Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a session on Tonglen meditation hosted by the Muti-Faith Center. I’ve had a lot of great opportunities to experiment with and improve my meditation skills through events put on by the MFC, but this was a unique experience and one that I found extremely interesting. Dr. Khenpo, who instructed us throughout the session, provided a brief explanation of what exactly Tonglen means to help us understand the practice we were participating in.
The word “tonglen” is seen as meaning “giving something good to people while taking from them a burden, or something that doesn’t serve them.” Whereas my previous experience with meditation often involved contemplating the self and looking inwards, this type of meditation focuses on others and channeling energy towards them. It is an act of mental focus rather than a form of relaxation and the goal is to serve someone or something outside of the self. Dr. Khenpo likened it to loving-kindness meditation, another practice that focuses on giving to others through contemplative practice.
The physical practice of this type of meditation was anchored in the breath, as is common, but implements a unique breathing technique. We were invited to begin by covering our right nostril and inhaling through the left, then covering the left nostril and exhaling through the right. We repeated this cycle a few times and ended by pressing our fists into our stomach, exhaling through both nostrils. Following the pattern of the breath, on the inhale imagine taking suffering and on the exhale, imagine giving best wishes, good thoughts and positive energy for happiness, wealth, freedom etc. The cycle of giving and taking that characterizes Tonglen meditation is centered on the breath.
As many of you are no doubt aware, we are currently living through a geo-political crisis unlike one we’ve seen in the West for quite some time. I, personally, have been struggling with immense feelings of helplessness as I see social media updates and news reports about the constant death and destruction in addition to grappling with the continuous reality of a global pandemic. Learning about this meditation form has given me something to hold on to.
Even though it can’t do much and is a small action in the grand scheme of things, there may be value in the act of holding the hope for healing and for peace, at least letting people know they are not alone. Practicing tonglen meditation was both a unique and fulfilling experience and another way to practice generosity through the giving of the spirit.
The MFC has a number of great events planned for the rest of the semester, one of which is happening next week! “Faith on the Margins – International Women’s Day Event” celebrates International Women’s Day by discussing the intersections of gender rights, justice and spirituality. For any of you who are interested I’d highly recommend checking it out!