What’s the point of cultivating compassion? Why should we try and be kind and generous rather than selfishly pursuing our own pleasure and gain? What’s the point of sharing with anyone but our closest loved ones? Why wish and work for the happiness of people you don’t know, or even people that you hate?
If you listen to great Buddhist teachers like Pema Chodron or Mingyur Rinpoche or the Dalai Lama, you’ll hear something surprising. “By all means be selfish,” the Dalai Lama says. Which causes a double take. “But be intelligently selfish. If you want to be happy, cherish others.”
“By all means be selfish. But be intelligently selfish. If you want to be happy, cherish others.”—His Holiness the Dalai Lama
How to be intelligently selfish
The Dalai Lama’s tradition of Tibetan Buddhism say that if we selfishly want to be truly happy, the quickest and best path to well-being is to cultivate an altruistic mind that wishes everyone good and nobody to suffer. Tibetans even have a special world for this fully perfected mind of altruism: bodhicitta.
But even if you believe in this Tibetan Buddhist approach, how exactly do you become the kind of person who spontaneously wishes everyone good and is selflessly generous enough to consider giving all you have to others?
Tibetan Buddhism is famous for its mind training techniques, meditation practices that systematically train the mind toward its greatest good. A meditation practice called tonglen, or taking and giving, is one of the most powerful practices for cultivating loving-kindness and compassion. In some ways it’s the nuclear weapon of compassion.
The tonglen technique isn’t hard to learn, and it can be done not only on the meditation cushion, but at work, in a subway car, or as you fade off to sleep.
What is tonglen?
Tonglen is one of the “mind training” techniques from Tibetan Buddhism that reverse our ordinary state of mind of selfishly seeking happiness and pleasure for ourselves and those close to us. Instead, we willingly open ourselves to the suffering of others. In translation, tonglen practice can be called “taking and giving” one of the practices of exchanging self with other.
These mind training techniques were developed a thousand years ago in India and Tibet. The Tibetan word for this class of techniques is lojong. Lojong’s mind training meditation practices transform life’s difficulties into the causes for a happier more meaningful life. These practices were compiled and preserved by the Tibetan Buddhist master Geshe Checkawa in a concise prayer called the Seven Point Mind Training.
Tonglen is a meditation practice that combines meditating on loving-kindness with meditating on compassion. Love and compassion in the context of tonglen have different meanings from their everyday definitions.
The word for loving-kindness in Sanskrit is maitri (metta in Pali). In its Buddhist definition, this type of love doesn’t mean the magnetic craving we feel toward a romantic partner, but simply wishing others to be happy. Compassion, on the other hand, karuna in Sanskrit, doesn’t mean merely empathizing with others’ problems, but actively wishing to take away their problems.
Meditating on love and compassion means taking your mind through a mental story that gradually builds up thoughts and feelings like a podcast or a TV show. This kind of meditation is called analytical meditation, or vipassana. It’s a type of meditation where you actively fill your mind with beneficial thoughts, rather than emptying your mind. Analytic meditation is different from the calming meditations called shamatha that you do typically by focusing on the breath.
Tonglen practice merges both these techniques: analytic meditations on love and compassion combined with focusing on your in and out-breaths. On top of these elements, tonglen adds a powerful form of visualization like you’d see in a Marvel movie, vividly visualizing the taking and giving as flowing streams of light.
How do you practice tonglen meditation?
The practice of tonglen can be accomplished in a series of steps that grow in power and intensity, gradually expanding the scope of your compassion from one person to your close family and friends, to all sentient beings.
To begin, first, settle yourself into a meditation posture, either cross-legged on the floor with your seat elevated, or seated in a chair with your legs uncrossed, feet flat on the floor. And then follow these steps:
- Think of someone you love who’s going through physical or emotional pain right now. Imagine them sitting in front of you. Contemplate how that pain feels to them, what is going on in their mind.
- Visualize that their pain becomes a sphere of dense, dark smoke that forms at the center of their chest.
- Think how wonderful it would be if I could take away their pain.
- What if the only way I could take away their pain would be to take it on myself? Decide that you would be willing to do this, in your imagination.
- As you breathe in, the dark spot travels as a cloud of black smoke, gradually, with each breath, coming closer to you until it is a sphere of dark smoke right in front of your nose.
- Be brave, let go of your own fear and imagine a bright point of light at your heart, emanating love & compassion, which are your true nature.
- All at once, with an in-breath, breathe in the small black cloud and the smoke travels into your body and down towards that point of light.
