Tonglen (receiving-giving) or Compassionate Breathing

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Tonglen practice is derived from an ancient Tibetan tradition, brought to Tibet by Atiśa in the 10th century, and made clear by Geshe (who used with lepers) in the 12th century. Used much more recently in, for example, hospices - not to cure - but to help heal the spirit - to bring some sense of meaning to pain, to help send out relief to others. It often does not require words, more feelings and images.  It can be a formal practice or an 'on the spot' one - whatever suits. There's a more modern, secular version from van den Brink and Frits Koster (A Practical Guide to Mindfulness-Based Compassionate Living p 84 - 85) which they call 'Compassionate Breathing' The practice has value in all traditions, with secular and spiritual application - requiring a willingness to witness and indeed sense our own and others' suffering. Caution: it can seem a 'heavy' practice as it encourages us to be with and breathe in suffering, but if done with an open, allowing mind, letting us gently explore, then it can be a highly relevant practice and a route to compassionate awareness - for self and others.  Go gently.

'For it is in giving that we receive.'    -    St Francis of Assisi

The following introductory guidance to tonglen is taken from Pema Chödrön's 'Good Medicine' (from her Audio Collection). Compassion is about our relationship with pain - our own and others. We use this principle in all loving-kindness (maitre) and compassion practices. It's all about our shared humanity. This is different from pity (condescending) and even from empathy (can overwhelm).

Usually when we feel discomfort we push away. With tonglen meditation we breathe in discomfort with the sense of 'what I am feeling in this moment is felt by millions of others all over the world'. Then we can send out that which is joyful, uplifting, compassionate, spaciousness - relating to ourselves and to everyone else. Our experience is thus a stepping stone to understanding others. It's a relationship of equality. It can be an everyday practice. It can also help us notice how often we shut down. It changes our relationship with pain (usually we push away) and with pleasure (usually we hold on). When we feel such things we can know these are all felt by others. When things hurt (eg, we feel angry) - we can feel/say/know other people feel this. When things are delightful (eg, we feel a cool breeze when we are hot) - we can say 'may other people feel this". So we use our daily (albeit small) personal experience of painful or pleasurable occurrences to practice this form of tonglen. This can help heal and strengthen us.

The essence of tonglen is using 'unwonted' circumstances to help us mentally and spiritually (Enlightenment in Buddhist terms). Rather than magnifying our own 'story lines' we can just be with, using the energy from our emotions to transform and heal. The sense could be: 'Since I am feeling this pain, may I feel and use it to help others'. So we breathe in with an aspiration to use strong emotion to help/heal others. We are acknowledging we are all in same boat.  We breathe out relief to all who are feeling pain.

So Pema Chödrön teaches that when we feel, see or hear pain and suffering close to us, or further afield, we can do tonglen for our own confusion/pain or for others anywhere in the world. It changes our relationship with pain, especially our fear of pain. She teaches us to do tonglen 'on the spot' - just breathing in the sense of pain, the emotional distress , and then breathing out relief, spaciousness, hope.

She warns/advises us not to start using such an 'on the spot' practice with the most disturbing, discomforting emotions, but 'to practice' with some of our smaller emotions or irritations. Even in these life-changing times, there will still be plenty of these..