You’re in a crowded subway car commuting home from work. A child suddenly starts crying in the car. You can see and hear people around you getting annoyed at the noise. Perhaps you start thinking: “Why doesn’t the mother do something?”
“I’ve had a hard day I don’t want to listen to this”“Ugh, give me a break!”
But, instead of getting too far down into your own thoughts about how you are tired and looking for some peace on the way home, you offer to ease some discomfort for everyone and give your seat to the crying child. You feel joy when everyone seems to relax as the child stops crying.
Your friend is stuck at home sick. You have a lot going on today, but you know there is a soup that always helps them feel better. You decide to go out of your way to go get the soup and deliver it to them. You get stuck in traffic and get a parking ticket while you are picking up the soup. When you drop off the soup, your friend says “Wow, this means alot to me, I hope you didn’t go through much trouble to get this.” and you reply with “not at all, I hope you feel better” instead of bringing any of your troubles into the conversation. You feel joy as your friend expresses their gratitude towards you.
Your partner/spouse has been having a hard time at work recently. They come home each day and are pretty miserable, which has been affecting the time you spend together. One day, it gets to a breaking point. You are on the verge of snapping something at them like:
“You’re no fun to be around anymore!”“Your job is sucking the joy out of our lives!”“Just quit your job already and stop complaining about it!”
Instead, you show your partner compassion and listen to them as they vent. You offer “I know this is a hard time for you. I’ll support whatever decision you make and if you need someone to bounce ideas off of, I am happy to help.”
In any situation, we can breathe in to find the center of compassion and understanding before moving forward, which will help our own attitude and feelings as well as the attitudes and feelings of those around us.
“If you would like to be selfish, you should do it in a very intelligent way. The stupid way to be selfish is … seeking happiness for ourselves alone. … the intelligent way to be selfish is to work for the welfare of others.” —Dalai Lama
The world can be horrible, but there is a way forward— to connect with the shared experience we all have.
When times are tough, we can all use some compassion and kindness. Meditation is a fantastic tool for grounding ourselves and connecting to the bigger picture.
In times of stress, suffering, and anger, we can breathe out compassion, love, and hope. Though receiving the pain of others can be hard, we can find endless wells of joy and compassion within ourselves in any given moment.
Giving and Receiving (Tonglen in Tibetan) is a practice of meditation in which we aim to offer our joy and compassion out into the world.
We are also able to connect with our own suffering, to recognize that we are not alone in our experience, and to offer the same relief that you are craving to all who are suffering similarly.
Tonglen recognizes we are not alone in our suffering.
Everyone crosses the marshes of suffering and from there we can see the pain of others and ourselves. And we can see the beauty of life.
Tonglen aims to shift the negative mindset and allow openness to connection, compassion, and gratitude. When practicing Tonglen, we are asked to step outside of our own needs and desires in order to connect with the bigger picture. This often looks like leaning towards pain and suffering.
|“At least I have it better than that guy.”
“Lots of people in the world have it way worse than me and I should be grateful for what I have.”
|I can remind myself that I am not alone in my suffering, and while others may have it worse than me, there are also others that share the same suffering I have.
I realize everyone feels down sometimes, it is part of being human, and I connect with our shared suffering.
I reflect on how fortunate I am to have basic things in life like food, clothing, and shelter.
|“The world is so terrible these days, it feels like there is no hope.”||I can open my heart to the widespread suffering in the world and it may be intense, but I can find moments of joy and peace throughout.
I can see the hard things in my own life and in the lives of others – such as pain, illness, poverty, injustice, stress, loss, and unhappiness – while also seeing clearly the things that are beneficial, beautiful, and enjoyable in life.
|Driving by a car accident, thinking “Thank God that’s not me.” or “This road is so dangerous.”||“I hope everyone is ok.”
Breathe in the tragedy/stress/fear of being in a car accident, breathe out calm healing thoughts.
Take a moment to reflect on how fleeting life is, and how much we take for granted daily.
When we feel helpless or stuck when thinking about others’ problems, it can be hard to express gratitude for our own world. Tonglen offers compassion to yourself and to others, and allows you to breathe in the suffering and pain you see, and breathe out relief.
When we encounter a situation that may be stressful, painful, or otherwise unpleasant, we can take a moment to practice Tonglen and shift our mindset to a more reflective, grateful perspective.
In this article, Pema Chödrön explains the four main steps for practicing Tonglen:
- Flash on Bodhicitta — Bodhicitta means to awaken the heart-mind. In this step, rest your mind in a state of openness and stillness.
- Begin the Visualization — Begin paying attention to your breath, and as you inhale, absorb the smoke/darkness/heaviness and breathe out stillness/calm/positive energy.
- Focus on a Personal Situation — Think of a real life situation that is painful. Breathe in the pain and suffering of that situation, and send out relief.
- Expand Your Compassion — Take the small visualization and expand it to those that share your suffering, including those that are suffering in general. You could think of specific groups — family, friends, communities, a certain country, etc. Tonglen can extend infinitely.
Try It Out
Daphna McKnight, ordained Buddhist minister and Tonglen researcher shares a detailed script for a Tonglen meditation — originally published in her thesis.
Find a quiet space to take some time and go through the script, which guides you on what to think of and where to direct your attention using a real-life example by bringing to mind a person you care about who is suffering or unhappy in some way.
Tonglen in Real Life
There are times in life when we will choose to avoid or look away from the suffering of others. In these moments, practicing Tonglen for yourself and for those around the world who are struggling can be a coping method for finding peace.
Tonglen can be used as a practice to shift mindset away from the ‘at least I have it better than that guy’ perspective and take a more compassionate look on gratitude and life.
