Tonglen in Daily Life
By Pema Chödrön
by Cory Verellen
< back to Inspiration
The following is an excerpt from Tonglen: The
Path of Transformation, by Pema Chödrön, Vajradhatu Publications.
The everyday practice is simply to develop a complete acceptance
and openness to all situations and emotions, and to all people,
experiencing everything totally without mental reservations and
blockages, so that one never withdraws or centralizes onto oneself.
— Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
TONGLEN IN DAILY LIFE
All sentient beings without exception have bodhichitta,
which is the inherent tenderness of the heart, its natural tendency
to love and care for others. But over time, in order to shield
ourselves from feeling pain and discomfort, we have erected solid
barriers that cover up our tenderness and vulnerability. As a result,
we often experience alienation, anger, aggression, and a loss of
meaning in our lives--both individually and on a global scale.
Somehow, in the pursuit of happiness, we have unwittingly created
greater suffering for ourselves.
Tonglen, or the practice of sending and taking, reverses
this process of hardening and shutting down by cultivating love
and compassion. In tonglen practice, instead of running from pain
and discomfort, we acknowledge them and own them fully. Instead
of dwelling on our own problems, we put ourselves in other people's
shoes and appreciate our shared humanity. Then the barriers start
to dissolve, our hearts and minds begin to open.
Before presenting the formal practice of tonglen, I would like
to discuss a few ways that you can begin to incorporate the tonglen
outlook into your daily life. After all, how you lead your life--
with maitri and compassion for both yourself and others--is
really the point. What's more, if you train in the outlook on a
daily basis, you will find that the formal practice comes much
Trungpa Rinpoche used to tell his students to live their
lives as an experiment. In other words, be inquisitive, be open
and without expectations, then see what happens and learn from
your experience. For this reason, I often suggest that students
chose a limited amount of time--say, three months or a year--to
work with the tonglen approach, just to see how it affects their
lives. But don't think that you will be able to perfect the practice
in such a short time. Tonglen is really a practice for the rest
of your life.
Practicing sitting meditation, or shamatha-vipashyana,
a little bit every day is a good way to start training in the tonglen
attitude. It's a way of checking in with your state of mind, like
holding up a mirror to yourself. Sitting cultivates both absolute and relative bodhichitta.
As an absolute bodhichitta practice, it teaches us not to grasp
at thoughts and emotions as solid. As a relative bodhichitta practice,
it teaches us maitri and compassion for ourselves.
In general, it's not a good idea to start doing the formal tonglen
practice until you have a good grounding in sitting meditation.
You especially need to cultivate steadfastness, the courage and
patience to sit with whatever arises during meditation. Otherwise,
you might be knocked off your cushion by the emotions that tonglen
provokes. For that reason, it is always suggested that you begin
and end with sitting meditation whenever you do tonglen.
Even if you're not on a cushion or in the meditation hall, you
can experiment with the practice of mindfulness and awareness.
You can use it as a tool to get in touch with what you are feeling
in the present moment. For example, sometimes when I am alone or
find myself in a quiet setting--taking a walk in the woods, gazing
out my cabin window, or sitting on a bench by the ocean--I let
go of my thoughts and try to see what lies underneath them.
Actually, this is the essence of mindfulness practice: always
coming back to the immediacy of your present experience and letting
go of thoughts and judgements about it. You will probably discover
there is something that remains after you drop the thoughts and
the story lines. What's left is the immediacy of the sense perceptions--sight,
smell, touch, and so on--as well as a feeling or mood.
For example, perhaps the feeling underneath
your thoughts is self-hatred. Consequently, when thoughts begin
to bubble up, they sound like "bad, bad; good, good; should, shouldn't." When
you become aware of such thoughts, you just let them go and come
back to the immediacy of your experience. This in itself is the
practice of maitri, or making friends with yourself.
I am a big fan of making aspirations. I think they are very helpful
on our path, because they help us to stay in touch with our motivation
to develop bodhichitta. The lojong slogan, "Two activities:
one at the beginning, one at the end," suggests beginning
and ending each day by reaffirming your motivation to dissolve
barriers, to open your heart, and to reach out to people. When
you wake up in the morning and go to bed at night, you could make
an aspiration. You could use your own words or repeat a traditional
aspiration, such as the Four Limitless Ones or the Bodhisattva
Vow. (Refer to the "Daily Chants" section on p. 124.)
