Active Compassion – The Agency of Inner Practice

Welcome to the sixth session of this eight session series on Engaged Mindfulness. This is the last session in cultivating compassion. The topic is Active Compassion where we explore the relationship between our inner practice and compassionate action. We will also engaged in the meditative practice of tonglen, which can be done formally or on the spot, for ourselves or for others.

Opening Meditation

Listen to the guided meditation or read the description below. Set a timer for as long as you like to sit. May this practice be supportive and nourishing.

I invite you to settle into your physical and virtual space by looking around. Notice what is on your walls, the light, sounds, etc. Take a deep breath in as you experience physiological safety. 

If it helps you feel more at ease, gently close your eyes for these next few moments while you check in with yourself. How are you feeling right now? And whatever you are feeling is fine, see if you can gently notice it without wanting it to be anything other than it is. 

What is most important is to take care inside, that you are resourced and available to respond in line with your values. This is the essence of mindfulness and compassion practice. 

As you continue to ground yourself, establish your home base through an anchor either in the breath, body or perhaps your physical surroundings, you can experience stability within all the noise inside and outside. 

This felt-sense of safety makes it easier for us to listen to what’s important to us, to listen to the wisdom of our hearts. I invite you to place a hand over your heart center to access your care response and to further ground yourself. Asking –

  • What is most important to me as I walk through these times?
  • How do I want to show up?
  • What is needed right now?

If no answers arise, that is ok too. See if you can just rest within the questions like Rumi says, “Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” 


Sharon Salzberg advises, “In order to do anything about the suffering of the world we must have the strength to face it without turning away.” This is compassionate action. And our inner practice, mindfulness, steadies us so that we can cultivate the courage and strength required to face suffering.

If you recall from last week, I shared the equation empathy + impulse to relieve suffering = compassion. 

We explored how deepening our understanding of our shared humanity (the fundamental truth that we all aspire to be happy and free from pain, etc.), helps us grow our willingness or impulse to alleviate the suffering of others, even those we do not know or see as different than ourselves. 

Additionally, two weeks ago we explored the 3 elements of self-compassion (mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness). As we tend to and befriend our inner landscape, we open courageously to our vulnerability and gain a deeper awareness of ourselves.

A profound benefit of these practices is that we wake up to our agency or what Salzberg defines as “that purposeful, embodied, heartfelt movement from deep within…It’s like the ignition being turned on. We care for ourselves and others and don’t stop caring. Now we breathe vitality into that caring…and we cease being a bystander to life.”

As our inner practice turns outward, we see this potential to wake up in others; thus, we are more sensitive and understanding of other’s pain. And our impulse to relieve this pain becomes undeniable.

Our practice, by its nature, turns into social transformation because our hearts become vehicles for change. We become the driver for compassionate action. 

“Breathe it all in, love it all out,” writes poet Mary Oliver. This is the essence of the Tibetan practice Tonglen, also known as “giving and receiving.” Tong means sending out or letting go, and len means receiving or accepting.

Through the use of our imagination and respiratory system, we can practice transforming suffering throughout our bodies and minds via the wisdom and resilience of our heart. This practice supports us in staying present with difficult feelings, relationships, and experiences. 

Think about being outside on an extremely cold day. You breathe in cool or frigid air and it leaves as warm air. This is why we can see our breath. The air in a sense is transformed in our bodies, we do not hold on to it, yet our bodies are capable of this transformation. The same is true for this practice in compassionate action or tonglen. Our hearts act like a filter rather than sponge.

We begin by opening up to suffering, in so much that we can hold it and feel it. We call upon our mindfulness to ground us, to steady us, so that we may skillfully and safely turn toward suffering. 

In this practice, we imaginatively take in, breathe in, the suffering and pain of another or ourselves. This can be pictured as fog, a dark cloud, or whatever image is accessible for you. 

Staying anchored in our bodies and in the present moment, we then shift our focus to alleviating that suffering through lovingkindness and care. We do this by giving or sending, breathing out, good wishes, happiness, joy, well-being, etc., to this person(s). We may imagine this as fluffy clouds or bright rays of light, all of which dissolve into the bodies of those whose suffering we have just taken in and transformed. 

We can engage in this practice for ourselves or for others. For example, I have engaged in tonglen while sitting with my upset teenager as she shares her heavy heart. While I listen to her, I imagine breathing in her pain and breathing out ease and comfort. While I may not be able to take away her pain, I can turn towards it with love and care. I can fulfill my impulse to alleviate while not being overwhelmed by the pain. Another example is when we see from afar people suffering whether that be an ill parent in another state or the number of Covid-19 deaths rise. We can stay present with the suffering even when we cannot physically due something in that moment.

This practice reminds us of our strength, stability, and most importantly our agency to help ourselves and others. When we feel helpless, we can turn to this practice so that we do not lose ourselves in the suffering; instead, we engage with the suffering in supportive, skillful and safe ways. A benefit is that we are more likely to seek out ways to address suffering on a bigger scale – societally, politically, even psychologically.

I cannot say this enough: We do not just practice for ourselves! We practice for others. Through our mindfulness and self-compassion, we no longer turn away from the challenges of our day.

I invite you to place a hand on your heart center, and allow the words from poet Danna Faulds to support and inspire you as we move into the practice of tonglen.

I breathe in All That Is-
Awareness expanding
to take everything in,
as if my heart beats
the world into being.
From the unnamed vastness beneath the mind,
I breathe my way into wholeness and healing.
Inhalation. Exhalation.
Each Breath a “yes,”
and a letting go, a journey, and a coming home.

Meditation – Tonglen Practice

Informal Practice

Tonglen on the Spot: As you go about your day and a difficulty comes up, try doing tonglen for yourself — breathe in the difficulty that is already there, and breathe out fresh air. Breathe in any unpleasantness you already experience, and transform it into peace and joy as you breathe out.

“Whenever you bear witness to suffering in your daily life, do Tonglen for one to three breaths. For example, if someone yells at someone else on the street, breathe in the argument and breathe out understanding. You can also do this for yourself if someone hurts your feelings. It can just be as quick as one cycle or breath. You don’t have to stop what you are doing; just invest enough energy to stay present with the suffering on the spot without overanalyzing it. In my experience, doing Tonglen on the spot even three times within a busy day builds the heart muscle of compassion in a truly transformative way.”
~Ethan Nichtern, from How to Live With More Love a Lion’s Roar Magazine Special Edition

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