Send and Receive Compassion

Practice of the Week
Send and Receive Compassion

Compassion literally means "to feel passion with." Passion means pain. Compassion is the willingness to feel pain with another, to feel another's pain as one's own.

We usually think of compassion as something sweet and nice, positive and wonderful. Everybody wants to be compassionate. And it's true -- compassion feels good. But we overlook the fact that compassion is also essentially a painful feeling.

Feeling another's pain as our own is painful. And it turns out that it's impossible to take in the pain of another unless we are able to take in our own pain. And most of us are not so good at accepting our own pain. We prefer to deny it or distract ourselves from it. We are so intent on making our own pain go away that we don't allow ourselves to feel it. We can't take it in. Consequently we are incapable of feeling another's pain, so we are incapable of actual compassion, although we may think we are quite compassionate.

If you've ever been ill, physically or emotionally, or otherwise in need of compassionate caring, you may have noticed that many people will offer help and kind words, but somehow most of these offerings seem either insincere or otherwise to miss the mark. They don't feel good; they don't help. It is as if these people, though they clearly mean well and their offers are touching, are not capable of really receiving your pain. They want to make you feel better, help you somehow by offering remedies and recommendations or cheerful words or distracting gifts, but they seem unable or unwilling to do what you need them to do: to simply feel and acknowledge your pain. They want to be compassionate, but they can't seem to do that, and so their presence makes you feel more lonely and isolated in your misfortune.

This is because they are actually terrified of their own pain. And you can feel that they are also terrified of your pain, even though, of course, they would never say so and may not even realize they are feeling this. But you, the person ill in a hospital bed or depressed or grieving, can see this all too clearly. And when you are in need of compassion, these people do not really comfort you. Maybe they even annoy you, despite their sincere efforts -- because it is impossible to be truly compassionate, to receive another pain, if you are unable to receive your own.

My mother was a dear woman, but at the time of her death, decades ago, she was bewildered by what was happening to her, and quite agitated. She was sixty-two, never expected to die so young, and didn't fully grasp that she was, in fact, dying. Or maybe she just couldn't bear to think about it, and no one around her ever brought it up. We were all there, me, my brother, my father, and my mother's sisters. Probably what my mother needed, in her agitated state, was a little peace and quiet. Instead, she was constantly interrupted by nurses and doctors looking in on her and by relatives who keep turning her pillow, asking her what she needed, getting her things she didn't need, and trying to talk to her about cheerful things.

It seemed obvious to me that none of us could accept the reality of my mother's situation because none of us had made peace with the fact that this was death, that she would die, we would die, and that we all felt terrible about this situation. None of us could face the pain -- ours or hers.

A dear friend of mine lost her husband, who died suddenly, with no warning. His death was a complete shock to her, and her subsequent grief was so immense that she was all but inconsolable. She had many friends who kept trying to comfort her. Not only did their efforts leave her completely untouched, they actually made her angry. Her grief had given her a deadly accurate insincerity meter, so she felt people's fear and avoidance much more than she felt the consolation they were trying to offer he with their words and pats on the shoulder.

This is common in grief. You can tell who is and who is not really willing and able to go where you are, in your deep sorrow, and you can be quite upset by the pious conventional words and gestures of those who want to be nice and compassionate but actually have no clue as to what compassion actually is. Compassion really does require us to feel the pain of another personally.

Real, full compassion requires training your heart to do what it usually does not want to do: to go toward, rather than away from, what's painful and difficult in your own life. Second, it requires realizing that your own suffering and the suffering of others are not different. When you discover that this is so, you see that when you are willing to really take in your own suffering, you find, within that very suffering, the suffering of others. The reverse is also true: when you are able to truly take in the suffering of another, you find within it your own human pain. Being willing to receive pain, we come to understand, is the only way to open our hearts to love. Practicing real and full compassion makes this an experiential truth.


To send and receive compassion, begin with resting in the openness of mind (SEE HERE.) This is also where to end. This gives us the basis for the hard work of real compassion. In the beginning, resting in the openness of mind gives us courage. In the end, we return to that open rest for recuperation.

Start by breathing in the openness of mind that you can feel in the clarity and strength of the inhale. And then exhale, letting go completely and merging with openness of mind, so that there is nothing else present but that. Breathing this way, we open to a complete release of everything and trust of everything especially when we exhale, resting in the natural openness of our own being and of everything. This is just an easeful opening and letting go. Stay with this part for as long as you need to.

