This is a simple introduction to Tonglen, a Buddhist meditation of sending and receiving. This is a powerful meditation to do when you are you are feeling helpless, or frustrated, despairing or lonely. It gives the space to process the uncomfortable feeling without wallowing in it or without resorting to the usual strategies: pushing it down, ignoring it, or covering it over with something more pleasant.

How Tonglen Works

You are feeling helpless and frustrated and don’t know what to do next. All the usual strategies have failed and you are left with just this lousy, miserable, helpless feeling.

The first step is to take a breath and relax. Let your thoughts settle down as much as possible.

Allow yourself to feel the sensation of helplessness. This can take courage. We may worry that the hurt will never go away, or that paying attention to it will invite more hurt. But that’s not what happens with this meditation. As you feel the helplessness, you may feel it as something dark or suffocating. It may feel heavy or twitchy or buzzy. Be clear that this is not a pity party. Instead it is simply being present with what is happening.

Then turn your attention outward. Remember that around the world in this very second are thousands of people who are feeling this very same sense of helplessness and suffocation. As you think of them, allow your natural compassion to rise for them. You know first-hand how difficult the feeling is, so compassion rises effortlessly.

Continue for a while, alternating between willingness to experience the difficult sensations and compassion for those many others who are feeling the same thing. When you are done, allow that compassion to expand to include every being who is hurting in any way.

Adapt it to your own circumstances.


Our natural state is to be openhearted and compassionate. So this meditation helps us knock down a bit of the tough shell we throw over our hearts when we are hurt and helps us to allow our inherent kindness out. This meditation gives us courage. It can show us what our usual strategies are to avoid discomfort. It can also show us that being present with our experience ends up feeling better than running away from it.

Tonglen can also be done as a regular meditation on the cushion. The Buddhist author Pema Chodron has many books and articles and tapes out that cover tonglen practice in much more depth than I have done here. One example is the book “The Places That Scare You”. Look for her teachings on the web, as well. As Pema Chodron says, “As a species we should never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort.” Tonglen is a simple practice to help us past that.