Susan Letourneau



By Susan Letourneau


Back to Resources

As we look around the world, there is a crisis taking place somewhere every moment, reminding us of the vulnerability we share with every other human on Earth. We are all, literally, in the same boat.

We can send money, food and prayers to the stricken parts of the world, but what do we do with our shock and grief at the death and suffering we witness? Whole villages demolished in distant parts of the world, neighborhoods lost closer to home in the California fires. What do we do with the overwhelming emotions we feel? What do we do if we feel too shut down or overwhelmed to allow ourselves to feel the reality of these horrific situations?

An answer to this question may lie in the Buddhist practice of "tonglen", which is a way of using our bodies to transmute the energy of personal and global suffering through the simple act of breathing in distress and breathing out relief.

The effects of this practice are many. Buddhists believe that through this inch by inch process we can gradually reduce the level of suffering in the world while dramatically diminishing our own. The technique has the effect of penetrating the armor which imprisons the softness of our hearts. The insightful quote: "A man in armor is his armor's slave", reflects the dilemma we find ourselves in when we recognize that the defenses we have so carefully built up over a lifetime of unconsciousness are now holding us hostage. To the degree we are defended, we are not available to life. To the degree we are not available to life, we are deadened and numb.

The practice of tonglen can facilitate the reawakening of our childlike softness and along with it - our joy. You may wonder if this is a good thing - don't we need all those defenses to survive in this world? A Course in Miracles would agree with the Buddhist viewpoint when it says: "My defense lies in my defenselessness." The background to this point of view is the subject of another article, but suffice here to say that if you understand and subscribe to that viewpoint, tonglen is a way for you to begin to move into the softness of your own heart, while helping those suffering everywhere in the world.

In her excellent book, "When Things Fall Apart", Buddhist nun Pema Chodron describes the concept and process of tonglen in detail. In general however, if you would like to experiment with this practice, follow these four steps:

1. Begin by intending to be in a state of openness and stillness.
2. Imagine you are breathing in dense heaviness and breathing out lightness. Imagine your whole body is breathing through all of your pores.
3. Identify a painful situation which you would like to change. Begin to imagine breathing it into your own body, and breathing out relief. If this brings up feelings of fear or inadequacy, breathe in these emotions for the benefit of yourself and all others who may be having similar feelings of fear. Then breathe out confidence or relief or whatever you think might help. Do this until you have a sense of balance between your in breath and out breath.
4. Expand the scope. Imagine you are doing this process for more than one person, more than for yourself, more than for a small group - expand it to larger and larger groups. Do this practice at your own pace and as often as feels right to you. In so doing, you will feel your heart open wider and your compassion expand, and from under that compassion will begin to spring joy.

When I began practicing tonglen, I was nervous about breathing pain into my body, but was amazed at the overwhelming amount of love I felt throughout the process. I realized that the intention we hold impacts the effect of the process on us personally. It is the intention to contribute relief and love which enables us to transmute the pain of ourselves and others.

There is a wonderful chant by Michael Stillwater which is based on the practice of tonglen. Click here to listen and to chant with the song if you wish. You can also use this chant to assist you in the tonglen process.

By participating in tonglen, you will give a great gift to yourself, your fellow man, and to the planet.

Susan Letourneau is a spiritual counsellor who since 1986 has been assisting women to access, and work with, their inner resources. You can reach Susan at


counter in iweb