To start on this path one must develop compassion for all beings, even those who we may find challenging or perhaps even repugnant, due to their actions or words.  These challenging people are in fact our most important teachers, because without them, we have no opportunity to practice patience, generosity and compassion.

Taking on the suffering of others is a challenging practice, particularly when you consider it in the abstract.  However, this is a practice that many of us perform on a regular basis, without being aware that that is what we are doing.  Parenthood, for example, involves a large amount of taking on the sufferings of others. Caring for the elderly, particularly family members also involves this practice.  Thus, many of us are consistently taking on the suffering of others, even if we are not aware that we are practicing compassion.

Tonglen – sometimes called a practice of exchange or loving-kindness meditation, is a way that you can practice taking on the suffering of others. One of my teachers reminded me that with regular practice one can start to truly understand the nature of impermanence, particularly with respect to how it relates to our ego-based categorizations of the people in our lives.  Tonglen practice is fundamentally about taking on the suffering of others, and sending them for example: love, goodwill, healing energy, the merits of your positive actions.

Before you start, chose someone who you find it easy to send or give love to.

Sit quietly with an erect spine, relaxed hands and closed eyes, and allow your mind to settle on your breath.
After a few minutes, visualize the person who is your focus for Tonglen today and turn your attention to your heart center.  Imagine that it is full of a white, healing light.
Breathe in hot, dark smoke, through every pore of your body – the pain and suffering of the person you picked. As you exhale, send that person the bright, white, healing light from your heart center.
Continue this for at least five minutes.

This practice becomes more challenging when your focus becomes those people in your life who you find particularly challenging.  One way to progress through this practice is to start with someone you love, then move to someone who is neutral in your life – perhaps someone who served you coffee this morning, and finally moving to someone who you dislike.  You can also include yourself – many of us find it particularly hard to have compassion towards ourselves.

If you practice diligently, you might find that the people who fall into these categories changes.  Perhaps that person you disliked moves into the neutral category.  This was my experience – the person who was in the seriously dislike category, became neutral after three months of practices.  This helped me immensely because this person no longer took up valuable real estate in my mind and I was able to let go of the immense anger I had held on to about the way this person had behaved towards me.  Perhaps with continued practice this person will shift into the love category!

Ultimately, the goal is to treat all people equally and compassionately, not reserving special treatment for only a few people.  How do we get there? By practicing! As with all things, practice, practice, practice.

©Tamsin Astor-Jack, Yoga Brained LLC