Sometimes you may feel that the formal practice
of tonglen is too much for you. In that case, you could simply
make the aspiration: "One
day may I be able to open my heart a little more than I can today." With
this approach, there is no blame or self-recrimination. There is
just a sincere wish to grow.
Equality practice is a way of connecting with others and realizing
that you and they are in the same boat. It is a simple human truth
that everyone, just like you, wants to be happy and to avoid suffering.
Just like you, everyone else wants to have friends, to be accepted
and loved, to be respected and valued for their unique qualities,
to be healthy and to feel comfortable with themselves. Just like
you, no one else wants to be friendless and alone, to be looked
down upon by others, to be sick, to feel inadequate and depressed.
The equality practice is simply to remember
this fact whenever you meet another person. You think, "Just like me, she wants
to be happy; she doesn't want to suffer." You might choose
to practice this for a whole day, or maybe for just an hour or
fifteen minutes. I really appreciate this practice, because it
lifts the barrier of indifference to other people's joy, to their
private pain, and to their wonderful uniqueness.
In The Way of the Bodhisattva, the great Indian teacher
and poet Shantideva stresses the importance of meditating
on the equality of self and others in this way:
Strive at first to meditate
Upon the sameness of yourself and others.
In joy and sorrow all are equal.
Thus be guardian of all, as of yourself.
Jeffrey Hopkins, the Dalai Lama's translator
for ten years, tells a story about travelling with him in the
West. Wherever he went, His Holiness would repeat in English, "Everyone wants happiness,
doesn't want suffering."
He would go to an airport or a lecture hall or a news conference
"Everyone wants happiness, doesn't want suffering." At
first Jeffrey thought, "Why does he keep saying this?" because
it seemed so simplistic and ordinary. But after a while the message
began to sink in, and he thought, "Yes, I need that!" It
is simple, but it is also profoundly true, and it was exactly the
kind of teaching he needed to hear.
At first, this practice might seem commonplace or shallow to
you. But believe me, it's a real eye-opener. It humbles us, because
it shines a spotlight on our habit of thinking that we are the
center of the world. When we acknowledge our shared humanity with
another person, we connect with them in a surprisingly intimate
way. They become like family to us, and this helps dissolve our
isolation and aloneness.
Sharing Your Heart
The practice of sharing your heart is twofold: sharing happiness
and accepting pain. For the first, when anything is delightful
in your life, you wish that other people could share it. For the
second, when you feel any sense of suffering, you think that many
other people are also suffering and you wish that they could be
free from it. This is the very essence of the tonglen outlook:
when things are pleasant, think of others; when things are painful,
think of others. If this practice is the only thing you remember
after reading this book, it will benefit you and everyone you come
in contact with.
When you experience any kind of pleasure or well-being in your
life--appreciating a bright spring day, a good meal, a cute baby
animal, or a nice hot shower--notice it and cherish it. Such simple
pleasures can bring us a lot of joy, tenderness, and a sense of
relief. We have many of these fleeting golden moments in our life,
but we usually speed right past them. So the first part of the
practice is just to stop, notice, and fully appreciate them. Next,
you make the wish that other people could also enjoy them. As you
do this practice more, you will probably find yourself noticing
these moments of happiness and contentment more and more.
When you practice giving in this way, you
don't bypass your own pleasure or enjoyment. Say you're eating
a bowl of delicious strawberries. You don't think, "Oh, I shouldn't really be enjoying these
so much. Think of all the other people who don't even have a piece
of bread to eat."
Instead, you should think, "Wow! This is a fantastic strawberry.
