by Doug Sundheim
It’s a wonderful paradox of life. One of the best ways to help yourself is to help others.
This truism is particularly powerful in times of high anxiety because it interrupts a classic vicious cycle. The more we focus on ourselves, the more we worry. And the more we worry, the more we focus on ourselves.
One technique for breaking this cycle is Tonglen, an ancient meditation practice focused on holding anxiety for others. On its face it seems ludicrous. If we’re feeling anxious why add to it? In practice, I’ve found it has the opposite effect. By holding others’ anxiety, we get out of our own head. We see our worry in context. Moreover, the simple process of connecting to others’ humanity reminds us of our own, strengthening our connection and compassion.
You can find a variety of guidelines online for practicing Tonglen. Many are from Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who has popularized the technique over the last twenty years.
Below is how I practice it.
- Find a quiet space – You want to be alone and uninterrupted for at least 10-15 minutes.
- Rest your mind — (~30 seconds) Get comfortable. Begin to breathe deeply and calmly. In through your nose, out through your mouth.
- Visualize what you’re experiencing — (~1 minute) Get in touch with the worry you’re currently experiencing. Just notice it. Be honest. You don’t have to look good here. I’ve found it’s helpful to say the anxieties out loud in a low whisper. It allows me to understand what I’m currently grappling with. Ensure to keep breathing deeply and calmly throughout.
- Breathe in negative feelings, breathe out positive feelings — (~3 minutes) There are many ways to do this step. Using words works for me. I breathe in the negative things I’m telling myself about the situation at my worst moments (this will never work, it’s going to be a disaster etc). I feel the uncomfortable heat of the anxiety. Then I breathe out the positive things I tell myself about the situation at my best moments (everything in life moves in cycles, with good intentions things work out). I feel the calmer coolness of decreased anxiety. As I keep breathing in and out, I reconnect to the idea that I’m creating my own reality on a moment-to-moment basis with my thoughts. Every moment I have a choice.
- Visualize others who are experiencing what you’re experiencing — (~3 minutes) Who is also feeling what you’re feeling? Start with those closest to you. Family members, close friends, people in your organization or community. See their faces. Imagine what they are possibly feeling. Stand in their shoes.
- Breathe in their negative feelings, send them positive feelings (~3 minutes) — On the in breath, breathe in what others are worrying about and might be telling themselves at their worst moments. Feel compassion for them. On the out breathe, send them something. Strength, love, understanding, compassion etc.
- Expand the sending and receiving (~3 minutes) — In the final moments of the meditation, expand #’s 5 and 6 out to a broader population. Visualize people in other parts of the world who are also experiencing a similar anxiety. Breathe in their negative thoughts and send them strength, love, understanding, compassion.
After 15 minutes, you can find this simple process has taken you out of your own head, expanded your thinking, and connected you with others. And chances are your anxiety will have decreased some. Like any training it’s a muscle you can continue to practice and strengthen over time.
As I’ve practiced it over the years it’s reminded me how universal my experience is. That others have been here before me. And that all conditions are fleeting. When I’m on edge, it’s helped me feel calmer, more collected, and better able to be the leader I need to be in that moment.