A Month of Tonglen Meditation

Tonglen is a meditation where you visualize yourself inhaling the suffering of others (taking their suffering upon yourself), and exhaling love and compassion back to them. I did it for 30 minutes every day (almost) for the month of December. I’ve meditated before, but this was my first time doing Tonglen.

Why

My goal was not to actually reduce the suffering of anyone else.  If that happened I wasn’t going to complain, but it wasn’t something that I expected.  Rather I hoped that Tonglen meditation would affect me.  I hoped that it might make me more compassionate.

How

The inhalation of suffering involves visualizing the suffering of others as black smoke, and then inhaling that black smoke into one’s lungs.  For the exhalations, I’d picture a beam of light going from my heart directly to the heart(s) of whoever was my focus for that session.

I tried to pick a different person (or people) to focus on for each session.  Sometimes I’d pick someone I liked, sometimes someone I disliked, sometimes someone I didn’t know, sometimes an animal, sometimes a group of people, and sometimes the whole world.

Most Tonglen instructions say to breath in suffering on each inhalation, and breath out love on each exhalation. I found it quite hard to change my focus like that every few seconds, so I came up with an alternate method: I’d only focus on my inhalations for a while, and then only focus on my exhalations for a while. Eventually I settled on this routine (example based on a 5 minute meditation session):

  • 1 minute of focusing on my breath to relax
  • 1 minute of visualizing the suffering of others
  • 1 minute of breathing in their suffering (black smoke)
  • 1 minute of breathing out love (white light)
  • 1 minute of continuing to breath out love, or visualizing it spreading from the person(s) I was concentrating on to others.

To ensure that I’d switch my focus at the right time, I got a free iPhone app called “iTimer – Circuit Timer” that beeps once at whatever time interval I specified.  I usually did a total of 30 minutes of meditation per day, usually broken up into blocks of 5 or 10 or 15 minutes, which I tried to spread throughout each day (but too often crammed most of it in just before bed).

Results

The goal, as I mentioned, was to make myself more compassionate.

Doing my daily Tonglen meditation sitting alone in silence didn’t have any perceptible effect on my level of compassion.  This may have been due to my difficulty concentrating (as with most meditation, concentration can be difficult; I’d often find my mind wandering).  Or it may have been that one month just wasn’t enough time to make a difference.  Or it may be that Tonglen meditation is nothing more than a useless mind game.

Where I did find Tonglen somewhat useful was using the technique in real life.  For example, often when I’m stuck behind a slow driver I find myself wishing all forms of evil on him/her.  Instead, during this month I’d think to myself that like everyone, the other driver is enduring some suffering in his/her life.  And then I’d breath that driver’s suffering into myself, and breath out love and compassion back to him/her.  Noticable difference in my mental state.

For now, Tonglen meditation is not something I’m planning to continue – at least not doing the meditation alone in my room.

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