Author Rebecca Otowa shares her experience practicing Tonglen:
A day or so ago I saw an upsetting photograph on social media. It was of a crying 8-year-old boy holding a lamb. A school in the US had a program where each child had to rear a lamb and then bring it to the slaughterhouse. Of course the boy didn’t want to kill his lamb, which had become a pet. The misery on the boy’s face is a perfect starting point for tonglen and for refraining from telling the story. If we allow ourselves, we will get caught up in such issues as whether the school should allow such a practice, the pros and cons of eating meat, etc. Why? Because the idea of the boy’s pain is abhorrent to us, so we escape into some other issue. But if we keep our attention on the pain of the boy, we can avoid all the attendant emotions that arise when we tell the story to emphasize our own self-identity (as a vegetarian, as an advocate for little children, etc.). We may help both him and ourselves by breathing in his pain and sending him relief — in whatever form that may arrive. He may never feel the relief, but we will. The suffering we have felt as a result of seeing that upsetting picture has dissipated. Instead of having our button pushed, we are now in control of our reaction to the situation, and we have already done something about it — we have practiced compassionate tonglen for the boy. Now we can act further as we wish.
Read her full article on Tonglen in the real world here.
Tonglen can be practiced when we feel the urge to turn away from pain or suffering. Sometimes, we have a gut reaction to situations where it seems like we are actively trying to improve the situation, when really we are fueling feelings of anger rather than compassion.
By practicing Tonglen, you process the emotion, allow it to pass through you, and offer good intentions out. Then, once in a new mindspace, you can look to what compassionate actions you can offer out into the world to help. Try this process with the below examples — ranging from “easy” situations to extreme.
Level 1 — Easy
|Example||Potential Gut Reaction||Tonglen||Compassion|
|Your friend cancels plans because they are sick.||Annoyance that your plans are disrupted.||Breathe in the pain and sickness of our friend, breathe out wishes of health and gratitude that you are healthy.||Bring your friend some soup and suggest some other dates you could move your plans to.|
|You see a child cut their knee on the playground.||Yikes, glad my kid didn’t get hurt.||Breathe in pain of getting hurt on the playground, breathe out compassion.||Offer the child a bandaid and help them find their guardian.|
|A restaurant is very busy and gives you the wrong order.||This place sucks! It used to have much better service.||Breathe in the stress of the hectic restaurant, breathe out patience and understanding.||Understand it was just a hectic night and commit to trying the restaurant again at a less busy time.|
While Tonglen can be followed by an action, for example bringing a friend some soup or offering a child a band-aid, it doesn’t need to be.
Sometimes, the compassionate action can be not snapping, not adding fuel to the fire, or not leaving a negative review.
Level 2 – Moderate
What is your gut reaction when you see each of the photos below?
What action could you offer once you have received the suffering/gut reaction and sent out peace and compassion?
|Example||Potential Gut Reaction||Tonglen||Compassion|
|You see a homeless person on the sidewalk asking for money to feed his family.||Blaming the government and systemic issues or the housing crisis.||Breathe in the suffering of the person, breathe out compassion and hope for ease.||Make eye contact with them and say hello.
Offer to buy them a meal or give them some change.
|You see an animal at the shelter who was mistreated by previous owners.||Humans are the worst.||Breathe in the suffering and pain of the animal and breathe out peace and hope they will find a loving home.||Pet the dog and show it the kindness humans are capable of.|
|When you hear the latest number of COVID deaths on the news.||People should get vaccinated and boosted! Use safe practices! Covid is a choice you fools!
Sadness and grief to those lost to the virus.
|Breathe in grief and loss, breathe out relief for families and gratitude for those working on the front line.||Understand in unprecedented times everyone is doing their best.
Volunteer at a clinic or vaccination center.
|When you read about a tragedy in the newspaper (war, murder, mass shootings,etc…)||Frustration that you are helpless to the situation.||Breathe in suffering and anger, breathe out hope and relief for families.||Comfort a loved one who is also saddened by the news.
Spread awareness of the issue.
Level 3 — Extreme
Click on one of the images below (it will take you to more content in the below accordion) and imagine yourself as that person or in that situation.
Where would you find joy in that situation?
What would you be grateful for as that person?
If you were watching this situation happen, what compassion or action could you offer to the people involved?
**Trigger warning: death, war, rape, violence — some stories or pictures may be graphic**
If you knew you or a loved one was in their final moments of life, what would you do?
The last hours with our daughter – From a Children’s Hospice
Aoi is 6 years old and living in a children’s hospice in Japan. Her family shared a few last hours with her, reading to her, sharing a meal with her, and spending time with her at her favorite place, the aquarium.
A Litre of Tears (2005) Trailer
A Litre of Tears is a Japanese television series based on the true story of a 15-year-old girl named Aya. Aya suffered from a degenerative disease, and kept diaries detailing her life up until she could no longer hold a pen.
Imagine if you or a loved one had one of these diseases:
- Locked In Syndrome – Imagine having full consciousness and normal cognitive ability with full paralysis — unable to move, talk, or eat.
- Mitochondrial Disease – Imagine if your cells were unable to convert food and oxygen into energy, affecting your brain, nerves, muscles, kidneys, heart, liver, eyes, ears or pancreas. Every 30 minutes, a child is born who will develop mitochondrial disease by age 10.
- Xeroderma Pigmentosum – Imagine never being able to see the sun, due to your skin (and life) being at risk by being exposed to sunlight.
In Life’s Last Moments, Open a Window
Read the full article here
What migrants face as they journey through the deadly Darien Gap
The Darien Gap is a wild, lawless stretch of land between Columbia and Panama. Watch the perilous journey people go through to make their way north toward the USA.