Is Tonglen truly awesome?


Let’s twist Tonglen into something new, better and more brilliant, then it would be more awesome…ok, I’m just being silly to grab your attention. Now, here’s a less silly thought, what if the practice of Tonglen were to become something much more immediate, more real, and something we could use to transform the daily grind of our existence, and immediate concerns, including insecurities, paranoia, doubt, performance anxiety, frustration, and whatever other specialities and delicacies in the neuroses department are currently at play in our tiny microcosms?

What if we were to pitch our practice tents somewhere below the universal of all human suffering in a place much closer to our day to day trials and tribulations, and practice exchanging all of the wonderful manure of our neuroses and dysfunctional habits into a workable opening back into the immediacy of the world we inhabit? Not the big all encompassing world out there, but the one we know all too well. The one we live within day in day out. The one we are immersed in with its rhythms and flows, frictions, tensions, challenges, openings and limits.

In its traditional form, Tonglen appears to function in three specific ways; firstly, it develops altruism, secondly, it chips away at our resistance to unpleasant experience and the more stubborn resistance towards the wide world of myriad suffering and misfortune perceived as being out there somewhere in the world and away from me (just where we like it!), thirdly, and clearly linked to the second, it undermines our impulsive self-preservation instinct; not the sensible one that keeps us away from dark alleys and the parasitic elements of society (including Donald Trump), but the deeply held need to maintain the status quo of our sense of who we are. Like all practices, it can be more or less effective in its intended aims, and when wielded badly, it can lead to what we might define as spiritual dysfunction or the immaturity of poor outcomes. As a dysfunctional practice, it can feed utopian fantasies, leave us feeling that we are magically transforming the world whilst living in our imagination, and demotivate us from carrying out real world change. This is not to say that such consequences are inevitable, but rather, that they can and do happen. Tonglen is a very human practice after all.

Tonglen can be carried out in different ways but the general prescription involves taking in suffering from the world and giving out something along the lines of love, compassion, equanimity, relief, and so forth, typically visualised as coming into the body in the form of black smoke, and going out into the world in the form of light. More skilful teachers and practitioners will move between the personal and this universal ambition, starting out with a family member or partner, shifting to the local community, and building up towards a more global vision and, for the more religiously inclined Buddhist, all the way on to the six realms. Less skilful teachers jump straight to the universal thus leaving this practice to be operated at a very abstract and fantastical level.

In approaching such practices, there seem to be three main choices on how to view such processes; magical, agnostic, rational. If these practices are at base phenomenological experiences that can lead to some degree of personal transformation, then whichever of these approaches you take, you probably would agree that a genuine felt connection to what is taking place is an essential starting point. Ideally we would additionally take the practice as an explorative procedure that can lead to insight too, rather than a form of indoctrination into a world view. If we hold a magical view of the world, then such practices are believed to actually transform the six realms, or at least reduce the burden of suffering of those we practice on. The agnostic remains open about the transformational properties of the human mind, but has no real conviction that such magical transformation of those out there is possible. A rational approach would focus on the psychological transformation that can take place through such ritualised behaviour, dismissing the magical portion in the process as wishful thinking. Feel free to take whichever approach matches your inclinations. The twist I will describe below concerns the individual and daily life but I guess you could stretch the magical thinking to feel as if you were healing those around you of whatever affliction you are working on.

Getting started

The premise is this, that when a personally challenging situation emerges, anxiety of some form pops up, and when a pattern plays out in us, we react with a very specific and familiar flavour of anger, frustration, irritation, desire, jealousy, etc. It is very helpful to view each of these neurotic reactions as workable and therefore as changeable. The Tonglen twist is a potentially powerful method and can quickly dissipate the energy that drives the reactivity of a persistent and stubborn pattern, and transform the subjective experience of a persistently challenging situation.

I am going to suggest that you can use the basic principle of Tonglen to transform the strong reactive patterns that emerge on a daily basis in much the same way that coaching uses break states: these work to stop a feeling, emotion or state dead in its tracks and help you to see that the seductive pull is not inevitable. The practice can flip a predictable reactive pattern on its head and as a side effect, bring us into a more solid state of presence, hack away at our attachment to our self image and even uncover rich networks of stories that form the basis for our sense of self.

A quick warning before proceeding

In order to practice something like Tonglen, a degree of psychological balance should be a necessary starting point. We are, after all, each carrying around a marvellous patchwork of psychological dysfunctionality whether mild or severe, richer and more complex than others, or more or less demanding. There is little chance that any of us lack a rich potpourri of psychological dysfunction. Even the most self-satisfied and smug amongst us can recognise, with a bit of poking, that all is not perfect and well in self-land. It is additionally worth remembering that Buddhism is ideally concerned with disavowing us of our identification with a seemingly solid and continuous self, rather than bolstering or strengthening it. In spite of this, the self has been painted in pro-positive terms by many Buddhists, no doubt inspired by the self-development and individualistic current in contemporary Western society. This sort of practice should be challenging: after all, suffering is not much fun. If our goal is to reduce ignorance and suffering in ourselves, and perhaps even in the world we inhabit, then it may be wise to relate to Buddhist practices in a practical and down-to-earth manner. We could do so in the same way we relate to physical exercise. We cannot all carry out all forms of physical activity. We are each limited physically and should choose sport or exercise that is appropriate for our body type, age, stamina levels, strength, goals, proclivities, and so on. This is a principle that we can apply to spiritual, developmental, or explorative practices as well (please define them as you wish; I shall continue to use the word spiritual for now as I wait to find a decent alternative).