Next, breathe in your own suffering. Let compassion ride on your breath. As you inhale, take in your own pain and the suffering. Not only do we not avoid it as we usually do, as it is our natural impulse to do, we actually breathe it into our body. Gobble up all the suffering and the pain. You may well be squeamish about this, and it might be difficult at first, but with practice, you can do it. Visualize the pain and suffering as a dark, sticky substance or smoke or some kind of goo that you are breathing in, taking into your body. The goo is coming is coming from all around you, and you are taking it in, with all the pores of your body as well as through your nostrils as you breathe in. If you are not so visually oriented, then in some other way imagine that you are actually breathing in the pain and suffering, really take it in. This is receiving.

Then, breathe out. When we breathe out, something miraculous happens. It turns out that our bodies are transformation machines. They transform the goo, the suffering, the pain, into lightness, ease, peacefulness that comes out of our nostrils and all the pores of our body as a light sweet mist (or some other imagined form of lightness, ease, joy). Unharmed by the pain you breathed in, you have now transformed that pain, so that you now breathe out bliss and ease and lightness and healing power, as if you were breathing out healing light. This is sending. You are sending healing light to yourself and to many others.

Why This Works

Our body has a wisdom greater than we imagine. It breathes, circulates blood, heals us, keeps us balanced and alive every day, without our paying attention to it. Our bodies have been miraculously born into this world, through no effort on our part, and when the body is finished doing its work, at that precise moment, without fanfare and without regret, it lets go of life and returns to the earth it is made of. (We may have regrets and clingings, but the body doesn't. It knows exactly what to do.) Our life, in fact, is a sacred miracle. We constantly forget this, occupied as we are with other matters. But fortunately our body never forgets. Our body never fails us, for it is, on its own, as it is, love itself, life itself, nature itself, flowing on in profound sanity despite our human confusions. Naturally it has the capacity to breathe in suffering and transform it into healing. In fact, this is what breathing is: inhaling we are saying yes to another moment of life with all of its pain, sorrow, and loss; exhaling we are releasing all of this, letting go of everything and returning to peace.

Real compassion doesn't take a major effort on our part. We only have to allow it. If you allow the breath to bring in suffering, allow the body to receive, then when you breathe out, it's not suffering anymore. We have turned the suffering of ourselves, of others, of the whole world, into easeful, healing light.

Regularly practice connecting with the body's natural real compassion. Then, when you encounter someone who desperately needs compassion, you will know how to face their pain -- their suffering and grief. The impulse to superficially cheer or comfort will be gone. Without fear or avoidance, you will know what to say (or just be quiet) and do (or just be present and still). Your sincerity will be clear because you have truly taken in their pain. You haven't made it go away (indeed, the urge to push it away is the source of insincere gestures) -- yet you are sending peace.

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Judith Lief, "7. Sending and Taking Should be Practiced Alternately. These Two Should Ride the Breath." Tricycle.

According to this slogan, in relation to ourselves, it is a good idea to practice breathing out what we want and breathing in what we don’t want. How counterintuitive is that? And in relation to others, it is suggested that we practice breathing out to them our love and healing, and breathing in their pain and sickness. That aspect is a little easier to grasp, as the notion of praying for those we care about is more familiar to us, as people who grew up in a Judeo-Christian culture.

There certainly is a need for more loving-kindness in the world. Who doesn’t want to develop that aspect of themselves? And that quality of love and heartfulness is what makes this slogan so appealing. It is tender and gives us a way to hold others in our hearts. It gives us a way to connect with those we care about, even when we may not be able to do so physically, and to help others, even though there doesn’t seem to be much we can do.

It feels great to pray for others and to be all warm and loving. But that is not all there is to it. The practice of sending and taking, or tonglen in Tibetan, brings to light the boundaries of that love and caring. If you pray for your friends and family, how about other people and other families? If you pray for those you like or admire, how about those who you dislike or reject? What about those you disagree with, or simply find annoying? What about those who do harm? The idea is to go beyond bias, to include more and more, to let the heart grow and expand.

Tonglen also challenges our internal bias—what we like and dislike, grasp or toss out, expose or cover up, fear or covet. The idea is to practice completely reversing the habit of getting rid of what we don’t want and holding on to what we do. It seems like such a nice idea to pray for others, but dealing with ourselves is another whole story. It is quite embarrassing when we begin to see the extent of our self-regard, the level of our attachment, and the amount of energy we invest in the ongoing project of looking out for Number One.


When you practice tonglen for others this week, choose someone a bit out of your comfort zone as the focus. Not your worst enemy, but someone you know personally and that you dislike.

In your tonglen practice in general, at the end of each breath, drop whatever you have breathed in or out. Let it go completely. Keep a light touch.

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For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"

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