Practical applied compassion

One may wonder why this practice is recommended on a couple therapy site. I am not suggesting you can solve entrenched relationship problems just by closing your eyes and meditating. So before I get into describing how to do this practice here are some thoughts on how it might be useful in a relationship.

Tonglen in intimate relationships

Tonglen can be undertaken standing up or walking, in the moment of an insult or attack in an intimate relationship, when the impulse is to react and throw it back at them – with interest compels you to act in defense of your esteem.

This is when the sweetness of a love relationship, the kindness of friendship or the hard won truce suddenly turns to bitter recriminations and recycling old issues.

Tonglen practice can sometimes interrupt these repetitive hot and heavy troubles, which erupt unaware, senselessly and mindlessly and make our connections dark and claustrophobic rather than bright and fresh. These negative patterns of relationship remind me of a cartoon of someone twisting their upper body and pulling out the back of their underwear to look at its bulging contents, with the caption ‘Who shat in there?’

Coming to one’s senses through mindful awareness of body process in these situations, may also give the space and time for choice to intervene, rather than allowing the same old reactions to breathe out, powering another cruel re-run of the old-brain, fight/flight/freeze pattern of survival.

At that time, Tonglen is a practice that encourages breathing in the claustrophobic relationship toxins and sending out re-invigorated relationship health. If that doesn’t work, then you can try breathing in Tonglen ‘not working’ and find what would give relief and breathe that out.

The aware energy of that self-responsible ‘woops! it’s my shit’ process, may invite your luxuriously ‘out of control’ relationship to slow its rush for the cliff’s edge, again and again like there was no tomorrow and endless flushing toilets.

It’s no use righteously quoting this or recommending meditation to the other, to cool them down. Meditation can’t become another way to withdraw or to pay back or to demand entitlements. You have to practise it for yourself alone, whilst at the same time being connected, vulnerable and with good boundaries in the relationship.

It requires practice with sitting and walking Tonglen to get the hang of multi tasking it during a fight – of being strong, clear, soft and aware and in the moment of conflict.

One aim with intimacy is to honour your relationship with yourself at the same time as remaining in relationship with the other. That requires having an honest, intact relationship with yourself to start with. On that foundation you can stand in your own shoes at the same time as knowing when and where to stand in their’s and communicate that with respect.

It doesn’t work to take their side and abandon yours. Nor to stand in neither yours nor theirs.

To do both with strength, kindness and authenticity you need to feel safe in your own body, safe in relationship with your own process. If you struggle with that level of safety anyway, then maybe there’s an old wound, out of awareness, which pops out in a close/familiar relationship drama where probably before commencing the current relationship you were earlier wounded.

Intimacy is juicy, fleshy, tactile, contactful, resilient, challenging, growthful, respectful, soft and strong. It is learnt/modeled in our first caregivers’ arms and develops over the whole life cycle. We get better at it with practice, no matter how damaging our first experiences were.

Intimate friendship is one of the best workshops on the planet. Imagine how much one would have to spend on a live-in therapy team to expose our sub conscious processes, our trance-like conning of ourselves/blaming of the other and to polish our awareness for the same number of hours we spend with our loved ones at times, doing exactly the same things.

Knowing the following great truths is not enough:

  1. Everything changes, nothing is permanent.
  2. All our attempts at denying or preventing the first truth’s operation are unreliable and thus lead to suffering and
  3. There is nothing in the world that is of ourselves alone, everything is contingent upon something else, which itself is dependent on other events and so on into infinity.

After discovering these truths for yourself, you then have to discover a way to handle the automatic, mal-adaptation of our million year old, territorial nervous system. Tonglen is the medicine of the Buddha. Physiological reactivity and territoriality don’t stop when wisdom lands – how we handle our reactions does.

Introduction to the practice

Tonglen is an active practice of loving kindness that uses a principle analogous to homeopathy or vaccination. It is a challenging process of applied compassion.

Tonglen has proven itself in my personal and clinical experience. It rests intentionally in the breath. In other cleansing practices we breathe in light and healing from the universe, and breathe out the toxins from within us.

In Tonglen we breathe in troublesome feelings. We deeply embody this with our whole life experience and then, breathe out whatever gives relief and in whatever form that it takes. We send it to those in need including ourselves.

Stage 1

Begin by resting your mind in a state of spacious openness, in stillness and in gratitude for the inexhaustible generosity of life or of your teachers, maybe of friends and parents, of nature or of G-d.

Take a long, slow, deep breath in and out with this in mind. This is the initial flash on the soft spot in your core – the place that teaches us we are all vulnerable. Always commence the practice with this heart opening inclusiveness.

