What is Tonglen?

I’ve been using this technique after a hurtful situation with someone. I hope it helps you too. The following practice is inspired from one of my Pema Chodron books, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change.

Tonglen is a core practice for warriors in training, the most effective tool for developing courage and arousing our sense of oneness with others. It’s a practice for staying in the middle of the river. It gives us the strength to let go of the shore.

How to do Tonglen

There are various ways that tonglen is taught, but the essence of it is breathing in that which is unpleasant and unwanted and breathing out—sending out—that which is pleasing, relieving, enjoyable. In other words, we breathe in the things we usually try to avoid, such as our sadness and anger, and we send out the things we usually cling to, such as our happiness and good health. We breathe in pain and send out pleasure. We breathe in disgrace and send out good reputation. We breathe in loss and send out gain.

How does the practice of Tonglen help us?

This is an exceedingly counter habitual practice. It helps us overcome our fear of suffering and tap into the compassion that’s inherent in us all. The word tonglen is Tibetan for “sending and receiving.” It refers to our willingness to take on the pain of others we know are hurting and extend to them whatever we feel will ease their pain, whatever will enable them to stay present with the sorrows and losses and disappointments of life. Practicing tonglen awakens our natural empathy, our innate ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes.

Caring about people when they’re scared or sad or angry or arrogant can be a challenge; it confronts us with our own pain and fear, with the places where we’re stuck. But if we can stay with those unwanted feelings, we can use them as steppingstones to understanding the pain and fear of others. Tonglen allows us to acknowledge where we are in the moment and, at the same time, cultivate a sense of kinship with others.

When painful feelings arise, we breathe them in, opening to our own suffering and the suffering of everyone else who is feeling the same way. Then we send relief to us all.


You might be interested in a related post; 4 TIps for Improving Your Mental Health from the Bhagavad Gita.

“So the next time you encounter fear, consider yourself lucky. This is where the courage comes in. Usually we think that brave people have no fear. The truth is that they are intimate with fear.” ~ Pema Chodron

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