Tonglen: A Practice of Compassion

April 9, 2017











































I am concerned about the effects of all the posts, tweets, vitriol, grandification of events, etc. that I have noticed in my social media and real life conversations.  A fellow yogini and I were discussing the ramifications of all of this.  I mentioned that I seem to feel more emotional and reactive than usual.  She said she thought that at a time like this, prayer would be more useful than tweets, retweets, and FB posts.  It gave me pause.


I probably won’t detach myself from social media, but I remembered something that I can do, and offer it to all of you.  It is a Buddhist practice called Tonglen.  Not being a Buddhist, I apologize in advance for not stating it perfectly, and welcome any suggestions, clarifications or corrections in my understanding from my buddhist companions on the planet.


Tonglen is a Tibetan practice of meditation of “giving and taking”.  It is a practice in which we visualize taking in the suffering of an other(s) and giving them the positive quality we imagine they need, with the intention that their suffering can be reduced.  It looks like meditation or prayer because you can sit or lay quietly with your eyes closed and focus on the breath, as you do the visualization for a few minutes or more. Practice it once or twice every day for 5-10 minutes


For instance, an easy practice of Tonglen could be for your child who is ill.  You could imagine breathing in their suffering and breathing out to them ease or calmness in their body.


It gets harder (not really) when it is taken to the level of society or political figures, but here goes.  I imagine with the help of my fellow yogini, that POTUS didn’t get to be the way he is by choice.  I imagine that his childhood sucked, privileged as it may have been, leading to fear, short attention span, impulsivity, grandiosity, and general non-enjoyment of life.  In this instance, I could breathe in his fear and breathe out to him compassion.


For those who are constantly writing tweets, posts and are generally frustrated with the state of current events (me included), I could breathe in their frustration and breathe out to them calmness or acceptance or peace (fill in the blank here on either side of the breath)


You might say, ew, why should I take in their suffering.  We are not  literally “taking in” their suffering.  If you need a mental way to think of it, consider it a processing of negativity.


The yogis remind us that we are all one.  Not just those we love, but everyone and everything here on the planet is part of this one.  What you or I do effects everyone.  This practice could be a better use of our energy, and you might find that this bit of compassion will help with your own levels of frustration, emotion, and reactivity.




Lisa Davidson has been teaching yoga and meditation for over 35 years. in the MetroWest Boston area.  You can find her classes in Framingham and Natick.  She offers Reiki and Polarity at Longfellow Health Center in Wayland.

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