The sensation of this is hard to describe – it is a little like sitting in a sunlit car on a bitterly cold, windy day or wading into the sea or a river on a blazing hot day – just melting with gratitude, surrendering to the support life gives you, refreshed.

This stage can take some practice before it fills your whole being in one breath. Some people need to just hang around in this first stage of replenishment for a while before going on to Stage 2. What would your best friend or beloved advise you to do – stay here and breathe generosity in more fully or move on to the next step?


God help us to live slowly:

To move simply:

To look softly:

To allow emptiness:

To let the heart create for us.


© 1991 Michael Leunig ‘The Prayer Tree’ Penguin


Stage 2

Next, begin to breathe in hot – the sensation of heat in the body and breathe out the sensation of cool. Build this up slowly.

Then add breathing in the sensation of dark and breathing out the sensation of light at the same time.

Build these four elements with each breath.

Then add breathing in the sensation of heavy and breathing out the sensation of weightlessness, at the same time. Do these through all the pores of body and with all the senses activated, as best you can, until each of these states or elements are synchronized with in-breath and out-breath.

Breathing in the sensations of hot, dark and heavy is like the sense of claustrophobia. And breathing out cool, bright and weightless is like a sense of freshness. As you continue breathing these in and out they tend to come together. Start with the gross physical sensations and then notice how the practice takes you to subtle shifts in and nuances of claustrophobia and freshness. You might like to adjust the range of the experience as if you had a volume or brightness control.

This experience alone may be quite challenging as it can bring up unpleasant feelings or associations, which outweigh the sense of freshness. Such as feelings of being contained, unable to get out or of being held captive by darkness. These may relate to experiences in your life, which are in the process of resolution. So, already you will need to make a choice about whether this practice is okay for you at this point of time in your life or on this particular day.

The guidance of a capable teacher may ease you into the practice and enable you to negotiate with such an obstacle, or you may be able to approach it more slowly on your own, by only breathing one of those pairs of qualities and with only one sense activated.

If you decide to continue on this occasion, then keep practising with the breath, going deeper into your experience of these states with more and more full body awareness until you discover the gross states are becoming subtle and melding into just the energy of them or the sense of them combined in body and mind.

It may become like colour breathing – in with red/black and out with blue or white, for example. This is like moving from particle to wave, from copper plumbing to an open river, from individual instruments to orchestral sound, from monochrome to technicolour.

This practice will become a process of transforming dark energy into light, of allowing fear to give way to love. It is the reverse of what often happens every day, where we feed fear with fear, take in the good just for ourselves and chuck out the bad. We hope someone else will clean up the physical and emotional environment after us.

Taking in the tough stuff and transforming it with our own resources, is becoming responsible for our own mess and for cleaning up our own life. That is a big ask and Tonglen asks it of us.

There is a kind of covert symbiotic need in all of us, a hope that there will be someone, someday who will meet all of our needs, who will take care of us. It is a bit like a wish to return to the breast and have someone else wipe our bottoms.

In Buddhist psychology it is called the hungry ghost, because that adult want is insatiable. It can never be satisfied. We con ourselves into thinking that it can be and sometimes even blame our loved ones, our teachers, life or G-d when they don’t do it for us.

The invisible third party in a lot of relationship conflict is ‘God’, where we expect our partner to read our minds, know what we want and give it to us and then clean up the mess left where we have abdicated leadership in our own life. Tonglen asks us to own up to the hungry ghost and sit in there.

Paradoxically, although there is a process of ownership and purification, it is not your intent to purify the dark energy before sending it out as light. That can be an obstacle to the practice as you might wait for the energy to be good enough or pure enough before you can send it to someone else.

Your intention at this stage is just to synchronize the breathing with the sensationsand clear the inner obstacles to undertaking the practice. When that has stabilized and is continuing effortlessly, synchronized and balanced in and out, let it go into the background and consider moving onto the next step.

What would your best friend or beloved advise you to do; stay here and synchronise the breath more fully or move on to the next step? The next stage will bring up another set of challenges.

Stage 3 – Beginners

Choose wisely a personal and painful situation to work with. This is self-tonglen. Do this with an understanding of whether you are a beginner or an experienced meditator and with the counsel of your wisdom within. A beginner would start with a small, self-contained and recent frustration with somebody at work or at home. This could be like forgetting to complete a task you were relying on, forgetting to turn the lights off, a mix up with a bill or an invoice, being stood up for coffee, missing out on a promotion. If any of these are repetitive or chronic issues at work or home, then you will know how deep the history goes and how big an issue the apparently simple event will be. Always choose a really simple one to start with, a situation or issue, which is real for you and then breathe that in just for you.

