You’ve donated everything you can afford to donate. You’ve bought time in Ukrainian Air B&Bs you’ll never use. You’re gathering clothing for donations, and you haven’t complained once about the rising gas prices.*
However – somehow, it just doesn’t feel like enough. Tonglen practice can change that.
Many of us were not raised in a religious tradition we can call on for strength during difficult times. Some of us chose to leave our spiritual upbringing behind out of disillusionment and frustration.
I’m one of those people. Then, while experiencing a particularly difficult phase in my life I looked desperately for a spiritual practice I could adopt as my own. I tried church services on like jeans in a dressing room. None of them fit. One was too stuffy. The next was too depressing. Again and again, I looked for something that would feel like coming home.
Fast forward years later and I still have not found one single type of service or belief system to latch on to. Instead, I tend to pull the various traditions and practices I’m drawn to into something meaningful for me personally and I’m very happy with my hodge-podge spirituality and I’m still learning.
Prayer Felt Weird
I learned that as an empath, I struggle to maintain my personal energetic boundaries. Often, if I’m not paying attention, I find myself feeling other people’s feelings. Given the state of the world for the last couple of years and no indication the challenges will stop coming I was struggling with deep sadness, anxiety, and feeling generally untethered. A week or so ago, while mentally digging around in my personal growth toolbox I was reminded of tonglen meditation. It’s helped me immensely so I wanted to share it with you.
Complaining and whining were strictly forbidden in my household growing up. As a result, I’ve always seen prayer as just whining to God, and if my parents didn’t like whining I was pretty sure God wouldn’t either. Plus, I felt like praying to someone or something outside of myself failed to invoke my personal power – something I’d come to depend on. So when I found tonglen it felt like a way to pray that felt good to me.
Tonglen practice is also known as “taking and sending.” 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. For example, breathing in the fear of the Ukrainian citizens and breathing out love and comfort or breathing in the anxiety and breathing out peace and calm.
Note that tonglen isn’t asking you to feel the pain of others – not at all. It’s simply using you as an energetic vessel through which negativity can be laundered, in a way, and re-distributed as something positive.
In the process, we become liberated from patterns of selfishness and begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to want to take care of ourselves and others. In my personal experience, it helps me maintain a gratitude practice, and – BIG bonus – it eases my anxiety when I’m feeling overwhelmed.
If you’re interested in trying Tonglen, it’s easy. While in meditation, shift your focus to a comfortably paced repetitive deep breathing. Once in flow, begin thinking or visualizing what you are releasing for others and what you’re replacing it with. It’s that simple. You might want to see one color energy entering your body and another color exiting. You could even go the literal route if working with energy weirds you out.
Sit quietly for a few minutes and decide what your focus will be – make them physical items small enough to fit in a washing machine. When you’re ready, begin the process of doing the laundry in your imagination. (I know this is weird, but stick with me).
Lately, I’ve been focusing on breathing in grief and despair and breathing out strength and hope so I’ll make grief and despair a lump of dirty, messy, carbon. Diamonds represent strength and hope. I can envision breathing in carbon – pause and see the carbon transforming into a diamond – and exhale diamonds. The metaphors are seemingly endless. You choose what works for you.
Be sure to be intentional when assigning your items. The more sense they make to you, the more they resonate with you, the more power they’ll have. I’m consistently in awe of the ability of prayer, meditation, intention – whatever you want to call it – to help us and others.
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
What I Learned from Tonglen Meditation
- The power of intention.
- The power of the breath to center and ground us.
- We can be compassionate while maintaining our own personal energetic sovereignty.
- The energetic exchange is empowering.
- It’s a very easy way to make a significant contribution (with regular practice).
- If you’re someone who struggles to maintain your energetic sovereignty, bathe yourself in protective light before practicing tonglen.
- You can practice tonglen for yourself as well, just be clear when you choose your words and your intention. Breathe in peace – breathe out anxiety. Inhale joy – exhale sadness.
- This piece about Ukraine is in no way meant to diminish the critical nature of other wars, the global warming crisis, racism, or any of the other immense challenges before us.