Tonglen for Difficult Moments | Counseling | Therapy

Tonglen for Difficult Moments

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Feeling down? Depressed? Anxious? Angry with someone? Particularly lonely? Want to feel peaceful, joyful and connected to something larger? Well, there’s good news! There’s a Tibetan Buddhist practice called Tonglen that can help transform difficult moments into moments of happiness and connection! Tonglen is translated into English as, ‘Taking and Sending’. In this post, we’ll be talking about using Tonglen for difficult moments.

Tonglen is the practice of visualizing and verbalizing breathing in the suffering of beings, transforming it into happiness, and breathing out that happiness to beings. When people do Tonglen for difficult moments, they report feeling relief from all different kinds of suffering. They report feeling like their big problems aren’t as big as they thought. They report feeling joyful. They report feeling energized and connected to other people and to something larger than themselves.

Tonglen is great to do as part of a morning or evening routine or, for our purposes today, for difficult moments throughout the day. And the latter is where we’re focusing here, Tonglen for difficult moments!

Let’s jump in!

Let’s say you’re not feeling so great. You’re late for work and traffic just won’t budge. Or your brother has laughed at you when you were trying to make a serious point. Or you feel like everything bad that happened lately has been your fault. Or whatever! Let’s say for some reason, the world is suffocating, your mind feels stuck. Your problems feel big. Your flaws seem dire. You are experiencing a difficult moment.

Tonglen for difficult moments time!

Practice the below instructions anywhere from 3 minutes to 30 minutes and you’ll be changing your state of mind from bad to good! (If you want a full video playlist explaining the practice, check out this one:

  1. Begin by saying in your mind, “May this practice benefit me and all beings.”

  2. Close your eyes
    1. Only if you’re in a place it’s safe to do so. Otherwise, eyes open is fine!

  3. Take five deep breaths: in through the nose, out through the mouth. Make your out-breath twice the length of your in-breath.
    1. Four seconds in, eight seconds out (or whatever feels right).

  4. On the sixth in-breath, say this phrase in your mind, “May I be free from suffering and its causes.” Repeat this for three breath cycles.

  5. Now! Add an additional phrase. On your out-breath, say the following in your mind, “May I have happiness and its causes.”
    1. To recap at this point you’re breathing deeply, saying to yourself, “May I be free from suffering and its causes,” on the in-breath AND, “May I have happiness and its causes” on the out-breath.

    2. Continue repeating these phrases throughout the rest of the practice.

    3. Continue for three breath cycles

  6. Now, continue breathing and repeating the phrases, and begin to visualize your heart as made of a white light. The white light represents happiness, love, compassion and awakening.

  7. Begin to visualize the suffering that’s going on in your body and mind as thick, black smoke.

  8. As you breathe in, picture all the suffering in your body and mind (represented by the black smoke) being pulled into your white heart by the in-breath and completely dissolving into it, “May I be free from suffering and its causes.”
    1. As the suffering dissolves, picture your body and mind relaxing, relieved of their troubles.

  9. Then! On the out-breath, picture white light flooding out of your heart and going to all the places where the black smoke used to be, “May I have happiness and its causes.”
    1. Picture yourself getting happier and happier. Picture your body being flooded with joy and your face smiling the biggest smile imaginable.

    2. I like to picture Harry Potter’s Patronus from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, “Ex-pec-to, Pa-tro-num!”

  10. Continue this for five cycles (or as long as feels good)!

  11. Now, pick someone in your life (could be a family member, friend, pet or celebrity) whom it's easy to feel love/compassion for.

  12. Continue your deep breathing. Continue picturing your heart as white light. But now, do this practice for the person you picked.
    1. Switch your phrases to, “May you be free from suffering and its causes,” and “May you have happiness and its causes.”

    2. Picture all the suffering in this person’s body and mind (represented by the thick, black smoke) being pulled into your white heart and completely dissolving. Picture how relieved they would be.

    3. Then, picture the white light of love and happiness going out of your heart and to that person. Picture this making them happy, happier than they’ve ever been. Continue for five cycles (or as long as you want!).

    4. As you go on, you can switch the target of this practice to other people it’s easy to feel love for (pets, family members, friends or celebrities you like)

    5. If you’ve mastered that, you can also switch the target of this practice to strangers (Pick people you don’t know well, but encounter often: waiters, bus drivers, whomever! Imagine what their suffering might look like –chronic pain, loneliness, anxiety, etc.– and how relieving and replacing it with happiness might make them feel.)
      1. And! If you’ve really gotten the hang of it (i.e. don’t do this step on your first time), you can try it with people you find difficult.
        1. Don’t do this until you’ve done the practice many times with loved ones and strangers and that feels easy and good for you.

        2. Start with people you find only a little difficult.

  13. Finally, repeat the practice for all beings everywhere simultaneously. Picture all the suffering of every dog, amoeba, person in a foreign country, alien life form! Picture all the collective suffering in the universe coming into your heart, dissolving, and the white light of happiness, love and awakening flooding out of your heart to replace it. Picture all the happiness, harmony, love and joy of a universe at peace, “May all beings be free from suffering and its causes. May all beings have happiness and its causes.”
    1. Repeat for ten breath cycles (or as long as you need).

  14. When you’re done, say, “May this practice benefit me and all beings.” And continue with your day :).

  15. When I asked ChatGPT to give Tonglen instructions, it ended with this message which I rather liked, “Remember, Tonglen is a profound practice that can have a transformative effect on your mind and heart. Be patient with yourself and allow the practice to unfold naturally.”

How’d that go for you, Tonglen for Difficult Moments? If it went well, consider reading on to find out more about the goal of the practice.

The goal of Tonglen is to move people out of a state of contractedness into a state of openness. “What is contractedness,” you ask? “What is openness,” you ask? I’m glad you asked!

Contractedness (or a contracted state) is what we feel when we can’t breathe. It’s what we feel when someone points out our faults in public. It’s how we feel when someone insults us in a way that really strikes a nerve. The mind and body contract to protect themselves. The muscles become tense. People get, “tunnel vision.” and can only pay attention to a few things in their environment (usually themselves, unpleasant thoughts, and people they see as “other”).

Openness (or an open state) is what we feel when we’re looking out over a mountainscape, when we hear an orchestra warming up in the park, when someone has shared something vulnerable and now people in the room are crying in solidarity. An open state is how we feel when we see someone in a supermarket stop to help an elderly person whose grocery bag has ripped and all their produce spilled out. In open states, the muscles relax. The body doesn’t feel the need to protect itself because it doesn’t feel in danger. All of a sudden, we feel connected. We feel we belong. We are a small part of this beautiful world. We are this beautiful world. And this is what we cultivate in Tonglen for difficult moments!

Open states are generally preferable. However, in our modern world, many of us feel contracted more and more of the time. Whether it's our smartphones, our dense cities, our economic system, the difficult people and circumstances in our lives, or the pesky parts of our minds, we find ourselves pulled towards contraction.

The good news is there’s ways of moving out of closed states and into open states! Tonglen for difficult moments is a very useful and accessible one. If you do this practice for 10-15 minutes each day (or many shorter periods throughout the day when you become contracted), you will find yourself moving from disconnected to connected, from depressed to relieved, from anxious to joyous. And, it will start to become second nature to you. Tonglen for difficult moments has a way of being rather addicting. Because it can so reliably make us feel good, we do it more and more. People do it so much it becomes their default reaction when difficulties arise in life. But, don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself! Give it a few weeks and see if it changes your life the way it has changed the lives of countless others. Good luck!

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