Notice the pattern of overwhelm if it arises in you – it might be that you have an inner objection to working with the issue you’ve chosen,one that you have not acknowledged. If so, back off a bit; return to just breath awareness; modify the sensations or the scope of an issue; return to stage 1 or 2, or take a break and reflect on how you chose.

As you breathe with this personal issue, you may start to become aware of what would bring you relief, peace or calm. It could be as simple as imagining the bill paid, the lights turned off, having the cup of coffee. Begin to breathe that out for yourself and send it to yourself as you were then and as you are now.

This may mean imagining yourself as you were or as you are now in that situation. Let’s say the issue touches your earliest memories as a babe in arms or as a teenager in trouble. This may mean imagining cradling that child as you were then and loving her as only you can do now. Or of getting alongside the teen and just hanging out with the trouble.

In whatever way it shapes up in your mind, make an energetic connection with yourself and breathe the love and the compassion toward yourself. You may find it helps to breathe that directly toward the heart centre or another specific place where you feel the pain or distress of the situation.

As before, this will start in the gross form but as you deepen the practice this will move to a more subtle process of what would bring relief. This relief can be as straightforward as imagining a warm bath; a hug; a cup of tea; it can be a positive thought; an image of a saint; white light; the scent of lavender, even a holiday from the crap.

As you synchronize your breath more deeply and more balanced with both in and out breath wider layers of the meaning and context of your own situation may arise in awareness. This can be intense and personal and may be received in an unfamiliar sensory channel. Allow awareness of this level of the truth to gently alter your practice.

Often the direction of these changes is toward more holistic, grounded understanding of the situation and a wider inclusion of all those involved: bystanders, perpetrators, the bio-community and our little planet hurtling through space.

Stage 3 – Intermediate

As you progress in the self-tonglen practice above, you can expand the practice to include one other. You breathe in for one other whom you know and are connected with, who is in the same situation as you or who suffers or struggles in the same way as you do. And then breathe out whatever is evolving in bringing relief to you.

Again it may help to direct your out breath of relief to a particular place with the person with whom you are working and/or to a particular time in their lives when they began experiencing the distress you are working with.

Don’t attempt to guess what would bring relief to one who is in the same situation, just what works for you in your embodied experience of the issue and then breathe that out. In the knowledge of yourself is the answer to what works for others in a resonant situation. Knowledge is like the night sky. You can’t possibly know all the stars, you can only hope to know your own light mind and in this there is great healing.

Deepen your experience of the issue by embodying it with full awareness as before and synchronizing with the breath in and out.

Comment: this appears a simple instruction but you can make it really hard for yourself by starting with too big or with a major personal or universal issue and with too many people also affected by it. Start small, with people in your immediate vicinity who are also struggling with the same issue and then as you get adept, grow the size of the problem and the number of people you are working with. Start local, go global.

Stage 3 – Advanced

It could take maybe a year of consistent daily practice in any style of meditation (or a 10 day silent meditation intensive) before you can effectively advance to this stage and keep your breath synchronised and mind balanced and open to any issue that arises in consciousness. At this stage you breathe deeper into and across the layers of the issue for yourself and breathe out relief into those layers in a group or family, adding one person at a time.

Start adding one at a time from those in your immediate family or community and then expand out to related groups or families, which you sense are connected to you through this issue. This is the most challenging stage.

Practitioners can feel overwhelmed by the enormity of suffering and catastrophe in the world and at the same time more deeply connected to limitless love and generosity. This is the beginning of the end to the feeling of isolation and a start to the work of compassion – the ultimate source of ethical action in the world.

It might help to represent the community you are working with in Tonglen by its guiding star or its animal spirit, its totem or mythic quest or by the saint who guards over the group or community with which you are working.

Just don’t get into story telling, only use metaphor as a reminder of the breadth of group or community. You are trying to open your arms as wide as you can to include all who are connected, not build an intellectual framework or a map.

Problems with the practice

1. If you find that you are taking on the negative energy of the people in the same situation as you and hanging onto it, then change your intention to that of breathing in for yourself and all those people who take on the negative energy of others and hang onto it. If colour has become your energy symbol, you may find that you are breathing out less blue or white for example than the red/black you are taking in. If smoke is your energy symbol, then the same applies. Work to bring it into balance, perhaps by letting go of what you’re holding on to.

