Tonglen and the Secret of Empathy

Mother Theresa has one of my favorite quotes, “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love”.


There’s a Buddhist exercise called tonglen. It’s a complex concept, but at its most basic, it involves taking in the pain of others and putting out our own strength.


This idea seems somewhat paradoxical on its face too. Buddhism is a philosophy that seeks freedom from pain. Why would it advocate giving out the strength that we use to fight pain and taking in others’ pain?


On the most basic level, the idea is ethical training. So many of our interactions in society and life are fundamentally pathological, oriented at taking from the other. We interact with people who bag our groceries, and they are as an aperture of a machine to us. We can be kind or we can be cruel to them, but either way the interaction is for our benefit. We demand and need services. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this: We all do need our own things to survive and thrive. But it’s vital to also be able to think about the other and their needs.


But every time I do tonglen practice, I find myself energized. Sometimes I find myself shivering in warmth and joy. It feels like warm water under my skin, like stepping into warm sun after being frigid.


How could this happen? How could letting in darkness and pain be good? How could breathing out our strength be useful?


There are many answers, and they all stem from a similar source.


When I breathe in others’ pain, I remind myself that I am not alone in this world. Others suffer as I do, smile as I do, are joyous as I am. Instead of being an island of cognitions separated from others, I am in fact immersed in them. I am not the only one facing challenges, which means there is not some massive cosmic injustice being perpetrated against me and only me.

When I breathe out my strength, I see how much of it there is. I see how much I have to offer. I am a uniquely strong-willed, empathetic and positive person, but I strongly suspect others will have the same realization. When we reach past the darkness to our light, we often find that we are reaching past a membrane that is so thin it moves away from our grasp.


Human beings need meaning. We find meaning in providing a better life and a better world for each other. Tonglen practice is visualizing that process. It can remind us of the people in life we owe care and love to.

There’s a deep insight about empathy that has to be realized before we can solve the riddle of why tonglen can help the person who is doing it and not just those that their practice is trying to aid. This secret of empathy is going to be a chapter in my upcoming book, Skillful Means, as well as the basis for my book about activism, Radical Empathy.


We as human beings often think about empathy in two ways.


The more shallow way is to imagine the way we would feel in the other person’s shoes. This is a good technique, but it is from our perspective. They might feel differently in the same situation as we might. This is one of the most terrifying aspects of working with other people, seeing a fundamental asymmetry that is not defined by the situation.


The deeper way is to take on their perspective. We actually try to adopt their mindset and value system. This process can be difficult, but it can also occur at a very high level.


Indeed, the level at which this enhanced and focused empathy can occur is so intense that it can lead us to lose ourselves. It can lead to vicarious trauma, where the fact of their damage can change our worldlook. We can feel our optimism decline and our hope dwindle.


The true technique of empathy is the third path. It is the synthesis, the combination.


It’s taking on their approach, and our own.


It’s realizing that our perspectives matter, just as theirs do. Our perspective on their situation may be just as valid as their own.


We and they are not truly different in a robust psychological sense. In actual fact, all of reality is one interconnected whole. Me, the writer, and you, the reader, are sharing a moment, across time and space.


It’s not just about you and me, the monads, the individual units. It’s about the relationship, the dyad. It’s about the network of interrelationships between all of us.


That’s why tonglen feels so profound to us, when we truly care.


Tonglen is a promise.


It’s a promise that we will do everything possible to secure a better future.


In that moment, we are fighting for them. We are fighting for us. We are fighting for everyone.


2 thoughts on “Tonglen and the Secret of Empathy

    • arekexcelsior says:

      Pema Chodron has practical links:


      But it’s honestly very simple.

      Just imagine everything outside of you, the madness and insanity of the world, as darkness.

      Imagine everything inside of you, the love and compassion and strength you have, as golden light.

      Breathe in. Pull in the darkness. Hold onto it. Let it dissolve away.

      Then breathe out. Let that light fill everyone.

      Begin with imagining the people you are closest to. Imagine taking in the pains you know they have, and giving them the strengths you know they have.

      Then imagine zooming out. Imagine the pains of the world.

      This process is just tailor-made to make sure that you are thinking with all of your heart. It simultaneously allows you to count your blessings and imagine the things that you have to stand up against.

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