How to do Tonglen Meditation – a Beginner’s Guide

Heart Chakra image from Juicy*S

Heart Chakra image from Juicy*S

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” 
~ Charles Dickens

At times it is easy to feel small and insignificant – unable to help when all we feel in our hearts is an urge to try. When those we know are suffering, or when there is a catastrophe in another part of the world we might wonder what can be done.

There is something we can do. Meditate!

I first started practicing this meditation as a small girl – maybe three or four years of age.  No one taught me.  I just seemed to know what to do.  My baby sister was fidgeting and restless one night, tossing and turning in the bed beside mine as her teeth came through. I breathed in her fever and distress with every in-breath, and with every out-breath I imagined my breath covering her like a soft blanket, helping her to settle and be calm again.

My ‘magical breathing’ (as I thought of it) worked, and I’ve been doing it ever since, as part of my daily meditation practice.

Child meditating - image from www.vk.com

Child meditating – image from www.vk.com

It was not until I reached my thirties that I found out Tibetan Buddhists have a name for this type of meditation – they call it Tonglen. Tonglen is Tibetan for ‘giving and receiving’ and it is a beautiful and simple practice than anyone can do, with no experience.  What matters is your intent.

Sit or lie quietly, and close your eyes. I like to sit with my spine straight, and my hands together in my lap, thumb tips pressed lightly together. (Use the image of the Dalai Lama at the bottom of this page as a guide.)  If I’m lying in bed, I lie on my back with my hands crossed together over my heart. Try to sit if you can, but for those of you unwell or unable to do so, a prone meditation practice will still work.

Start by imagining someone that you want to help. It might be a friend with depression.  You breathe in the heaviness of their energy and suffering and breathe out joy and peace, or whatever other energy you feel would bring them comfort.

All you ever have to do is ‘breathe in’ the condition, emotion or suffering of another, making room for healing and comfort within them.  Then ‘breathe out’ positive energy, love and light to fill the space you have created.

The suffering of others is also our own suffering, so this meditation can help us as we endeavour to help others.  If you are in pain, breathe in your own pain and also the pain of everyone who is suffering from your affliction.  Breathe out relief to everyone, in whatever form feels most right to you.

Do not worry that the things you breathe in will become a part of you, further weighing you down. As you breathe in suffering it is transmuted back into light, and it dissipates harmlessly.

Sometimes you may not even have a word for what you are breathing it – it will simply be a feeling, a weightiness, a blackness or even a void.  Breathe out hope, lightness, joy and well-being.  Breathe out ease.

At times when we don’t know what else to do, this suffices. As you bring peace to others, you bring it also to yourself.  It is a very soothing and calming practice.  You don’t need to belong to any particular religion, or follow any particular spiritual philosophy.  This simple practice merely acknowledges that we are all human, all connected, and all the same – no matter who we are, or where we come from.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama says of Tonglen:

“Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense.”

Image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in meditation from www.wisdombooks.com

Image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in meditation from www.wisdombooks.com

35 thoughts on “How to do Tonglen Meditation – a Beginner’s Guide

  1. How lovely. Today as I am about to attend the funeral of my cousin’s wife who has left us far too early, I will meditate as you suggest for her family. Thank you again Nicole. xxx

  2. Nicole thank you so much this has been one of your most profound and helpful posts for me so far…especially its depth and how it can inform my desire to lighten myself and my situation and those around me. Im a healer psychic and intuitive and thinker and have been bamboozeled and driven to the point of distraction whilst trying to come up with something that works for me. Long story but meditation just brought me in to trauma then back to past life stuff and being around people meant I’d be full of their stuff and basically to the point of being in bits and driven almost but not totally demented. And with the greatest of respect at this point I’d like to say I dont want or need anyones personal take on my situation or how to resolve my difficulties because this is my own personal mystery to unravel. Kindness greatflly accepted also respect but any thing else would prefer not, because we are each our own personal and very beautiful mystery to unravel…..flavoured by our place of birth our culture our skin tone our religion or lack thereof (Im sure you’l forgive my ham fisted attempt to do a discourse on religious\spiritual belief’s and theological traditions of the world as I dont know much) But this post has touched me and is a fantastic tool……. I have heretofore been running around like a demented chicken doing tonglen for absoloutely years the wrong way around breathing in the light and out the (insert expletive here) whilst calling out to the heavens for a teacher whose ego was not as big as a small continent (europe maybe is that the smallest dont know that either!)……..so Nicole many thank yous and much much love for this very precious post…xxx

    • I’m so happy that you found this helpful, Maria. It’s such a gentle and positive practice, even though it focuses our attention on suffering. I find it to be very useful for coping with my life, and the suffering I encounter in the lives of others. Bless xx

  3. Thank you yet again Nicole …… this is such a simple but powerful exercise, one that can be done anywhere that one feels the need to help another or when they need a spiritual lift for themselves …. blessings to you … xox

  4. Thanks Nicole. I woke up this morning feeling like a bit of a dud about a number of things, so this has helped. Of late, if I am concerned about people, I send a big pink bubble of healing to people. I am still in novice no nothing land, but I was hoping the intent would help, however small and insignificant. This technique is more focused though, so thanks again. xx

  5. 🙂 I love this. I didn’t know there was a name for what I do, either. I’m especially grateful for the releasing message of ‘don’t worry that it will become part of you’. I have done the worrying bit, not knowing better than to, and it cut me off from helping and sent me flailing into anxiety. So I’m grateful for that effervescent escape hatch. 🙂
    Love and Light,
    Mia

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    • Wise? I just loved my sister and wanted to help her and my ‘magical breathing’ seemed to work. I felt very guilty though, about the breathing, and as if I couldn’t tell grown ups what I was doing in case they made me stop. Still love my sister, and now I don’t care what the ‘grown ups’ think, LOL

      I hope you enjoy this practice as much as I do, Jetske! xx

  7. So simple, yet brilliant. I’ve done this occasionally for others during meditation but I hadn’t thought of this: “If you are in pain, breathe in your own pain and also the pain of everyone who is suffering from your affliction.” When I read that I thought of my own back pain and then of others who have the same thing and immediately I felt better for it. Thank you for this little gem of wisdom.

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  10. Hi Nicole, thank you for sharing this meditation. I accidentally found you a couple weeks ago but I believe it is not accidental. I have been reading your blog since then and found great comfort and uplifting. This meditation is just for me. I am watching my husband going through difficulties and being worried about his rental property but I don’t know how to help him to feel unworried and positive. I will do this everyday and I am sure it will help him and the situation he is in. Thank you so much again 🙂

    • Hi Tam, and welcome to my blog! This is a great little meditation, and a fine way of supporting your husband, besides hugging him, telling him you love him and making him cups of tea, or whatever is the thing that helps him through. Sending much love to you both, Nicole xx

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  16. Reblogged this on Luna Quirks and commented:
    Before I understood what it was, or could even sit in quiet meditation for long, this is a meditation I did for years. Tonglen is Tibetan for ‘giving and receiving’. I’ve always felt a deep connection to both His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people. Life is fascinating.

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