I became a social justice activist in college in 1999. The model for activists at the time—a model that continues to endure—is that of the activist-as-martyr. We ate, slept, and breathed the issues we were passionate about. We were expected to dedicate our entire lives to these causes. And since activists were paying closest attention to those injustices, an aspect of our culture was to be continually outraged.
I was committed to social justice, but I knew I couldn’t maintain the weight of those expectations. My activism needed to be sustainable.
I had come into yoga as an athlete in college; my first yoga teacher taught me about philosophy, and that hooked me. But when I began to learn about tonglen meditation in my 200-hour yoga teacher training in 2003, I finally found a practice that bridged my social-justice work and my inward-focused practice.
What is tonglen?
A Tibetan practice dating back to the 11th century, tonglen translates as “giving and taking” or “sending and receiving.” It is a practice that encapsulates lovingkindness, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, and generosity. For me, it is clear, embodied instruction about how to relate to the world around me, and how to skillfully position myself in proximity to what Buddhists call the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows of life.
Breathe in love, breathe out love
The basis of the practice is breathing love. I start my tonglen practice by drawing each breath of love in, first to show love to myself in all my identities—as a trans person, as an only child, as a parent, as a yogi. The outbreath instructs me that it is my duty as a seeker of justice to offer love unconditionally to others. Breathing out love is a way to see love in the world, even when situations seem bleak.
Breathe in suffering, breathe out love
The next aspect of tonglen meditation invites us to get close to suffering—our own and that of others. The practice encourages us to see, recognize, and acknowledge harm, even if we don’t already know it through our own lived experience.
This is where we practice bearing witness—to the disproportionate COVID deaths experienced by the most vulnerable among us, to the climate crisis displacing people from their homelands, to the murders of Black and brown siblings by police, to another pipeline being built on Indigenous land, to the many other heart-wrenching realities of our world.
Tonglen also teaches compassion: the courage to pass on love, rather than suffering, even when we have been harmed ourselves. We learn that we have a choice to show love to people and to situations that need healing. That compassion is necessary for the next step.
Breathe in love, breathe out suffering
This next layer of tonglen invites us to draw in the love and beauty in our lives, and allow it to help us let go of our pain, to heal our wounds, and to forgive. I breathe in the love of my trans siblings. I breathe out the suffering of having been fired by a yogic institution for being trans. I breathe in queer brilliance, innovation, dignity, and vision. I breathe out my shame, my rage. I breathe in the courageous work being done by survivors of sexual violence. I breathe out my anger at my own perpetrators. This outpouring may be accompanied by tears, shaking, shivering, or sweating as the body releases what needs to go.
This is a practice of nourishment and discharge—drawing in what gives you strength and letting go of personal forms of suffering to free your own heart. You keep breathing deeply to stabilize your nervous system.
Breathe in love, breathe out love
At the final stage in the practice, we return to breathing love. Breathing in love, we practice gratitude. I breathe in gratitude for the BIPOC seed savers who collected the seeds for the veggies in my garden, for my “transcestors” at the Stonewall Riots who fought for LGBTQ+ rights, for South Asian yogis reclaiming the practice, for queer parents navigating heteronormativity and homophobia in schools, for white antiracist ancestors whose paths I can learn from.
Breathing out love, we practice generosity, knowing that the beauty and brilliance of this world needs to be shared, not hoarded. We give because we were given to. It is our responsibility to keep energy flowing, to level out disparities.
How to practice tonglen meditation
- Sit for a few minutes, watching your breath. Then repeat inwardly, “breathing in love, breathing out love,” as you inhale and exhale. Continue for about five minutes.
- Shift the words to “breathing in suffering, breathing out love.” You might consider a specific suffering you’re bearing witness to, or let it be vague, committing yourself to bear witness when suffering presents itself. If you become overwhelmed, look around the room you’re in and identify three things unique to that space, take a deep breath, and rub your hands on your thighs or upper arms, coming back to the here and now. Continue for five minutes.
- When you feel grounded, shift the words to “breathing in love, breathing out suffering,” and work with that for five minutes, again perhaps exploring specific love you’re working to let in, or specific wounds you’re healing. Limit stories that you’re letting go of.
- Return to “breathing in love, breathing out love.” Focus on breathing in brilliance, creativity, and everything that makes life worth living. Breathe out all of the goodness you’ve been given—the privilege, the resources, the opportunities. Commit with your very breath to share, to offer it up for all beings, not to hold onto it for yourself. When you’ve worked with that for five minutes, return to simply watching the breath moving in and out, letting it be enough.
Jacoby Ballard is a social-justice educator and yoga teacher in Salt Lake City, and author of the just-released A Queer Dharma: Yoga and Meditations for Liberation.