When I found tonglen in my teens, it felt deeply right and instantly became a favorite of mine.
There are different ways to do it, depending on our ability to visualize and so on.
Here is, more or less, the official version.
Visualize someone in front of you. It can be a being, a group of beings, Earth as a whole, yourself, or a part of yourself. If you are just getting started, it can be easier to start with individual people and then expand to groups. And also to start with someone you like, they move on to someone you are neutral about, and then someone your mind actively dislike.
Visualize their suffering as black smoke. When you breathe in, breathe in that smoke. The black smoke represent any suffering, pain, stressful beliefs, hangups, wounds, and so on.
Breathe out light and see it filling them. The light represents clarity, kindness, awakeness. (I like to visualize breathing in the black smoke, see it transform into light, which I then breathe out so it fills the recipient and they become light.)
Repeat. Use your natural breath. Keep going for a while. Perhaps until you feel it, notice a shift, and a then a deepening of that shift.
Do it again later, perhaps the next days or a few days later. See how it is to make it a regular practice, at least when you notice your mind starts struggling with others, yourself, or situations.
And here are some things I notice in my own experience.
There is a shift in how I relate to others, myself, the world.
A more open heart. A sense of equality or oness. Relief. Receptivity. Kindness.
If there is a strong dislike, indifference, or liking of the recipient, there is a softening or release of the “glue” or compulsion behind it.
It’s a reminder of the world as a mirror.
I am reminded that what I see out there – in others and the world – is also in here. There may be an interest in finding in myself what I see in others, and find specific examples.
I am reminded that how I relate to something is how I relate to it in myself, others, and the world. My relationship to it is universal, and it can change.
At the very least, it may open for a curiosity about the world as a mirror. A question if this is so. Do I already have in myself what I see in others?
And a few other things:
It’s a reminder that “darkness” can “transform” into “light”. Darkness here is suffering, pain, stressful beliefs, wounds, trauma. And light is clarity, kindness, awakeness, perhaps even recognizing it – as is – as already the divine.
If there is hesitation in breathing in the black smoke, as there may be in the beginning, we can use that as an opportunity to identify scary thoughts about it and inquire into them. Or invite in healing for the wound behind the fear in some other way.
If there is an experience of bliss, as there often is for me when I do tonglen, it’s an opportunity to explore our relationship to bliss. Is there a compulsion to seek it? What’s behind that compulsion? (Often a sense of lack.) What do I find when I explore it (inquiry) or invite in healing for it?
If we are ready for tonglen, do it more or less regularly over some time, and do it mostly wholeheartedly, it can be profoundly transformative. It can deeply transform our relationship to ourselves, others, and the world. It can bring in a deep healing. It can even invite in a recognition of all as the divine.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, some say it’s the only practice you really need, and I am inclined to agree. It seems it can bring in a deep and comprehensive healing and awakening.
Although, I have to say I personally obviously explore a wide range of different forms of explorations and practices. I can’t really help it. And that seems to be my path.
Note: This post is a bit messy so I may rewrite and simplify it later.