Using Tonglen to Relieve Spiritual Suffering

What is tonglen? And how can tonglen relieve spiritual suffering and more?

Suffering or pain can take on different forms when living with chronic illness, or caring for someone with a chronic condition. There is physical pain from a disease process. Or mental pain from worry, anxiety, overwhelm, or depression. Our spiritual health can suffer if we are struggling to accept what has happened or a new normal.

On this website, I talk about ways to live as well as possible with chronic illness or caregiver stress. I focus on strategies that either relieve suffering or build the skills of well-being.

Tonglen is a Buddhist meditation practice that can do both.

silhouette of man sitting on grass field at daytime represents someone using tonglen to relieve spiritual suffering when living with chronic illness or caregiver stress.
Photo by Spencer Selover on

When we are in pain, it is human nature to resist the suffering. For example, we may try to avoid it or deny that it exists. We may be fearful of suffering or confused about it. It is our inclination, then, to keep pain at bay as much as possible.

Tonglen flips that idea and encourages us to acknowledge the pain of others or yourself. And not only to acknowledge that pain is present, but to embrace it.

to send and Receive

The word tonglen means to send and receive. In this meditation practice, you acknowldge suffering with each breath you take in. With each breath out, you send thoughts of goodwill to those in pain. For example, thoughts of kindness, compassion, solidarity, or love. Tonglen can be used to reflect on the suffering of others. But it is also effective to help us work through our own areas of pain.

Pema Chödrön, a well-known American Buddhist teacher, says of tonglen:

“Focus on any painful situation that’s real to you. Traditionally you begin by doing tonglen for someone you care about and wish to help. However, if you are stuck, you can do the practice for the pain you are feeling yourself, and simultaneously for all those who feel the same kind of suffering.”

Pema Chödrön

Similarly, Toni Bernhard, author of How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness, uses tonglen to help with feelings of loneliness. “Tonglen is a powerful way to feel connected to others; this helps ease the emotional pain that often accompanies isolation…I realized that tonglen was a two-for-one compassion practice: I wasn’t just cultivating kindness, compassion, and peace for others for whom isolation was painful; I was cultivating it for myself.”

Formal tonglen has 4 stages that include resting the mind, visualization, and breathing. (For more detail on the formal method, click here.)

But tonglen can be less formal too. I use tonglen at night when my mind is racing with worries and I can’t fall asleep. For example, I practice tonglen when I am worried about one of my children. As I breathe in, I receive the worry of other mothers who are struggling in the same way. I send thoughts of encouragement and understanding on my breath out.

As I continue to breathe, I let my mind expand. I think of other examples of pain that I saw that day. For instance, a client with a difficult situation. Civil unrest on the news. A family grieving over a lost loved one. I receive the suffering of each on my breath in. And send thoughts of support or compassion on my breath out. In 5-10 minutes, I have calmed my mind from my own problems. In addition, I have grown in compassion and empathy for the suffering of others.


There are great challenges when living with chronic illness. For example, finding meaning in the suffering. Or accepting a new normal that is stressful and difficult. The pain you are feeling may be your own or a loved one’s. In some cases, both. Tonglen is one technique that you can try to relieve the pain by acknowledging it. In addition, it can help you build skills of well-being like compassion and connecting to community.

Tip: Do you have a difficult time falling asleep at night? Try a combination of tonglen with 4-7-8 breathing. 4-7-8 breathing is a technique used to help calm anxieties and worries and induce sleep. The basic technique is to breathe in deeply for a count of 4 seconds. Hold your breath for 7 seconds. Then breathe out slowly for 8 seconds.

When I combine 4-7-8 breathing with tonglen, I breathe in for 4 seconds. Next, I reflect on someone’s suffering for the 7 seconds in which I hold my breath. Then, I send my thoughts of kindness and compassion during the 8 seconds that I let out my breath. I repeat this exercise for 5-10 minutes. At the end, I have not only calmed my mind, but my body feels relaxed and more ready to fall asleep.

Do you enjoy reading articles like this? Check out more articles from my weekly blog.

Disclaimer: This blog is a resource through which you may obtain information regarding your health and wellness.  Information is intended for the general reader and is not a substitute for medical advice.  The content in this blog is intended to be informational only and not interpreted as specific advice for you.  There may be delays, omissions, or inaccuracies in information contained in this blog. You should always consult with a licensed healthcare professional who is familiar with your health and past medical history before making any changes you may read about in this blog.

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