I first read about tonglen in Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. I don’t consider myself to be anything but a beginner in the practice – but you have to start somewhere, right?
Tonglen is a meditation to help build compassion for yourself by connecting with other suffering. It encourages you to accept your feelings for what they are and not to run from them. Feelings are fleeting, we all know this, but when we hold on to them we create suffering. By focusing on the feelings – even the negative ones – and walking into the feeling – we soften it.
For example, if you are feeling alone or lonely, you can begin tonglen by thinking about someone who may be feeling lonely also. Your practice would begin by breathing in all of the bad feelings that this person may be feeling – the sadness, loneliness, hurt and pain. You take away their suffering by breathing it in so that they may experience some relief. As you breathe out, you send them positive feelings – like love, compassion, and connectedness. You would continue this practice for a few breaths and eventually turn the focus onto yourself. Breathe in the negative feelings, breathe out positive loving kindness. I find it helpful with many meditations to visualize colors. Breathe in the hot, red feelings. Breathe out the cool, blue and light ones.