Starting from this position, we can see why always going for the most “advanced” practices might be a rather dumb idea and many Tibetan teachers present Tonglen as advanced. Just as we wouldn’t attempt to lift 200 kg in the gym without any prior lifting experience, it would be unwise to dive into a potentially destabilising practice without having some degree of self-awareness, stamina for spiritual practice, and know-how about how practices work, about how we should behave with them in order to avoid unnecessary pain and injury, and about the sort of outcomes likely to ensue. So, only try this if you are reasonable psychologically stable, not on medication for mental illness, suffering from depression or some such affliction.

Applying the Tonglen twist

The practice works on the psycho-emotional level of being, incorporating three factors; the imagination, breath, and a relational shift. The basic principle is straightforward: we bring more of what we resist in, and give out more of the opposite using the three factors to enhance the experience.

In the coaching world there is a lot of incorporation of active imagination and recalling memories and in many ways this mirrors the shamanic invocation and evocation stages and practices used to learn to relate to symbolic and imagined powers. Rather than invoke an ancestor or the spirit of an animal, however, here you can use the breath to invoke a feeling or emotion that you are used to having trouble with. You can do this on your own outside of the real situation first, recalling the last time you lost your shit by imagining yourself back in the situation, remembering as many details as possible, and bringing the memory onto yourself as if you were putting on a suit. Breathing into the feelings that accompany the situation tends to amplify them, which is good in this case, even if they’re uncomfortable. You want to bring the situation close just as if you were dancing a Tango. Once invoked, and once you are uncomfortably cosy with the emotion/feeling/state, you would ask yourself two simple questions: what is it I really desire to feel here? How would I like to be different in these situations?

If you are in reactivity, then the desire will often be for the other person or the situation to change! That may indeed be what is needed, but may also be totally outside of your control; such as traffic, the daily monotony of necessary social rituals, or the way global change is occurring. Remember that this practice works on our subjective experience and does not magically transform the world. Usually the imagined situation is accompanied by a feeling of being incapable of managing the situation successfully. If we bring the questions back to ourselves and drop the need to have the situation be something it’s not, even temporarily, we can get a handle on an experiential shift that we would desire to occur. The key is to identify the feeling, state or emotion that we secretly desire. I say secretly because we are often so identified with the negative state or feeling as we react to situations that even the desire for relief becomes a form of reactivity itself. There is little in the way of sanity in such reactivity and therefore we are usually unable to identify a straightforward and simple need or desire for a tangible human alternative.

Once you have identified what you desire, the next step is very simple. You invite in what you are resisting and you give out what you would desire to be. You breathe in more of the qualitative feel of that which you wish to change or get rid of, and breathe out the quality you secretly desire into the situation or others involved. The more you associate into the situation and the feelings and/or emotions connected to the situation, the more visceral the shift will be for you. For most folks the shift is rather radical. Reactivity often takes the form of disassociation and this shift can place us back into the situation more fully but with greater room for manoeuvre.

Once you get a flavour of the alternative state, you can carry the practice into the real situation and experiment. At heart, you are making the situation workable. In repeatedly exploring these steps, you will often find yourself unravelling an old story or a pattern from the past, perhaps one in which the behaviour you learnt failed originally, but stuck anyway because alternatives were missing and no one was around to point out how you could have behaved or responded differently. We are all playing out stories and patterns that we learn as kids and young adults after all and this is one way of working with them that doesn’t involve heavy psychoanalyst fees. On one level, you are going onto an imagined stage to act out the role of a different personality, one that is not dominated by your own weaknesses and failings in life, so that you can progress to doing the same within the real context and a real life. The Tonglen twist can apply to a situation as well as to relational dynamics. You can take baby steps by experimenting with mildly annoying situations or dive straight into something meaty. By trying it out on your own first, you can get a sense of what your limits are. As is wise and in returning the gym example, you want to build stamina and protect yourself as you go along. For some folks, it may be too much and show a need for support or hands on guidance.

Here is a straightforward example of how I have used this practice on myself. People drive differently in different countries and how they do so can reveal a lot about the collective habits of a nation. As a Brit, driving in Italy can be frustrating to say the least. Italians generally communicate their thoughts and opinions on the road in a way we Brits never would and they are famous for disregarding rules. Having lived here for over a decade, I have for years shared my views on the driving of those around me, getting increasingly frustrated as time has gone on due to the real world dangers presented by careless drivers, OAPs who should not be behind the wheel of a car, the general disregard for rules, and the absence of basic civility required when sharing a communal space. I realised that my frustration and anger was getting me nowhere, however justified it was, so I started using this practice. I began by driving around the city on my motorbike whilst emanating the following; respect for the law and other drivers, a tangible feeling of calm and the relaxation that accompanies really taking your time, a sense of meaningful respect and appreciation for others inhabiting a shared and dangerous space. I took in frustration, the desire to be there already, annoyance at rules, lack of attention, carelessness with traffic lights, stop signs, one-way roads, and so on, and the illusion that I alone had the right to occupy two lanes at once. It was an illuminating experience and rapidly robbed me of my indulgent self-righteousness and wasteful negative states.

