One of the first meditation techniques I learned was tonglen, a buddhist practice of giving and receiving compassion. One of my favorite buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, describes tonglen this way:
The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.
This traditional practice involves breathing in suffering and breathing out compassion. As you inhale, you imagine that you are inhaling suffering — it can be your own suffering, the suffering of someone you know, or the suffering of the world. You take it in and then exhale imagining compassion and well-being emanating from your breath, the suffering having been transformed.
In his book, Just One Thing, Rick Hanson explains that practicing compassion helps strengthen those neural pathways, making them more accessible and automatic when you need them. Moreover, practicing receiving compassion primes you to give it, and vice versa.
This week’s video meditation plays with Hanson’s prescription for practicing compassion. Do it for yourself. Give it a try!