Insight in unlikely places

Tonglen (Tibetan: གཏོང་ལེན་, Wylie: gtong len, or tonglen) is Tibetan for ‘giving and taking’ (or sending and receiving), and refers to a meditation practice found in Tibetan Buddhism. Tong means “giving or sending”, and len means “receiving or taking”. Tonglen is also known as exchanging self with other.


I first encountered tonglen years ago in Sedona. Though the above definition sounds lovely, tonglen is typically used to inhale or take in the suffering of another and exhale healing and compassion.

The idea of the practice often triggers a reluctance to take on suffering: a fear of increasing your own struggle.

I had just dropped my son at school this morning and was heading back home when I passed a fender bender. A small car had bumped into a van. The driver of the van was standing on the road taking a picture of the impact. I already knew who sat at the wheel of the car.

It was the route to school. Two high school students cowered in the small car. The driver covered her face with her hand. I could tell she was crying. In a flash as I passed, I felt all of her emotions arise within me: shame, blame, guilt, fear of her parents’ reaction and being late for school, confusion as to who to call or how to proceed with reporting the accident, grief and little t trauma. I felt it in part due to my sensitivity to the energy and emotional states of others, but mainly due to the fact that I’d been in her shoes and that memory lived in me.

In that moment, tonglen naturally arose because I suddenly realized that there is no adding to my suffering. It’s already there. All of those feelings already exist. It was easy and even necessary for me to take on all of her suffering in that moment. As each of the emotions rose in me, I consciously drew them from her and exhaled love, compassion, ease, guidance and support back to her. Waves of emotions crested and subsided.

And the universe lent its support by way of my iphone which apparently connected itself to my vehicle when my son left, disconnecting his music. One of my favourite pieces accompanied my practice: Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight. The music fills me with hope: the kind of hope found after the darkness. I encourage you to sit with eyes closed and allow it to move you.

As one person commented on this compelling instrumental piece:

Tonglen. If we truly understood how connected we all are, we’d practice it every day.

Practice tonglen with the help of this Pema Chodron article from Lion’s Roar.

An Accidental Awakening: It’s not about yoga; It’s about family

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