Cultivating Compassion: Tonglen Meditation

Months back, I signed up for an online meditation retreat, and it turned out to be just what my broken heart needed this past weekend. I felt overwhelming anguish about the recent mass shootings at the grocery store in Buffalo, the church in Southern California and the elementary school in Texas. During the retreat, I deepened my practice of tonglen meditation, which helped me open my heart wider to stay with the grief while sending out comfort and care.

The retreat was led by Pema Chödrön, a renowned American Buddhist nun who has been writing and teaching this ancient meditation technique for decades. Now eighty-six years old, Pema will soon retire, and this was her last retreat. Five hundred people gathered in person, and four thousand more of us tuned in from all over the world to practice tonglen.

Instead of the usual relaxation practice where one exhales life’s stressors and inhales peace and calm, the instruction for tonglen is to inhale suffering (our own and that of others) and exhale relief. At first blush, this might seem like a terrible idea—our instinct is to push away distress, not draw it closer. But this emotional defense blocks compassion for other people and ourselves. Compassion requires our willingness to stay open hearted in the company of distressing emotion. Strengthening our emotional capacity in this way also makes us more resilient in the face of our own life’s challenges.

In tonglen meditation, we start with our own pain and then, with each successive inhalation, identify others who feel this way, moving out through all the people who share the emotion. This reminds us that we are not alone in our hurt. After taking in our own and other people’s suffering, on each exhalation we send out relief. For example, after breathing in anguish and grief, I exhaled tenderness, support, justice and safety, bringing this care to myself and to all who are mourning. By focusing on sending comfort and relief on the out breath, the pain is ventilated and can be better tolerated.

Tonglen meditation prepares us to face life’s difficult experiences, breaking through our loneliness and reminding us that we are a wellspring of solace. By practicing this method of taking on pain and radiating comfort, we find deeper compassion for ourselves, our loved ones and humanity.

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