I've never tasted anything so delicious." You can enjoy your
strawberry thoroughly. But then you think, "I wish everyone
could enjoy this, I hope that they will have a chance to enjoy
You could also think of a personal possession that gives you
a lot of pleasure, such as your favorite sweater or your favorite
tie, then imagine giving it away to people you meet. This practice
isn't about actually giving anything away, because you are working
at the level of imagination. But it puts you in touch with your
habit of grasping, shutting down, and not wanting to share things
with others. In the process, you develop confidence in your own
inherent richness, that fact that you always have a lot to give
Treya Wilbur described this kind of giving practice in the book Grace
and Grit, which is about her battle with terminal cancer.
She had already been doing tonglen for a long time. One day she
lost a gold star necklace that her parents had given her, which
was like a good-luck charm because she had worn it through all
her most difficult times, chemotherapy and operations. When she
couldn't find it anywhere, it seemed like a bad omen and she
became depressed. But based on her experience of tonglen, she
suddenly got the idea of visualizing millions of these stars
and giving them away to benefit everyone she met. During the
process of practicing in this way, she became acutely aware of
her habitual patterns of desire, attachment, and clinging, and
she began to give away anything for which she felt a momentary
attachment. This didn't always help her to overcome her clinging,
but through this work she developed compassion for everyone else
like her who had good intentions but couldn't quite live up to
them. Through this practice that she discovered through her own
insight, she was able to get over losing the star and, most importantly,
learned the joy of dropping attachment and giving to others.
The second part of the practice is somewhat more advanced. So
don't try it unless you feel comfortable with the idea. First you
notice when you experience something that is uncomfortable, painful,
or unpleasant. Then you make the wish that other people could be
completely free of it and imagine sending them whatever you think
would bring relief.
For example, if you start to feel depressed,
you say to yourself, "Since
I'm feeling depressed anyway, may I accept it fully so that other
people can be free of it." Or, "Since I have a toothache
anyway, may I accept it completely so that other people may be
free of it." Then send them a sense of relief. Just do it
very simply, without worrying too much about the logic. For many
people, this kind of exchange will seem like too much, too soon.
But I present it anyway, because I have personally found it very
empowering. It turns around the revulsion and paranoia that we
normally feel about anything unpleasant, the feeling that we are
the target, and we use it as fuel for awakening the heart.
"Traffic jam tonglen" is a specific
instance of this practice. It's about working with all the uncomfortable
feelings that you experience when you are stuck in a traffic
jam, or perhaps in a very long line at the market: anger, resentment,
restlessness, uptightness, fear of missing an appointment. First
you look around and realize that all the other people stuck in
the jam are feeling the same way you do. Then you breathe in
fully whatever you are feeling and send out a sense of relaxation
and relief, both for yourself and all the other people in the
traffic jam. You realize that, as human beings, you are all in
the same boat. Everyone is putting up barriers and using the
discomfort of the traffic jam to feel more and more isolated.
So you turn the situation around, and it becomes your link with
all the other people stuck in their cars. Suddenly, as you look
out the window at them, they all become human beings.
Tonglen On the Spot
This practice is really the essence of the tonglen approach.
Because I have found it very helpful for myself, I like to recommend
it to all my students. Even if you choose not to do the formal
tonglen practice, you can always do this on-the-spot practice.
Once you get used to it and practice it regularly, it will make
formal tonglen practice more real and meaningful to you.
This is a practice that you can do for a real-life situation
you meet in daily life. Whenever you meet a situation that awakens
your compassion or that is painful and difficult for you, you can
stop for a moment, breathe in any suffering that you see, and breathe
out a sense of relief. It is a simple and direct process. Unlike
the formal practice, it does not involve any visualizations or
steps. It's a simple and natural exchange: you see suffering, you
take it in with the inbreath, you send out relief with the outbreath.
For example, you might be in the supermarket and see a mother
slapping her little girl. It is painful for you to see, but there
is really nothing you can say or do at that moment. Your first
reaction might be to turn away out of fear and try to forget it.
But in this practice, instead of turning away, you could actually
start to do tonglen for the little girl who is crying and also
for the angry mother who has reached the end of her rope. You can
send out a general sense of relaxation and openness or something
specific, like a hug or a kind word, or whatever feels right to
you at the moment. It's not all that conceptual; it's almost spontaneous.
When you contact a painful situation in this way and stay with
it, it can open up your heart and become the source of compassion.
