In his book The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, with HH Dalai Lama, Howard C. Cutler shares the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tong-Len (giving and receiving) as taught by His Holiness Dalai Lama.
‘This afternoon, let us meditate on the practice of Tong-Len, “giving and receiving.” This practice is meant to help train the mind, to strengthen the natural power and force of compassion. This is achieved because Tong-Len meditation helps counteract our selfishness. It increases the power and strength of our mind by enhancing our courage to open ourselves to others’ suffering.
‘To begin this exercise, first visualise on one side of you a group of people who are in desperate need of help, those who are in an unfortunate state of suffering, those living under conditions of poverty, hardship, and pain. Visualise this group of people on one side of you clearly in your mind. Then, on the other side, visualise yourself as the embodiment of a self-centered person, with a customary selfish attitude, indifferent to the well-being and needs of others. And then in between this suffering group of people and this selfish representation of you see yourself in the middle, as a neutral observer.
‘Next, notice which side you are naturally inclined toward. Are you more inclined towards that single individual, the embodiment of selfishness? Or, do your natural feelings of empathy reach out to the group of weaker people who are in need? If you look objectively, you can see the well-being of a group or large number of individuals is more important than that of one single individual.
‘After that, focus your attention on the needy and desperate people. Direct all your positive energy to them. Mentally give them your success, your resources, your collection of virtues. And after you have done that, visualize taking upon yourselves their suffering, their problems, and all their negativities.
‘For example, you can now visualize an innocent starving child from Somalia and feel how you would respond naturally to that sight. In this instance, when you experience a deep feeling of empathy towards the suffering of that individual, it isn’t based on considerations like “He’s my relative”, or “She’s my friend.” You don’t even know that person. But the fact that the other person is a human being and you, yourself are a human being allows your natural capacity for empathy to emerge and enable you to reach out. So you can visualize something like that and think, “This child has no capacity of his or her own to be able to relieve himself or herself from his or her present state of hardship.” Then, mentally take upon yourself all the suffering of poverty, starvation, and the feeling of deprivation, and mentally give your facilities, wealth, and success to this child. So, through practicing this kind of “giving and receiving” visualisation, you can train your mind.
‘When engaging in this practice it is sometimes helpful to begin by first imagining your own future suffering and, with an attitude of compassion, take your own future suffering upon yourself right now, with the sincere wish of freeing yourself from all future suffering. After you gain some practice in generating a compassionate state of mind towards yourself, you can then expand the process to include taking on the suffering of others.
‘When you do the visualization of “taking upon yourself” it is useful to visualize these sufferings, problems, and difficulties in the form of poisonous substances, dangerous weapons, or terrifying animals – things the very sight of which makes you shudder. So, visualize the suffering in these forms, and then absorb them directly into your heart.
‘The purpose of visualizing these negative and frightening forms being dissolved into our hearts is to destroy our habitual selfish attitudes that reside there. However, for those individuals who may have problems with self image, self-hatred, anger towards themselves, or low self-esteem, then it is important to judge for themselves whether this particular practise may be appropriate or not. It may not be.
‘This Tong-Len practice can become quite powerful if you combine the “giving and receiving” with the breath, that is, imagine “receiving” when inhaling and “giving” when exhaling. When you do this visualization effectively, it will make you feel some slight discomfort. That is an indication that it is hitting its target – the self-centered, egocentric attitude that we normally have. Now, let us meditate.’