This is a relatively manageable scenario to work with but it had surprising and unexpected outcomes. Carrying out the practice whilst driving around snapped me out of what can only be described as a bad dream. It was like being slapped back into reality from a mild hysteria. I went on to realise how I switch off and go into auto-pilot during my daily commute and daydream, which covers up a tendency to avoid the feelings of boredom and frustration. These feelings appear in various other areas of my daily life too and are connected to a more specific frustration I feel at the rate of change I perceive in myself and the world and a lack of care for everyday acts. This is all centred on the theme of ambition and the desire to transcend the mundane and change others. So, rather than lead to a state of detachment, spiritual aloofness, or transcendence to a utopian fantasy of global transformation, the practice sobered me up out of a delusional state whilst uncovering more general patterns.

Outcomes and potential

This example illustrates how reactive emotions and feelings can unlock a network of themes centred on self-preservation. Because the twist directly challenges the self-preservation instinct, it can unlock levels of self-deception and self-indulgence as well as rich, shared patterns of dysfunction driven by unconscious desires to control, resist and manipulate experience and the world around us.

On the one hand, all of this is quite straightforward but the potential is visible in the example I gave. You are practicing behaving differently through deliberately relating differently to personally relevant situations whilst making choices about how to respond, rather than react. On the other hand, you are doing something quite radical: you are severing reactivity at its root and dispossessing it of its power over you. You are, in a sense, manifesting the worst circumstance or outcome that you keep trying to avoid and that hold a certain seductive inevitability. You are, in a sense exasperating the dynamic that is playing out as it fails to get a rise out of you. The practice exposes a current of self preservation and destabilises the drive pushing the reactivity to turn it on its head. It also dispels the myth of control, a pattern that drives so much of our dysfunctional behaviour. Finally, it allows you to live your circumstances radically differently by being immediately immersed in what is taking place with a new sobriety.

Why not give it a try with your pet reactive patterns? You can do it with strong or weak patterns. You can use it with boredom, complacency, carelessness, disengagement, hunger, the fidgeting need for stimulation, as well as heavier patterns associated with stronger emotions like anger, fear, terror, doubt, etc.

The key for it to work is to get the right answer to the question: what is it I wish to experience here if I am not reacting?

Like all practice, you have to do it. This is a coaching principle: change makes change. I know some of our readers here would like to blame society, economics, Trump, class, empire, white men, and everybody else for all of the problems that we experience. They would like to perhaps argue that any focus on ourselves is a new capitalist ideological production, but we have to live with ourselves anyway, whichever dominant ideology is participating in the shaping of how we experience ourselves and the world. We can choose to identify ourselves as powerless victims or wrestle with the conditions of our lives and do our best to reduce ignorance and suffering, and find out how and where we might contribute to doing something useful for the world around us. The obvious retort to those who call for a primarily social and intellectual practice is that if we are constantly reacting to everything, there is very little space for us to perceive where and how we might make a difference, and the fact is, whether we like it or not, most of us need to get ourselves out of the way to a reasonable degree before we can start doing something for others that is not just more reactivity and reproduction of the dominant patterns of our time.



  1. Thank you very much for this insightful post on how to practice tonglen in a way that is immediately relevant. Tonglen has actually presented me a lot of challenges, because I have found the spirit of tonglen really inspiring, yet I have been unable to square how the practice itself really leads to change if I didn’t *truly* believe that the practice would magically help others while bringing their pains upon myself. Not to mention it feeds into my pride in a way, like I am a hero taking on the burdens of the world.

    I just tried a few breaths using an approach more similar to what you just described in this post, this time trying to work with my strong negative emotion of pride. I consistently wish to have more knowledge than others, especially in regards to all things Buddhism. I am both addicted to this way of thinking and ashamed to know I think this way.

    This time I imagined breathing in ‘myself being publicly discovered as ignorant’ and breathing out ‘others being acclaimed as knowledgeable.’ I imagined the ‘other’ as individuals that I have thought of myself as intellectually superior to. It is an immediate relief to put down my self-righteous attitude and let them have the victory. In fact, it was such a relief, in only a few breathes, I sincerely wanted them to have the victory.

    Thank you for this post, and others as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Daniel, Thanks for sharing your adventures with Tonglen. I think you highlight nicely a switch to practice that works to challenge the self-serving tendency that runs through so much of what we do; including meditation, and Tonglen. Another way of seeing it is as a step in maturation. There are many more that can follow on from what you’ve started, so keep going! Matthew


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