Tonglen refers to a meditation practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Tong means "giving or sending", and len means "receiving or taking". Tonglen is also known as exchanging self with others. It is an ancient Buddhist practice to awaken compassion. With each in-breath, we take in the pain of others. With each out-breath, we send them relief.
Tonglen practice reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In Tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we become liberated from any pattern of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.
Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far larger view of reality. It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness of pure emptiness. By doing the practice, we begin to connect with the open dimension of our being.
Tonglen can be done for those who are ill, those who are dying or have died, or those who are in pain of any kind. It can be done as a formal meditation practice or right on the spot at any time. If we are out walking and we see someone in pain, we can breathe in that person’s pain and send out relief to them.
Rest your mind for a second or two in a state of openness or stillness, awakening your heart-mind, opening to basic spaciousness and clarity. Breathe in feelings of heat, darkness, and heaviness and breathe out feelings of coolness, brightness, and light - a sense of freshness. Breathe in completely, taking in negative energy through all the pores of your body. When you breathe out, radiate positive energy completely, through all the pores of your body. Do this until your visualization is synchronized with your in- and out-breaths.
Focus on any painful situation that’s real to you. Traditionally you begin by doing Tonglen for someone you care about and wish to help. However, if you are stuck, you can do the practice for the pain you are feeling yourself, and simultaneously for all those who feel the same kind of suffering. For instance, if you are feeling inadequate, breathe that in for yourself and all the others in the same situation and send out confidence, adequacy, and relief in any form you wish.
Finally, make the taking in and sending out bigger. If you are doing Tonglen for someone you love, extend it out to all those who are in the same situation. If you are doing Tonglen for someone you see on television or on the street, do it for all the others in the same situation. Make it bigger than just that one person. You can do Tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies - those who hurt you or hurt others. Do Tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same confusion and stuckness as a friend or yourself. Breathe in their pain and send them relief.