The Beautiful Suffering: An Exploration of Tonglen Meditation


As the central tenant to the Fitness in Five philosophy, mindfulness is more than just a convenient word to keep up with the mainstream. Mindfulness is a way of life that deserves unrivaled commitment.

Every thought, action, and reaction is a result of the lens in which you view the world through. And it is this lens that you deserve to have control over.

Most people, myself included, allow their subconscious tendencies to control their day to day actions. They become too comfortable in their environment. This comfort makes them inattentive to how each second affects their emotional stability. As the modern world races faster than the earth itself, our biological evolution can’t keep up on its own. It’s our responsibility to modernize our minds as we modernize every other aspect of our lives.

Ironically enough, this modernization can be accomplished through the teachings of the ancients. These historical figures had a great advantage when it came to exploring their identities; no distractions. They weren’t stuck in a constant state of planning for the future or lamenting on the past. They lived in the here and now.

With this wisdom at our disposal, and the wonderful world of the internet to help us piece it all together, there is no better time to explore what being mindful is all about.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

To kick-start my mindful journey, I am using April to not only explore the benefits of meditation, but also to put it into practice on a daily basis. My ultimate goal with this new venture is to make it a long term habit that allows me to connect with myself and my environment in a positive, healing way.

Before getting into this month’s game plan, I wanted to give you fair warning if you’re also looking to take on this challenge. When I began researching different meditation philosophies and the history of meditation in general, I began feeling overwhelmed. Not exactly the feeling I want to have when approaching a practice meant to clear the mind in a helpful way.

The history of meditation shows up in some of the earliest writings of mankind and scholars agree that the practice is likely as ancient as the thinking man himself. As you can imagine, something with this much history is bound to contain a variety of interpretations and “best practices.” This made finding a place to start a little difficult.

What type of meditation would be most beneficial for me? When will I know if the version I have chosen is “working?” Will I need a teacher? Does meditation have to contain an element of religious or spiritual belief?

The questions began piling up, so I needed a way to get through the noise and simplify the process.

I started by asking myself what are the most common umbrellas of meditation and what do their philosophies entail. With these simple questions, I landed upon a generic branch of meditation called Mindfulness Meditation. I half took this discovery as a way for the internet to tell me “start here, dummy.” I started digging into the origins and tenants of Mindfulness Meditation, but I was unable to come to the conclusion that I had found exactly what I was looking for.

I wanted to find a practice that was secular in nature and focused on invoking a better understanding of the world I live in. I also wanted to commit myself to understanding the origins of whichever method I chose. The reason for this second qualification is to show a respect for the culture in which it developed. So, I needed to choose a method that had a healthy amount of resources available to develop an understanding of the practice’s purpose.

Rather than block out suffering, I will welcome it with open arms. I will allow the ebb and flow of my natural emotional environment to persist in harmony.

I want to remind you that these “wants” I’ve listed were not immediately clear to me when I began my research. They developed as I went along reading about the different flavors of meditation. With each explanation, I plainly asked myself, “is this what I’m looking for? What’s missing?”

Through this intentional search, I finally found it. I was going to give things a go with Tonglen Meditation. A practice coming out of the Tibetan Buddhist community, Tonglen seeks to explore and embrace the suffering inside us and in our environment. A Tonglen practitioner uses their meditative practice to give and receive.

When I breath in, I will focus on the suffering of myself, a loved one, a stranger, an enemy, a community, a nation, or the entire world. When I bring this suffering inside my soul, I am to receive it with loving kindness rather than rage, helplessness, or frustration.

When I embrace my own suffering and the suffering of others, I will be better equipped to handle the negativities of the world in a positive, empathetic way. Rather than block out suffering, I will welcome it with open arms. I will allow the ebb and flow of my natural emotional environment to persist in harmony.

I will be exploring more resources to improve my practice and I will pass this information along to you each week. In the meantime, I want to lay out my goals for the month, and show what I see as reasonable objectives for this short period of time. It should come as no surprise that meditation takes years and years of practice to reach a level of "master." So, I will need to focus on small goals these next 30 days to build a strong base for a sustainable habit.


I will be practicing Tonglen Meditation every day. If I made a schedule that only included meditation three or four days a week, I would see little to no progress in my meditative goals (more on those below).

Although most sources suggest meditating in the pre-dawn hours, I am not currently in a position to use the early morning for my meditation. I leave for work just after 5:30AM and use the first hour of my morning to write posts for Your Pen Paul. I am a much more efficient and clear headed writer in the morning, so I need this time to maximize my production.

As I move onto a life of self-employment (fingers crossed), I will look to move my meditation schedule to the early morning. In the meantime, I will be meditating when I get home from work in order to place a nice buffer between my work life and my home life. When it comes down to it, meditating every day is priority number one, so regardless of the time, I just need to do it.

When starting out, one universal constant across all branches of meditation (at least for the ones I found) is the fact that it is very difficult to remain in a meditative state for much longer than a few minutes. I find this will be more than the reality for me, so I plan on setting my “time goals” based on short increments. I am comfortable with the following schedule:

            Day 1: 5 minutes

            Day 7: 15 minutes

            Day 14: 18 minutes

            Day 21: 20 minutes

            Day 28: 22 minutes

            Day 30: 23 minutes (what better way to end the month than on a prime number)

If I can achieve 23 minutes of focused meditation, I will be ecstatic. If I am unable to reach this goal, I am confident my motivation will not fade. After all, I really have no idea how my mind will respond to this intense introspection and reception of suffering. Simply committing to the daily practice will serve as a great step forward.

I will welcome pain into my heart and allow it to coexist with my other emotional states.

As I mentioned before, one of the main objectives of Tonglen is to focus on the suffering of a certain individual or group. So, before each session, I will need to choose my subject of the day. I believe it will be easiest to start small and build from there. Here is my plan when it comes to my subjects of choice:

            Day 1-7: Me

            Day 8-15: My fiancée

            Day 15-22: My mother and father

            Day 23-30: A stranger

I will explore the pain I experience on a daily basis and look to accept this state of being. I will welcome it into my heart and allow it to coexist with my other emotional states. This will cultivate a sense of well-being.

I will follow this practice up by inviting the pain and suffering of my fiancée.  I will integrate her trepidations into my heart and mind and bring relief to her daily stresses.

In week three, I will look toward my mother and father. 50 plus years of life in this crazy world builds a foundation steeped in unfavorable experiences.  I will explore the power of Tonglen to receive this pain and emit joy unto their lives, while finding the goodness in the suffering.

Finally, I will explore hypothetical circumstances like a mother losing their child or a business person closing shop due to irreparable losses. I will look to connect to this suffering in whatever capacity my heart is able. I will release an encouraging happiness for the individual to receive.

My goals are basic, obtainable, and measurable. I am excited to build this new habit and look forward to the month ahead. As always, I invite you to join me on this journey. Start a discussion in the comments below or reach out to me if you want to have a conversation about this topic or monthly challenges in general.

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