by Nicolina M. Cahouette, M.A., M.F.T.I #77972
The Meditative Breath Practice of Tonglen involves visualizing a person who you believe is in pain or has caused you pain. Contrary to our habit of avoiding pain, Tonglen invites us to breath in the pain we are perceiving. Our bodies become “conversion machines”, and we use our out breath to release the pain, extending a frequency of love toward the person we are trying to help or forgive.
Pema Chodron explains how this simple act, rooted in awareness, broadens our understanding connectedness and human suffering, because we reinforce the reality of an empathetic connection as we visualize while breathing in.
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 because it opens our hearts to those around us and encourages us to help others without losing ourselves in their personal dramas. We are compassionate observers, and teachers who are also learning how the people around us are effected by their own suffering (1993, p.195).
Visualization is a powerful part of this practice, and it has a number of cognitive benefits. Continually visualizing scenes which evoke positive emotional states reinforces the production of neurotransmitters in the brain associated with positive emotional states. Further, it encourages the pruning of synaptic relationships that are counterproductive.
It is important to be in a quiet comfortable place where you can assume a comfortable posture. Remember, comfortable for your body! You can sit on a cushion, on the floor, or on a chair. Choose what is best for you. 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, that 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. Start with 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 ease and benefit. Want some help? Try this guided version with Dr. Miles Neale
Rinpoche, S. (1993). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. (p. 195).