At times we may feel small, insignificant, and unable to help when people are suffering, or there’s a catastrophe in another part of the world. But there is something we can do.

Tonglen—Tibetan for “giving and taking,” or “sending and receiving”—is an active practice of loving-kindness; a simple act of compassion that anyone can do. Here’s how it’s done:

  • Sit or lie quietly in your own “inner sanctuary” and imagine someone that you want to help.
  • Inhale the heaviness of their energy. Breathe in the condition, emotion, or suffering of another to make space for healing and comfort within.
  • Exhale whatever you feel will fill them relief. Breathe out hope, strength, joy, peace of mind, love, or ease.

“There is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there’s a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you, and I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.”

—John O’Donohue

I took the following photograph at the Idaho Botanical Garden. In my mind’s eye, this is how I imagine my inner sanctuary.

PHOTO – inner sanctuary

Tonglen is a positive, uplifting, constructive, and healing way to care for other people. The heart of this practice is compassion; to breathe in another person’s pain—physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual—and breathe out strength, joy, and peace of mind; whatever gives relief.

Tonglen has a long, rich history and can be traced back to 11th century Tibet. It can be done for people individually—a person who is ill, fearful, in sorrow, or in pain. Or it can be done for people collectively—people in a geographic area who have been struck by terrorism or a natural disaster such as tornado, earthquake, flood, or famine.

Tonglen can be done anywhere, anytime. It can be formal like you see me doing in the following photograph, or it can be done while you’re out walking, driving, or laying in bed.


PHOTO – Laurie

This soothing and calming meditation can be done by people of any spiritual tradition, or none at all. It’s a simple, non-denominational practice that acknowledges we’re all connected no matter who we are, or where we come from.

For the practitioner, the goal of Tonglen meditation is to visualize themselves taking in the suffering of others with their inhale, and exhaling relief or whatever would ease or eliminate the suffering. This form of meditation is founded on compassion, and not only brings peace and betterment to yourself but the world around you as well.

Numerous studies have found transformative benefits—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—in people who practice any type of regular meditation. However, the benefits of Tonglen meditation are unique to other forms of mediation, which is why so many people are adding this practice to their current mindful practices. Some of the benefits of Tonglen meditation include:

  • Promotion of generosity
  • Develops compassion
  • Adds positivity to relationships
  • Turbo-boosts our kindness quotient
  • Enhances the boomerang factor of kindness coming back to us
  • Heightens altruism
  • Increases our gratitude
  • Helps us to interact better with others
  • Cultivates mercy

When the Dalai Lama was touring the United States, he recommended the practice of Tonglen. He made it very simple. “Tonglen is giving and taking. As you inhale, take on the suffering of others. As you exhale, give out to them all your gifts, virtues, and positive qualities.” He suggests beginning the practice with equalizing, which means, “To realize that every sentient being desires happiness and does not want to suffer, just like you.” With that in mind, he imagines that this practice reduces suffering in the world, but he says that “Whether this meditation really helps others or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective, and the benefit is immense.”

Without exception, we would all do well to extend and receive compassion. Tonglen is a powerful breathwork and imagery practice that helps to fill this need.