Anti-Intuitive, I Know: If You Breathe in Pain You Can Diffuse It and Make Way For Hope

The pain of others, that is.

Who would want to breathe in, inhale, suck up the pain, illness, and damage that’s in others? Eww. That was the train of thought that started, reactively, in my mind as I read a really interesting (and life-enhancing) article, “Love & Emptiness,” in the magazine Shambhala Sun. (The January 2011 issue, which I bought on a desperate, raw whim while waiting in the checkout line at Whole Foods.) It was written by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and his article stuck with me. Here’s the article itself.

Still. Even if it would help someone else to have me inhale their pain or disease, like, what would it do to me? Where would the “material” that I inhale and remove from them go in me? Is “it” contagious? (A consumerist, literalist view, I realize.) I’m used to thinking of that which I inhale or take into my body as becoming part of me, in me, mingling with my chemistry.

It was once explained to me (by a friend, not a scientist nor zoologist) that the difference between “healer” cats and their canine contemporaries, is that when a dog lifts his companion’s pain, grief, or anxiety, it stays in the dog. But when cats heal (like out cat Freyja, who sleeps on my abdomen when I have cramps–no joke) the junk they lift from us passes right through them! My friend said that dogs can become quite low and sluggish if they absorb too much misery–they take it on like a, well, like a co-dependent and can’t just let the pain roll off their backs. Whether or not you believe in any of that, you get what I’m saying–that some entities absorb while others are conduits.

It’s the conduit phenomenon that I’m talking about here. I’m a conduit, not a Hoover.

This exchange, by which you draw in then breathe out (draw in dark and breathe out light) is called tonglen. In Tibetan, “tong” means ‘send’ and “len” means ‘to get’. So, for you tech-minded folks, think packet exchange.

I walked by a homeless person on the street in San Francisco and tried it out, by thinking “there’s pain in him,” while inhaling deeply and by thinking, “I care about humanity” as I exhaled. It was like a tiny, peaceful meditation. I felt like I was possibly cultivating my intuition, too.

Here’s what Sakyong writes:

“With a basic understanding of tonglen practice, we begin to draw in the pain of others and send out goodness. We can practice this exchange in many ways. For instance, we can do it specifically for someone who is ill, taking in that person’s suffering and claustrophobia and breathing out spaciousness. We do that by visualizing the in-breath as heavy and the out-breath as light, drawing in negative energy and sending out love.”

From the perspective of adult children or people who grew up with rigid or narcissistic parents, there’s going to be a natural and practically predictable reaction to this (like my own resistance, above). That’s because we were conditioned from such a young age to suck up our own true feelings and project what others demanded of us–we grew up doing a very disturbing, unhealthy version of holding breath/exhaling lies. There’s going to be a natural resistance to the idea that we inhale the problems of others, that we are “responsible” for healing them. But, that’s not how tonglen works.

I see now why this practice so resonated with me. It provides a freedom that is foreign to us, that threatens to rape our emotions but doesn’t and which gives us, bodily, deeply, the opportunity to feel healed while healing another. I believe that a lot of us get stuck in comparing our pain to the pain of others and relating to the world from our pain because it’s our earliest experience in life and came to be part of our identity. We sometimes want to be regarded as fragile and treated gently, and other times as if we are warriors who happen to have no scars. Our pain seems (seems) humongous and all-encompassing, but isn’t it too often the case that we forget all the pain of others, which is also real and valid (and fleeting) and that there really is much room in us to inhale the pain, misfortune, aches, and disappointments of others–particularly when it helps, not harms, us to do so?


I thought about my mother-in-law far away and her second hip surgery, and I held a mental picture of her lying in her bed, and inhaled a fraction of her pain, then I imagined her healed and taking a nature walk while I exhaled. I felt I was sending her hope. It also effectively dispelled my worries about how bored and restless she is, waiting to heal.

Also from the article:

“Tonglen is a very potent practice that helps us develop confidence in kindness and compassion. It brings sanity to us and to others because it provides a practical way of working with our mind. For example, if we are calmly practicing tonglen for someone who is close to us, we are not spinning out of control with worry about what could happen to them.”

As people who are sometimes given to imagining that our care, advice, and worry about another person will actually control the outcome (bwahahaha), this is a revelation–this, tonglen, provides an activity to give us something actually productive to do, one that allows us to control only own own mind and intentions and let go of the outcome, one that fully engages our mind and spirit.

Here’s the deal, say that you look over at a guy on your bus, or a woman driving in the car next to you on the freeway; when you sense his anxiety, or his worry or stress, and breathe in that generous, humane thought of “let me remove that from you” and exhale hope and ease onto them, do you know what you’re doing? It’s remarkable because you are lifting your own agony, truly, and you are giving your own self hope. Both. To you and to that other human being. That’s the magic. That’s the mystery. The difference between you, me, and them is indistinguishable in that moment.

The next time you are a witness to pain, wretchedness, or hardship, give this small spiritual trading of dark for light (a kiss of spirits) a try!

Be kind to yourself.


  1. [...] This reminds me, for it is compassion-forward, of the tonglen practice of breathing hope into the suffering of another person. I wrote about my understanding of tonglen here in this previous post. [...]

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