When anything traumatic happens in your life, an important concept to embrace is self-empathy -- a kind of emotional gentleness and understanding towards yourself. Working with self-empathy in regards to the painful events happening in your life can be a path for increasing your ability to have empathy for others.
If you aren't sure what self-empathy feels like, working the first 4 steps from my book Lemonade Mantras will give you a process for cultivating this quality within yourself. You can download a copy of my free ebook Lemonade Mantras by clicking here.
Once you've worked with self-empathy, then you can start to expand outward, extending your circle of compassion and developing empathy for others. Loving Kindness meditation is a great way to expand your empathy.
However, I also like to use Tonglen, a simple Buddhist meditation technique for practicing empathy and letting go of fear. Tonglen can be done on the spot in the most difficult of moments and doesn't require special techniques or circumstances for you can do it while driving in the car or during a business meeting.
Tonglen (sending-and-taking) practice also helps cultivate fearlessness. When you do this practice for some time, you begin to realize that fear has to do with wanting to protect your heart: you feel that something is going to harm your heart, and therefore you protect it.
- Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty
How to Do Tonglen Meditation
- Think of someone you love who is suffering.
- Imagine the pain they are feeling.
- Breathe in through your nose very deeply and imagine breathing in their pain.
- Hold your breath briefly for a second or two and rest in the feeling of their pain.
- Breathe out through your nose healing energy that might relieve this person's pain (e.g., joy, happiness, peace, etc.).
- The core practice of Tonglen is breathing in the pain of others and breathing out healing energy.
- Next identify the pain or discomfort you are feeling in your own life and imagine all the other people in the world who are feeling exactly the same way as you. For example, you can call to mind all the other people who are also grieving a loss, making a difficult decision, experiencing illness, etc.
- Breathe in this collective pain and then breathe out compassionate energy for all.
- Keep breathing in this way for as long as you like to see what happens and feel your heart expand. The longer the better!