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