Open Access

Sending and Taking: Teaching a Practice for Nature

Photograph by Alicia Brown

This essay also appears in the issue “Teaching Contemplative Environments” (Volume 4, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue


The Buddhist practice of sending and taking, or tonglen, is a foundational way to engage the suffering of others. It offers a sense of connection when distance may be present; a possibility of reprieve when struggle overwhelms; and an opportunity for generosity when difficulty may limit our ability to offer. Perhaps most of all, it can reinvent our notion of agency when we feel powerless; tonglen can transcend miles to enable us to offer a bit of peace in a faraway conflict zone, or it can be practiced while sitting at the bedside of a loved one.

The simplest instruction for tonglen is to send wishes for freedom from suffering and happiness to someone we hold dear. Bringing that individual to mind, we send warmth, light or peace; we imagine that person healthy and radiant, offering whatever we can to help along the way. In so doing, we generate bodhicitta, the feeling of a soft and open awakened heart—which Pema Chödrön has described as easier to understand than to translate. This wish can then be extended beyond those we love to others not as close to us, and later on, to people with whom we struggle. This is an essential part of the practice; as Pema Chödrön reminds us, “There are two aspects of working with bodhicitta, both of equal importance: One is connecting with the flow of bodhicitta we already feel, and the other is being awake to where that flow is blocked.”1

As a professor at a small liberal arts college, I work with many students who feel that their passion to engage with the world is somehow blocked. I teach courses focused on relationships between humans and nature, and in this field there is much to be studied that is cause for concern. Given how pressing many environmental concerns are, students often struggle with a heightened sense of urgency about how to cope with and work to address problems such as climate change and declining biodiversity. Many of them study environmental issues and express significant concern over the future of our planet—and fear that they are helpless to assist. For my students, this often results in feelings of disempowerment, which can manifest as frustration, stress, and anxiety. A struggle emerges around how to act in such troubling environmental times, and practices such as tonglen can help provide ways to cope and to see possibilities for change more clearly. Significant scholarly and spiritual work has begun to investigate the ways in which environmentalism and contemplative practice intersect.2 The integration of such practices into the study (and experience) of human-nature relationships, however, has yet to become mainstream, even though there is enormous potential for contemplative practices to help cultivate a deeper understanding of interconnectedness within environmental teaching and scholarship.

In this vein, I have recently begun to teach my students more frequently not just about subject matter, but also about the intentions behind my pedagogical approach. In many ways, this approach reflects a commitment to expanding the notion of who or what is deserving of our attention so that we can question the assumptions we make about how the world ­does and doesn’t work. That means working more explicitly with discomfort and uncertainty, relaxing our grasp on what we already agree with or enjoy and confronting that with which we struggle. For example, in our senior seminar, my co-instructor and I begin the term with a piece that summarizes pedagogical research called, “Confuse Students to Help Them Learn,” which highlights the importance of working through what we do not already understand in order to arrive at a stronger synthesis on the other side.3 Examining more closely that which makes us uncomfortable or uncertain can both lead us to a deeper comprehension of it, and reduce our aversion to dealing with difficulties of many kinds. What makes tonglen especially powerful in an educational context is that is offers us both a chance to deepen the feelings of connection we already have, as well as a means to challenge the sharp edges that make us uncomfortable. This can help us to see a way forward in places where we might otherwise consider ourselves to be stuck, offering one way to overcome the disempowerment that looming problems—for example, those of our environment—seem to foment.

How can we engage bodhicitta as a way to both acknowledge and see clearly what is happening around us, and connect to it without becoming overwhelmed and disempowered? In this time of environmental degradation, we could begin to engage the notion of sending and taking beyond its traditional applications focused on humans, thereby widening the circle to include animals, plants, and even ecosystems. This article explores the possibility of bringing a practice of bodhicitta to the study of environmental issues, not just as a way to cope with the heavy reality of degradation, but also as a way to proactively engage that reality and reframe our thinking about it.