- The instant the smoke touches the brilliant point of light there is a great explosion of light, completely eliminating the problem as you breathe out.
- Imagine light as love energy streaming out from your heart to theirs, giving them everything positive you have: a healthy body, a good environment, food, shelter, friends, family, peace of mind, good teachers, a path to inner happiness and a meaningful life, and even give giving itself. Rest in this.
- Now we expand these feeling. Imagine a huge crowd of everyone on earth with this same problem. Imagine the problem seeping out of their bodies, through all their pores, like a dark cloud of smoke. These clouds all pool together like great, low storm clouds hovering over their bodies.
- Generate a strong wish to take away their suffering.
- Remember the light at your heart.
- Breathe in the huge cloud over the course of several breaths. The cloud condenses and comes into your nose then down towards your heart.
- The moment it touches the light/love/energy at your heart, there is a fantastic explosion of light rays from your heart in all directions.
- As you breathe out, you give all that is positive to all these people. Focus just on the out breaths and rest in giving.
- Now try alternating, taking on the pain of others on the in-breaths; giving everything good on the out-breaths.
- Dissolve the visualization, come out of the meditation, and open your eyes.
Is tonglen practice dangerous?
Tonglen practice can feel scary for even a scientific-minded person, worrying that even imagining taking on the suffering of others might actually make you sick or mentally ill.
In general, meditation practice should only be taken on by the healthy-minded. If you are someone with psychological difficulties who wants to meditate to help with severe or chronic psychological problems, it’s best to find a professional who specializes in the clinical applications of meditation.
That said, healthy-minded meditators have been practicing tonglen for more than a thousand years. And the result has lead to peace of mind, happiness, an open heart, and for some, the development of the ultimate altruistic state of bodhicitta, living one’s life wholly to benefit other sentient beings.
Scientists have also begun to systematically study compassion practices, including tonglen. And there is growing evidence for the effectiveness of tonglen meditation techniques to lessen anxiety, create peace of mind, and foster an increased sense of connection to others.
Organizations like the Compassion Institute that emerged from research at Stanford University now conduct training sessions where crowds of hundreds of people practice tonglen on each other to become more effective in the workplace and more present and connected in their daily lives.
Transforming the heaviness of painful situations with Tonglen meditation
Tonglen practice can be particularly helpful when you, or someone you know, is facing the heaviness of a painful situation. Instead of shirking away from their pain, or empathizing so deeply that you become overwhelmed, you can practice tonglen to transform the situation into a cause to increase your own healthy good feelings of compassion and love.
Simply do this practice, visualizing taking away that person’s pain and suffering and offering them all the material and mental causes of happiness. Then expand to the pain of others with similar problems, realizing your friend is not alone, and wishing, if you could, to take away their pain too, which you now understand more intimately; giving them health, happiness, and peace of mind.
You can also practice tonglen meditation on yourself, visualizing yourself as the one in front of you, and taking on your own problems. This can be helpful when we feel aversion to our own problems, when we want to push them away. Tonglen can help us not only accept our problems, but the stress-reducing effects of tonglen can actually become a cause for lessened physical and mental pain.
How to practice Tonglen in everyday life
One of the most powerful aspects of the practice of tonglen is that it can be done in daily life. When you find yourself with some extra time, waiting, on the train, driving, or walking, you can become aware of your breath. As you breathe in, practice taking on the imagined pain of others. And as you breathe out, imagine practicing loving-kindness by offering those around you whatever they need.
Tonglen meditation can also be helpful in the face of conflict in your life. If you’re having an argument with your boss or partner or your child, you can recall the practice of tonglen. Even as you are in the midst of conflict, use tonglen’s mind training to imagine taking on the frustration and anger of the person in front of you, and giving them peace of mind and well-being.
Tonglen can also help reduce the stress of larger problems in the world like Covid-19 and systemic racism. Tonglen meditation practice can draw us out of a self-centered focus on our own problems to realize our shared suffering, our shared humanity, and our shared capacity to change and overcome problems.
Practicing tonglen meditation like this in everyday life can soften your heart and gradually reduce conflicts, calming your mind to help stay connected to others around you. And as a side effect, you become happier and more peaceful yourself.
If you want to learn more about tonglen and other analytic meditation and mind training techniques, you can subscribe to our podcast where we discuss these and other Tibetan Buddhist analytic meditation techniques for transforming your mind to lead a happier, more meaningful life. And you can listen to a longer meditation and podcast episode on tonglen practice here: