Tonglen has been one of my favorite practices since my late teens.
I use it towards myself, my parents, my brother, my partner, the people behind the neighborhood hotel project (which is so destructive in so many ways), the neighbors playing loud music the whole day, politicians, soldiers, humanity as a whole, animals suffering, all beings, and so on.
I visualize the person or group of people in front of me. I visualize their suffering as black smoke. I breathe in that black smoke. I see it transform into light. I breathe out that light and into the person. I repeat until there is a real shift in how I relate to and perceive the person. And I return to it2.
It’s a beautiful practice. I remember reading – way back in my teens or twenties – that some traditions within Tibetan Buddhism say it’s the only practice we need. That seems true enough to me.
In a way, it’s beside the point how it works1. It’s about the effect, and that’s something for each of us to explore and notice.
(1) That said, here are some things I notice: (a) It helps me recognize that my world is created within and by my own mind. It’s the consciousness I am forming itself into all of it, whether I imagine something or tell myself I experience it directly. (b) It helps me recognize what I see in the other also in myself, at a human level. I can find it here as well. That reduces any sense of separation or of being better/worse than the other. (c) It helps me see the potential in the other (and myself). (d) It helps me find genuine well-wishing and compassion for the other (and myself).
(2) Sometimes, I do tonglen with a series of people or groups. I do one breath with one and move on if it feels relatively open and without too much charge. After a while, I may return to whatever I feel needs more work. I wouldn’t recommend this more causal approach to someone new to tonglen. If you are new, it’s best to stick with the traditional approach and stay with one person or group for a while and deepen into it.
Image by me and Midjourney