Inhale Pain, Exhale Joy: How Tonglen Helps Create Unity and Compassion

Person in business suit meditates, calmly smiling“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” —Dalai Lama

Tonglen is the Buddhist practice of giving and taking. More specifically, this practice involves taking in another’s pain as you inhale and exhaling your happiness to them. Since it is not actually possibly to physically take someone’s discomfort and supplant it with your joy, this is an energetic and symbolic practice. Simultaneously, the practice of Tonglen fosters compassion for the self as a human who will experience what the Buddha called “life’s 10,000 joys and sorrows.”

Not only does this practice cultivate compassion, it also provides a reminder that, whether or not we see it, people deal with difficulty, pain, and hardship every day. Thus, it helps counter self-absorption by encouraging you to shift your focus to the challenges other people face.

When I first encountered Tonglen, and its instructions to breathe in the suffering of the world, I thought, “Are you kidding? As a psychotherapist, the last thing I need to do is to invite more pain into my life.” Of course, I was wrong. But I didn’t realize this until after I read Pema Chodron’s Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. It was from this book that I learned a way of practicing Tonglen that did not bring me down but rather, gave me a sense of deep connection with others, increased my compassion, and paradoxically, calmed my body-mind.

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How Is Tonglen Practiced?

Chodron suggests you first make an effort to notice when you are feeling something disturbing, such as anxiety, depression, grief, anger, physical pain, or anything that feels bad. Next, remember this: there are probably millions of other people feeling exactly what you are, dealing with similar challenges, and having to cope with them similarly. With this realization held in your mind, imagine you are first inhaling compassion for yourself and these others and then exhaling loving, healing energy to yourself and to them.

This is not a Western practice, and at first it may feel awkward or forced. But as you keep at it, it will connect you to those others who are also facing life’s issues or transitions. In other words, everyone. Ever hear the joke about the Buddhist asking the hot dog vendor to “Make me one with everything”? Similarly, this practice can actually make you feel that indefinable oneness. No one is singling you out for misery. Everyone has joys and sorrows.

By purposefully connecting with others you can not only get in touch with your shared humanity, you can bring a sense of connection and compassion into your everyday dealings. You can remember to use Tonglen when someone cuts you off on the road, when the grocery store clerk puts your eggs in the bottom of the bag, when friends disappoint you, or when family feels demanding. You understand and remember what it is like to have a bad day, to receive bad news, or to just feel cranky for no reason at all.

Another practice I find especially helpful is called Just Like Me, though it is also known as commonalities practice. When you are faced with someone whose behavior really tests your patience and understanding, you say, “Just like me.” No one is singling you out for misery. Everyone has joys and sorrows.

  • Step 1: “Just like me, this person seeks happiness.”
  • Step 2: “Just like me, this person tries to avoid suffering.”
  • Step 3: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, pain, loneliness and despair.”
  • Step 4: “Just like me, this person seeks fulfillment.”
  • Step 5: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.

I also like to add a Step 6: “Just like me, this person can get triggered, upset, angry, unreasonable, impatient, intolerant, or anything else I like to forget I’m capable of.

Finally, I also find it useful to think of everyone who crosses my path as a five-year-old child who is carrying a heavy backpack full of hurt and unresolved feelings. While this may not be the case in most encounters, it certainly helps me cultivate kindness for people I might find challenging.

I encourage you to choose whichever one of these practices appeals to you most and try it out every day for a month. You can try this in meditation or in the moment as challenging situations arise. Either way, I think you’ll be happily surprised by the way what looks like kindness to others actually helps promote gentleness within your own self.

Reference:

Chodron, P. (2013). Living beautifully with uncertainty and change. Boulder, CO: Shambhala

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nicole Urdang, MS, NCC, DHM, LMHC, therapist in Buffalo, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • ANTOINE

    ANTOINE

    April 12th, 2017 at 9:15 AM

    THAT’S PRETTY DEEP STUFF RIGHT THERE- THIS OLD BOY WOULD PROBABLY HAVE TO DO A LOT OF PRACTICING TO GET THIS ONE DOWN

  • Nicole Urdang

    Nicole Urdang

    April 12th, 2017 at 4:33 PM

    Hi Antoine,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment.
    That’s exactly what I thought when I first heard of the practice.
    It’s not as far fetched or difficult if you start by doing Tonglen when you’re unhappy about something. It could be a difficult emotion, physical pain, or a rift in a relationship. Remind yourself other people are probably feeling similarly all over the world. Sending them and yourself loving kindness may be easier than you think.
    Nicole

  • Corey

    Corey

    April 13th, 2017 at 9:30 AM

    While I am more than willing to do this for anyone in my life I think that one must also be reasonable in knowing just how much you can actually take on for another person. If you also have a lot going on in your own life than it can become questionable just how much you then need to try to focus on for another person. I think that for many people they are naturally such givers that it then becomes hard for them to not take care of someone and then their own healthiness becomes an issue.

  • Nicole Urdang

    Nicole Urdang

    April 13th, 2017 at 3:27 PM

    Hi Corey,
    Thank you for taking the time to respond to the article.
    I agree with what you said. This practice is not supposed to take over your life, make you feel guilty or responsible for everyone, or burn you out to the point of exhaustion or compassion fatigue. It’s suggested here as an adjunct to meditation and a way of remembering we are not alone in our challenges.

  • maite

    maite

    April 17th, 2017 at 6:06 PM

    wat a touching story…im in a serious problem depression,anger en stressed were can i get this book so that i can read further.im pregnant

  • Nicole Urdang

    Nicole Urdang

    April 22nd, 2017 at 8:15 AM

    Hi Maite,
    I am sorry you’re feeling angry, stressed, and depressed. Please check this website for a therapist you can talk with.
    The book should be available at your local library or on Amazon.
    Wishing you every goodness,
    Nicole

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