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tonglen meditation

It is a good time to introduce you to or remind you of tonglen meditation. Tonglen is a mediation practice originating from Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetan word, tonglen, means give take. It is broken down as:

tong: give or send

len: receive or take

We can practice tonglen for the self. It is a type of loving-kindness meditation. Loving-kindness meditations teach us how to generate compassion for ourselves. We can also learn or use tonglen meditation as a distant healing intention. The distant healing objective of tonglen is to perform a compassionate mental act not only for the self but to and for others. It embodies the concept of healing.

Tonglen practice can help us quiet our ego. Training teaches us how to have compassion for ourselves, work with pain, and generate healing energy. Pain can be physical, emotional, or any combination of things that cause us to feel distressed, angry, or fearful. As individuals we are adept at pushing pain away all the time- Why? We want to protect or prevent ourselves from feeling discomfort.

Starting to acknowledge pain and work with it instead of ignoring and suppressing it engenders healing. It’s really difficult to work with pain but important to know that we do heal and that pain and discomfort can transform. A source of pain frequently becomes a root of compassion. This transformation is a key principle of yin yang theory; all things have opposite but complementary aspects.

As a distant healing practice, we can use tonglen to appreciate pain and distress in others. It is a natural human characteristic to feel pain when we witness troublesome circumstances or hear about others in distress. Using tonglen to take pain in and send out lightness and love to another is one of the benefits of tonglen.

I want to share a simple guided tonglen meditation with you based on readings of mostly Pema Chodron and Chogyam Trungpa. I hope you try it and share it and I welcome your feedback.


Find a quiet place

Set a timer for 14 minutes or use an app with a bell or gong where you can set multiple timers (for beginners set 2 minutes for the start bell, 6 minutes for a middle bell, and 6 minutes for the end bell).

Sit in a chair and place both of your feet on the floor or sit cross-legged on the floor or a floor pillow

You can do this meditation with your eyes open or closed

Start with a scan of your body from head to toe

Center your dan tian (your lower abdomen and back)

Relax your belly

Soften your shoulders moving them down from your ears, unclench your hands, loosen your face and open your jaw slightly.

When the start bell rings, hear the sound resonate and then picture a still, calm image (like the sky, sea, or a mountain). The sound of the bell starts your tonglen practice.

Listen to the sound of the bell and visualize your image as a great open space

The openness is bright and vast.

Now bring your attention to your breath

Begin breathing steadily from the belly

Spend equal time inhaling and exhaling

Now begin to apply the meaning of tonglen

Take in and send out with each breath cycle

Breathe in and acknowledge any pain you find in yourself, realize that others may be feeling the same way

Breathe in hot, heaviness but instead of holding that heavy feeling in, visualize it getting lighter, dispersing

Breathe out and release pain.

As you continue your breaths,

watch the thoughts come in and out of your head

Do not judge them

Open your mind and watch stagnant barriers dissolve with each breath cycle

Envision yourself lighter

and at peace.

Breathe in the caught up feeling, the cloying feeling of pain

Breathe out the cool feeling, the lightness and relief of letting go

Breathe in the caught up feeling, the cloying feeling of pain

Breathe out the cool feeling, the lightness and relief of letting go.

Now bring your attention to others.

Pick a person or a group of people that you would like to send positive energy to

Breathe in the pain you feel for them

Breath out lightness and strength

Take in the pain you feel for them

and send them out your lightness, healing energy, and love.

Continue your practice any way you choose- focus on the self or others or switch back and forth, there is no wrong way.

Your practice comes to an end when your closing bell rings

Listen to it and return your thoughts to your starting image

It will be the same but different

Open and brighter

Your deep heavy breath

It has become lighter


Tips: Learn from each practice session and take notes if it helps. Observe if you were feeling physical pain, agitated, peaceful, sad, emotional, sleepy, etc.

If you find your mind wandering a lot during practice picture yourself as an observer of your thoughts and emotions that come in. Refocus your mind by saying the word, thinking, or return your mind to your steady image, or center on your breath cycles.

For beginners who are interested in reading more about loving-kindness and healing meditations, this book, Chogyam Trungpa. Training the Mind and Cultivating Loving-Kindness, is a great introduction.

A few things I am excited about are the effects of meditation and concepts of local and distant healing. I recently came across this study on tonglen meditation for cancer patients, and while the results were not statistically significant there were promising trends and improvements in various symptoms and quality of life measures, Pagliaro G et al. A Randomized Controlled Trial of Tong Len Meditation Practice in Cancer Patients: Evaluation of a Distant Psychological Healing Effect. Explore (NY). 2016 Jan-Feb;12(1):42-9

The photograph is of a beautiful redwood forest that I visited in the fall.

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