2. If you find yourself overwhelmed by the practice, then change your intention to breathe in for yourself and all those who struggle with compassion. Find what would give you relief and breathe that out. Whatever obstacle comes up, turn it toward the practice.

3. You may also experience this difficulty in other spheres of life, not just in meditation. You may be suffering from vicarious traumatization. It may be that you are at a point in your life where you cannot work in emergency services, hospice, as a carer of a sick relative, with trauma, domestic violence, suicide, nor in counseling nor all the other places where the pain of life is full on and in your face.

However, some workers in those situations have found that Tonglen is the only practice that has allowed them to continue dealing with the reality they face each day.

4. Tonglen can be considered as a form of intercessory prayer but for some it may be a practice that conflicts with Biblical doctrine. If you are teaching Tonglen in a Christian context, you may need to take this into consideration.

For example, God breathed in the wrongs of the world and sent out His Son. Jesus took on the sins of the world and breathed out his life. Only Christ can take on the suffering of the world, we are already forgiven.

5. Or you may be clutching your heart instead of letting it lie open.

6. At the end of the time you have allotted for the practice, closure may be an issue if you have taken on more than you realized when you chose the issue to work with. Leave a symbol of ongoing healing where you leave off the practice, thank yourself for working with the issue, and thank the others with whom you are connected by the issue and make an appointment to return to the practice another day.

Specific application when under personal or professional attack

When it feels like you and others have been attacked, real or imagined.

Some psychological and/or institutional abuse has a quality of being covert or indirect, for example, rejection under the guise of indifference; a damning public statement disguised as an ‘innocent’ question; a fake acknowledgement from an institution where one was injured or abused. Others are direct assaults on one’s professional integrity. There are many challenging ethical issues in these areas.

In health, education and welfare employment, statutory complaints procedures magnify the distress of a vexatious complaint. For example with proportional enforcement policies requiring a public and thus humiliating removal from the work place often without due process and before a finding of fact.

In these circumstances it is a challenge to believe an unwarranted attack from a dissatisfied customer is from ‘my supreme spiritual friend’.

When we choose to remain a caring professional, an attack on professional integrity inevitably hurts. The embodied nature of our reactions to misrepresentation and injustice, for example feeling kicked in the guts or shafted as a scapegoat, makes it the perfect insult for self-discovery and self-mastery in Tonglen. But that isn’t a recommendation to lie down and take it!

How I handle this

Whenever one of these covert or overt attacks has occurred and I have remembered to practise Tonglen, a lot of other stuff comes up. Particularly painful is the feeling of abuse. Of having been attacked without the ability to immediately defend myself. This goes straight to my own personal history and so that piles on top of the most recent trigger. By the time I get to think about how I could respond to the perceived attack, I’m submerged and isolated.

I start to breathe in something like the poison on an arrowhead and I get stuck with breathing out. Nothing comes to me. I just feel blocked by rage, hurt, impotence and fear. So I keep breathing in the poison, driven into my chest and sometimes remember the lojong teachings ‘always meditate on whatever provokes resentment’ and ‘abandon any hope of fruition’.

Sometimes I breathe it in without thinking about anything, it’s just a habit. And then, after maybe minutes or on and off for hours in the middle of the night, suddenly, boom I get it. A smile comes over my face and I start to breathe out what would give me relief and send that to them. On one occasion that was a brilliant, wise and compassionate response immediately I felt attacked. I send the energy of that triumph of timing to them.

And then I start to feel for all the other people who are attacked and can’t immediately defend themselves. I breathe in for them and send out the energy of conscious good timing, for example. By then I don’t remember the isolation, I just feel the connection with the breath synchronised, in with the bad out with the good.

If I continue with it I inevitably come to the real or imagined perpetrator, who themselves are somewhere abused and wounded. So I breathe in for them as well and send them relief. And this builds connection with the disavowed – the ‘I’m not like that or them’ belief.

And then the big one for me, to breath in for all the perpetrators who suffer like the real or imagined offender in my personal drama and send them that which will bring them relief.

That’s hard for me to practise because I have all sorts of rational objections to breathing in for people who I believe belong on death row or in a war crimes tribunal but who are likely to get away with it. ‘Why should I relieve them of any suffering?’, I ask myself. ‘Let the law of karma deal with them, why should I?’

After this kind of struggle within myself I do, finally, come to breathe in for all of us and send relief. I get there in part, through a gentle act of will. I have learnt from past experience with the practice that it does release me from territoriality and from the bondage of fear and hate.

I give my trust to the practice. The practice is the teacher.