Sending and Receiving
A Tibetan technique for responding to negativity.
Posted Jul 21, 2020
We all face negativity in life. We’re confronted with people who are careless, selfish, and even malicious. Ideally we could respond calmly, with grace and compassion, but in the moment it’s easy to get carried away and respond in ways that are unproductive for everyone involved.
Sending and receiving is an imaginative visualization technique that aims to retrain our ingrained habits when confronted with life’s difficulties. It aims at altering how you respond to negativity and helps you to see yourself as a transformational force, one that changes hostility into compassion. In it, you imaginatively receive the badness out in the world and change it into goodwill and compassion, which you send back out.
Where did it originate?
Known in Tibetan as Tonglen (written as gtong-len and pronounced like “tong lane”) sending and receiving is sometimes also translated as giving and taking. It is part of a family of techniques for transforming psychological habits called Lojong (written as blo-sbyong and pronounced like “low-jong”) meaning Mind Training.
These practices began in India around 900 CE and are associated with the Indian Buddhist thinker Atiśa and later developed by important Tibetan figures like Langri Tangpa and Chekawa Yeshe Dorje. More on the origin and context of these techniques can be found in the work of Thubten Jinpa, particularly his Essential Mind Training and his edited collection of primary texts called Mind Training: The Great Collection.
The transformation of negativity is a common theme in Tibetan Buddhism. A classic image is that of a peacock. In some Western cultures, because of its huge and colorful feathers, it’s a symbol of vanity and pride. In a Tibetan and Indian context, however, it represents something very different. The peacock is thought to be able to eat things that are poisonous for other creatures. This makes it an evocative symbol of transformation: it is something able to take nourishment from things that would be harmful to others. It thrives on things that would be toxic to others and even draws strength from them.
Of course these techniques developed in the context of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice. Though they can be beneficial outside of that context, it is important to be thoughtful about how applying them in a modern context can change the meaning and effectiveness of the technique.
How do you do it?
When starting out with this practice, you first focus on a particular person you know who is in pain or has a bad trait. Maybe it’s someone you know dealing with illness or loss. Maybe it is someone who has a lot of destructive rage or hatred. As you progress you can expand what you take on, but it’s best to be more focused at first.
Now imagine the suffering or bad traits as thick, black smog. Alternate versions of this technique have you picture it as murky, dirty water. What’s important is that you picture it as a tangible and polluted substance, a dark cloud of smoke is very common and works particularly well with breathing since it’s easy to imagine breathing it in.
As you inhale, picture yourself taking this dark smog into your body. Not just into your mouth and nose, but deep into your core. With each breath you take in more and more until you have it all in you. You imagine this smog eating away at the selfishness in you. Some versions involve picturing this selfishness as a hardened crust around your heart, which the smog dissolves, revealing a bright, white light.
As the smog touches this bright light inside you it changes. It turns from dark smoke into the same shining and brilliant light. Variations on the imagery are common: the smog might become white, fluffy clouds. If you pictured dirty water, it’s changed into delicious nectar. As before, what’s important is that you picture the smog changing into a concrete and tangible good thing. Picture the transformation as vividly and clearly as you can: picture exactly how the bright light looks and imagine in detail how the smog or dirty water looks as it changes.
Finally, as you exhale, picture sending this light or nectar out to the person you chose and to all others with the same difficulties. Your breath carries this healing substance out into the world, going everywhere and helping those in need. Some variations have you picture this light radiating out from each of your pores, lighting up everything. Whatever imagery works best for you, it functions as a visual representation of accepting their misery and negativity, changing it into happiness and support, and sending back to them.
As you get more comfortable with this technique you can start to expand the range of negativity that you take in. You can expand beyond people you know to include those in faraway places or non-human animals. You can also expand the range of bad things you receive. You can take in physical and emotional pain or even You can even take in people’s bad traits: things like selfishness, greed, and cruelty.
In all of these cases, you imagine whatever badness you’re focused on in a vivid and visual way as smoke, sludge, or smog. You then picture taking it in and transforming it into clouds, light, or nectar. Finally, you picture sending this newly changed goodness out to everyone.
How does it work?
At its heart, this practice is about getting used to the idea of being a transformative force in the world, one with the power to change things that suck about life into goodwill and compassion. This is very different from how most of us usually respond to harsh and aggressive things that come our way. It runs counter to a common tendency to take what is good and leave bad things for others to deal with. The point here is to flip our usual habits and cultivate the courage to take on these bad things in a secure and productive way. Not in a way that is draining, but in a way that actually sustains us and gives strength.
You might wonder if you’ll actually feel worse by taking in all this negativity. This would definitely be true if you only did the first part of the exercise, but since you also imagine transforming and giving back to others, it shouldn’t make you feel worse overall. This technique does have an aspect of toughening up, the way a doctor might need to get over feeling woozy at the sight of blood or injured people in order to help them.
Of course, the real measure of success is whether it actually changes your responses in beneficial ways. If it makes you feel overwhelmed or demoralized, then it might not be the right technique for you, at least not right now. As with many Buddhist techniques, it assumes a natural tendency to over-protect ourselves and an indifference to others. Not everyone has this; some people are too invested in others. If this is true, you might try a variation where you take on your own future pain and problems and send compassion to your future self.
It’s important to keep in mind that the point is not to load up on the burdens of everyone else. Nor is it to make you feel smug and superior about your own altruism. If this technique works, it will help to change your relation to others and the negativity we all face every day. It will help you to see past the illusion of a persisting self, fighting the fundamental tendency to take things personally. It will make you more open and connected with others, even those you don’t particularly like.
This post was adapted from Seeing Clearly: A Buddhist Guide to Life.
Thubten Jinpa. (2011). Essential Mind Training. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Thubten Jinpa ed. (2006). Mind Training: The Great Collection. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.