Tonglen Meditation for When You’re Hurting

With every minute, every breath, every atom of our bodies we should repeat this mantra: “dedication, dedication, giving, giving, loving, loving.” ―Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Commentary on the Raja Yoga Sutras

What a beautiful reading of the yoga sutras. And a powerful reminder that our spiritual practice is not for ourselves. We practice for others.

This can be tough to remember, especially when we’re suffering.

Tonglen (pronounced TONG-glen) is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice that’s really comforting when you’re hurting.

When we’re in pain, we often want to run in the other direction. But aversion doesn’t help. Or we hold on to our pain with clenched fists. Clinging doesn’t help, either.

Tonglen encourages us to sit still with our suffering.

When we’re hurting, sometimes our hearts are blasted wide open. Other times, our hearts harden and contract.

Either way, we often direct our attention inward … and then we forget how connected we are to every living being.

Tonglen gives us a way to expand our awareness beyond our own small suffering.

It invites us to be more empathetic, more compassionate. It’s all about exchanging our self for others.

It’s a profound, simple meditation – one that you can practice anytime, anywhere.
• Sit comfortably with a straight spine, in a quiet place.

• Breathe naturally. Allow your breath to slow.

• Gently bring your thoughts to rest on whatever loss or pain you’ve suffered.

• Fill your heart with that suffering. This can be very difficult. You may find that you resist. That’s okay.

• Stay with it, keep trying. Be gentle with yourself.

• Breathe.

• Intense feelings may flood your body. Turbulent thoughts may race through your mind. That’s okay. Let them be.

• Resist the urge to judge or categorize those thoughts and feelings. Resist the urge to rush after them or to push them away.

• Instead, simply witness your thoughts and feelings. Watch them come and go.

• Return your attention to your breath. Breathe naturally.

• Now think of all the people who have suffered in the same way. If someone you love has died, think of all the people in the world who are suffering the loss of a loved one, just like you, right this moment. If you’re living with an illness, think of all the people in the world who are struggling with that same illness, just like you, right this moment.

• Hold those people in your mind, gently.

• As you inhale, rest your attention on the pain of all those who have suffered as you have. Expand your ribcage. Open your heart to let it all in.

• This can be very difficult. You may find that you resist. That’s okay.

• Stay with it, keep trying. Be gentle with yourself.

• Breathe.

• As you exhale, extend peace to all those who have suffered in this way. Exhale deeply with the heartfelt wish that they may be free of pain.

• Inhale … fill your heart with the suffering of others.

• Exhale … empty your heart with tender wishes for peace.

• Inhale pain, exhale peace.

• Breathe.

On our mat, on our cushion, we practice to keep our bodies open and our minds clear. When we use Tonglen to set our intention – to truly be of benefit to others – something extraordinary happens.

The tightness in our chest releases a little. We realize there’s a spot near our heart that hardens when we protect it. That hardened spot begins to soften.

When our heart opens and our mind clears, our awareness expands. We see the world widen beyond ourselves.

My teacher, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, once said that “compassion is readiness to action.” It took me a long time to understand this.

Here’s how I make sense of it. Lovingkindness compassion is not simply a feeling. And it’s much more than lending a helping hand. It’s a way of being in the world.

In every moment, you are as open and clear and present as possible, so that you are ready to be of benefit.

Tonglen meditation is a beautiful way to find your way to that presence.

For more on Tonglen meditation, explore the work of Pema Chodron.

Learn 3 quick-and-easy techniques to bring meditation into your day, every day with Meditation for Busy People.


Photo Credit: OmLight Photography,
taken at The Wellness Initiative 5th Annual Yogathon

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