You can do tonglen on the spot when strong emotions come up and
you don't know what to do with them. For example, you might be
having a painful argument with your spouse or your boss at work.
They are yelling at you and you don't know how to react. So you
can start to breathe in the painful feelings and send out a sense
of spaciousness and relaxation with the outbreath--for yourself,
for the person who is yelling at you, and for all the other people
who are dealing with a similar difficult situation. Of course,
at some point you have to react to the person who is yelling at
you but, by introducing some space and warmth into the situation,
you will probably deal with it more skillfully.
You can also do this practice when you feel some blockage to
opening and developing compassion. For example, you see a homeless
person on the street who is asking you for money and seems to be
an alcoholic. In spite of your desire to be compassionate, you
can't help but turn away and feel disgust or resentment. At that
point, you can start doing tonglen for yourself and all the other
people who want to be open but are basically shut down. You breathe
in the feeling of shut-downness, your own and everybody else's.
Then you send out a sense of space or relaxation or letting go.
When you feel blocked, that's not an obstacle to tonglen; it's
part of the practice. You work with what feels like blockage as
the seed of awakening your heart and as connection with other people.
Tonglen On the Street
This practice is to walk down the street,
perhaps for just one or two blocks, with the intention of staying
as open as possible to whoever you meet. It is a training in
being more emotionally honest with yourself and being more emotionally
available to others. As you are walking, you could relax your
posture and have the feeling that the area of your heart and
chest is open. As you pass people, you might even feel a subtle
connection between their heart and yours, as if the two of you
were linked by an invisible cord. You could think to yourself, "May you be happy," as
you pass them. The main point is to feel a sense of interconnectedness
with all the people you meet.
If you are feeling somewhat exposed and embarrassed by doing
the practice, just acknowledge it and realize that other people
are probably feeling the same way. You may notice how people glance
briefly at you as they approach--usually at a safe distance, so
it isn't obvious--in an automatic gesture of reaching out. Perhaps
they are looking for someone who would be friendly to them and
say hello, someone they could genuinely connect with. Sound familiar?
As you encounter each person, acknowledge your thoughts and emotional
reactions toward them. Notice if you feel a sense of attachment,
aversion, or indifference toward the people you pass. But don't
add any self-judgement on top of it. You might see someone smiling,
which could cheer you up on the spot and make you open further.
Or you might see someone looking depressed, which could spark feelings
of tenderness and compassion.
Notice when you begin to shut down or open up. But if you do
find yourself shutting down, you don't blame yourself. You can
simply empathize with all the people who are shutting down in the
same way and aspire to be more and more open. Also, if you feel
a sense of delight or pleasure on your walk, you could wish to
share it with the people you meet.
Stepping Into Others' Shoes
This practice of exchanging yourself with others is presented
in Shantideva's The Way of the Bodhisattva. It is more of
a contemplation and, unlike tonglen, it isn't synchronized with
the in- and outbreath. It can help you open up to, and empathize
with, the so-called neutral or indifferent people in your life,
as well as those you find really difficult.
First imagine the person you are working with as vividly as possible.
Be very inquisitive and spend some time really trying to stand
in their shoes and see the world as they do. What do they feel?
What do they want? What do they fear? Just taking this much interest
in a person can go a long way in developing appreciation and concern
To take it a step further, think that you are them and they are
you. You are standing in their shoes and you are now looking at
yourself as the other person sees you. How do they see you? As
just a neutral person, as a potential friend, as an enemy, as an
arrogant person, as a warm person? What would they like for you
to give them: a hug, an encouraging word, an open and attentive
ear, appreciation for their intelligence and their talents, an
By trading places, you discover that what the other person wants
is pretty much the same as what you want. In that way, you are
equals. Perhaps you also discover that you have never really seen
them or heard them before, that you haven't appreciated them or
treated them fairly. Based on this new understanding, you may open
to them more the next time you see them.
The above is an excerpt from Tonglen: The Path of Transformation,
by Pema Chödrön, Vajradhatu Publications. For further information
about Vajradhatu Publications and a catalogue of dharma books,
videos, and audio tapes, please visit the website at
Copyright © 2004 by Pema