By Nicolina M. Cahouette, M.A., AMFT
The act of being aware of how and why we suffer broadens our own understanding of the world by visualizing the reality of an empathetic connection we share as we breathe in. The meditative breath practice of Tonglen involves inhaling through the pain the person you are visualizing is experiencing or is perceived to have caused while breathing out a new frequency of love toward the person we are trying to help, accept or forgive.
According to The Tibetan Book of the Dead by Sogyal Rinpoche, Tonglen is effective in negating the restricting and sometimes detrimental influence of our ego by opening our hearts to those around us without losing ourselves in their personal drama. We are compassionate observers and teachers, while the people around us teach us about how their experience of suffering has affected them.
A powerful part of this practice is visualization, which has a number of cognitive benefits. Continually visualizing scenes that evoke positive emotional states reinforces the production of neurotransmitters in the brain associated with positive emotional states, and encourages the pruning of synaptic relationships that are counterproductive to this practice.
Tonglen Breathing Exercise
It is important to be in a quiet place where you can assume a comfortable posture. As this is a breath awareness exercise, it can be helpful to place your hand on your stomach to increase awareness of your diaphragm moving in and out with each breath.
While inhaling, visualize the pain associated with what you are trying to release around a specific person. Any confrontations or experiences that were especially salient to you will be a good fit for this exercise.
While exhaling, visualize having a positive healing experience with this person, where love is flowing from you to the subject of your practice. This practice is a process of thought transmutation that encourages emotional healing around a person or experience.
A good rule of thumb when adopting any meditation practice is to accept that you may find it difficult to focus while you are experiencing the miscellaneous thought traffic that will drift in and out of your meditation time. Also, if you are a novice meditator, keep it brief at first. Try 10-minute increments once daily until you can sit with ease, then increase the time in 5 or 10 minute intervals until you find what amount of time gives you the maximum benefits.
Rinpoche, S. (1993). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. (p. 195). NY:Harper Collins.