As the Dalai Lama articulates it, “According to Buddhist teaching, there is a very close interdependence between the natural environment and the sentient beings living in it.”4 Drawing on the notion of interdependence can create a much broader space in which to send peace and take away suffering. A larger view can remind us, as David Abram does so eloquently, that it is only a recent shift in (modern) human thinking that considers our surrounding landscape and its myriad inhabitants “inanimate.”5 How can a non-dualistic perspective enhance our ecological and cultural understandings? How does that understanding shape the questions we ask,, the methods we use, and the observations we make in our research? In what ways can furthering our observational and contemplative skills in the classroom lead to more sustainable actions and interactions? These questions create opportunities to integrate contemplative practices into both classroom and experiential learning opportunities with our students and in our communities. With these questions in mind, the following sections explore the possibility of using an in-depth visualization practice of tonglen as the ground for expanding compassion to our natural surroundings.

A Buddhist Environmentalist View?

The idea that a Buddhist perspective on nature has a great deal to offer society as a whole is gaining ground. Buddhist teachers in the West, such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, write about the need for Buddhists to be socially engaged and act to address the current myriad of social, economic, and environmental problems.6 In India, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa is increasingly vocal about the need for conservation to be “the essence of our spiritual practice.”7 These articulations reflect the possibility that a new sacred ecology is emerging within Buddhism—an ecology based on a Buddhist worldview steeped in centuries of practice, but expressed in the current environmental moment. This is a powerful moment to bring together studies of sustainability with contemplative practices while seeking a deeper understanding of how Buddhism in the West addresses human relationships with nature.

At the same time, relatively little is written about Buddhism’s environmental values. There are two small clusters of literature devoted to this intersection. On the one hand, some work focuses more on the classical texts of Buddhism to extract and assess historical commentary on nature and natural surroundings. This often includes, for example, references to the Jātakas, a series of parables about the previous lives of the Buddha that feature animals prominently and include stories in which their moral characters emerge. In one, the Buddha is a content pigeon; in another, a Brahmin is taught a lesson by a compassionate goat. On the other hand, contemporary academics and Buddhist teachers seek to articulate new interpretations of Buddhist principles in current Western and American debates about environmentalism that highlight Buddhism’s “natural” tendency to promote care for the environment.8 While it is beyond the scope of this article to excavate the nature of these two views, to acknowledge them here is to situate the experiential approach I will explore below within a much larger, deeply rooted conversation. Contemplative approaches, honed over thousands of years of practice, offer direct ways to teach skills for meaningful engagement, observation, and understanding complexity. Exposure to these disciplines can help students, researchers, and field practitioners to address challenges and questions in new ways and can provide individuals with greater internal resources in the face of the difficulties they may experience or observe. These approaches can also nurture epistemic communities of practitioners who can support and challenge each other while engaging more deeply with the complexities and needs of the places in which they live and work.

Reflective of the increasingly clearly articulated environmental values of Buddhist teachers, there is also a growing body of reflective writing and practices available for those who wish to contemplate the natural world and the human place in it. In The World We Have, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a series of simple, brief exercises for everyday life that help raise awareness of the natural world around us, including water consumption and the act of breathing.9 He has also written about mindful eating in a way that emphasizes not just the food itself, but its origins and production in the earth.10 Joanna Macy has been prolific in this vein; in particular, her recent book Active Hope with Chris Johnstone focused on the intersection of the realities of environmental crisis and our personal struggles with seeing it, offering a way forward that reminds us of possibility and action:

“Many of our planet’s problems, such as climate change, mass starvation, and habitat loss, are so much bigger than we are that it is easy to believe we are wasting our time trying to solve them. If we depend on seeing the positive result of our individual steps, we’ll avoid challenges that seem beyond what we can visibly influence. Yet our actions take effect through such multiplicities of synergy that we can’t trace their causal chain. Everything we do has ripples of influence extending far beyond what we can see.”11

The spirit of the exercise I discuss below is very much in this vein: It is an attempt to help students consider their own positionality in the world, seeing clearly the circumstances in which they live and opening up space for engaging them more constructively.

