Using the Buddhist Practice of Tonglen to Transform and Heal the Aloneness of Grief

The funeral has been planned and taken place. The cards and casseroles have stopped coming. Friends have gone back to their daily routines. It has been a month or so since your loved one’s death. Nothing feels the same. You feel alone. You feel like no one can possibly understand the depths of your sadness and despair.

Opening ourselves to our grief, rather than hiding from it, offers the possibility of true growth and transformation. It can be exquisitely painful to lean into one’s grief. Running from it, isolating ourselves, numbing our pain in alcohol, drugs or sleep can be so tempting. How, then, to allow ourselves to feel the pain of grief, and at the same time, let go of self-pity and feelings of aloneness and begin to heal?

A Buddhist meditation practice called tonglen, or “sending and receiving” can be very healing at this time. It is a practice all can do, Buddhist or not. Sogyal Rinpoche, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1994, p. 193), describes tonglen as one of the most “useful and powerful” practices in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition:

When you feel yourself locked in upon yourself, Tonglen
opens you to the truth of the suffering of others; when
your heart is blocked, it destroys those forces that are
obstructing it….[I]t helps you to find within yourself
and then to reveal the loving, expansive radiance of your
own true nature.

The practice of tonglen involves breathing in suffering and breathing out love and compassion for all beings, including yourself. As Sogyal Rinpoche states (p. 195),
“Before you can truly practice Tonglen, you have to be able to evoke compassion in yourself.” You breathe in your own pain and suffering, and breathe out peace, love and compassion for yourself. One way to do this is to imagine breathing in a dark cloud of smoke, and breathing out light. Once you are able to evoke a sense of self-compassion, you can then imagine breathing in the pain and suffering of loved ones, and sending them love and compassion on the outbreath. A natural outgrowth is to extend this sending and receiving to all beings.

The practice of tonglen allows the bereaved to know they are not alone: We all experience loss and grief. It helps us drop the “why me?” of self-pity, which can leave grief stuck in place. Instead of that self-centeredness, a sense of unity and compassion for all can develop.

Leaning into one’s grief through the practice of tonglen can be extremely healing and spiritually transformative. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and other works, such as the writings of Pema Chodron, go into further detail about the practice. In addition, trained meditation instructors in Buddhist centers throughout the world can work with you to deepen your understanding and experience of the practice.

2 thoughts on “Using the Buddhist Practice of Tonglen to Transform and Heal the Aloneness of Grief

  1. Pavlov used a bell to illicit a habitual response from his dogs. Our “memories” have a similar effect on us. A memory arises, and we react to it the same way every time. Tonglen can free us from our self-induced habitual responses and during the process a great compassion will unfold. Sit with a painful memory. Breathe it in and out. Notice how few details there are in the memory. It’s like an old faded photograph in an album. Notice how violent and consistent the reaction to the smallest hint of that scrap of memory is. Breathe it in and out. Sending compassion to it and to yourself. The habitual response will start to fall apart amazingly quickly when exposed to the fresh air, compassion and curiosity of the practice. Then, you can set it, and yourself, free.
    BTW, imo the practice of Tonglin is not unique to Buddhism and can be found in other cultures under different names but with the same basic instructions.

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