterproductive to this practice.
However, when it comes to the healing properties that Tonglen aims to achieve for those on the receiving end of the positive intemtions, the effects are clearly hard to measure and there is very little clinical evidence to support it to date.
A 2016 study aimed to evaluate the distant healing effect of Tonglen meditation on stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and self-perceived quality of life in cancer patients. Just over 100 cancer patients took part, half of which were the subjects of three months of Tonglen meditation from 12 meditators – not know to them. The other half of patients were the control group.
Tonglen: take in the negative and give out light
Patients were questioned about quality of life and mood during and after treatment. In terms of depression, a statistically significant improvement was found in the treatment group that received Tonglen, suggesting it could make a real difference to how they felt. However, there were no significant findings in the other areas, meaning a more in-depth analysis and evaluation of Tonglen meditation is needed in the future.
By practising the Tibetan practice of Tonglen on a regular basis, you can expect your compassion levels to expand naturally over time, as well as benefiting from the usual lifestyle advantages meditation brings. And while there is little scientific evidence to currently back up that Tonglen can improve the pain and suffering of those on the receiving end of it, it can certainly do no harm. Indeed, sending out positive energy to others could only lead to good things. More research is needed in the future to see if such compassionate meditation can really make a difference. ●
Main image: shutterstock/sun ok
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