“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.
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.”