The Ground of Sending and Taking

Some years ago, I learned a variation on the practice of sending and taking called “exchanging self for others” in a workshop taught by a Canadian monk who had trained in Vajrayāna Buddhism in India before landing in Chicago. After a few jokes about how we might explain our weekend to work colleagues by saying something like, “I was contemplating the nature of my reality,” he led us through an extensive visualization practice in four stages. First, he asked us to begin by playing an average day in our head. Get up, head out to school or work, meet people, run errands, try to accomplish something, head home, spend time with family or friends, clean—all of the usual pieces of normal daily life. But he asked us to envision going about it all with the assumption that, in each interaction with another person, we were trying to get something that we wanted. He reminded us that our moment-to-moment motivation is generally to achieve something for ourselves, to meet a need or a desire, to gain some pleasure or assuage some unpleasantness. This, he suggested, would have an impact on how we treated each person we encountered.

And it did. Even just in the mind, this exercise of imagining a day while being fueled by what Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche calls “the me plan” can get pretty tiring pretty quickly. It exposes to us the ways in which our tendency to be self-centered filters into each moment, from a flare-up argument with a spouse about who will pick up the kids to an impatient snap at the grocery store clerk.

Having taken this tour of a day with ego as our constant companion, the second stage of the visualization invited us to imagine the same day with a different filter. Instead, the monk instructed us to move through the same interactions while reminding ourselves that while we are out there meeting our own needs, others are meeting their needs, too. In each conversation, each exchange, we remind ourselves to level the ground between us and those we encounter. While we are seeking something, the person in front of us is, too. Pema Chödrön calls a similar exercise a “just like me” practice—seeing that in our daily life, each person we meet has struggles and wants and needs just as we do, bringing to light shared ground that might otherwise go unseen.

This, as we might imagine, feels different—a bit more fair, like a reasonable trade. But we have still only scratched the surface of the ego that drives so much of our behavior. In step three, he asked us to step back again—to take the opportunity in each interaction to put the needs and wants of the other person first. We have not, in this round, forgotten what we each are chasing, but we have agreed to delay it for a few minutes or days. This can offer a bit of space, some fresh air, the feeling of relaxing our grasp on the process of always aspiring to reach the next thing. It’s refreshing. And letting it play out moment-by-moment in the context of an ordinary day makes it seem possible.

In the fourth and final stage of the visualization, we are asked to practice removing ourselves entirely from the needs-and-wants equation. What would that same day look like if we went around with the sole intention of serving others, without thought to ourselves? Most of us quickly realize that such consistent bodhisattva activity may be beyond our abilities on an average day, but nonetheless the aspiring possibility can open up that space even further. We see that we might be able do this at least some of the time. And how we look at each day can change profoundly as we exchange self for others, even if it’s just in our minds at the moment.

This exercise was profound for me, and it has stayed with me for the more than ten years since I experienced it. Since then, I’ve encountered tonglen in many other forms and explored it both in the abstract and in practice. It is a marvelously adaptive practice that can be engaged at some length—as described above—or employed in the moment, “on the spot,” as Pema Chödrön instructs.12 To remind ourselves in an instant that the person in front of us is also seeking, struggling, can be a powerful reminder to slow down and act with greater kindness.

These explorations led me into curiosity about ways in which the practice could be adapted to help expand awareness not just of our own behavior and choices, but of the contexts in which they are enacted. In particular, I wanted to consider ways to bring an environmentally conscious energy to class discussions that encouraged individual contemplation within a broader sense of place. At the same time, a contemplative process of my own emerged as I considered how to bring this energy into class, which I describe below in order to illustrate key considerations in the development of the following practice of tonglen for nature.

Exchanging Self for Nature

In sifting through possible practices that I could offer my students, I slowly began to clarify what it was that I wanted them to gain from contemplating in class. I wanted to offer a remedy for anxiety, yes, but in a specific way. I wanted my students to be encouraged to consider their own behavior and choices, but not in a way that felt judgmental or overwhelming. I wanted them to have a sense of connection to the world around them, to be able to situate their understanding of the impacts they might have in a more inclusive way. And I hoped that they might begin to feel a sense of empowerment to counteract the sometimes overwhelming nature of environmental conditions by making space for the positive as well as the negative.

This seemed like a tall order. In one of my introductory courses, however, a student offered me a flash of insight into the importance of trying it out. As part of an observation exercise, I asked my students to close their eyes and listen intently. I played a five-minute recording of bird songs—a soundscape reconstructed from naturalist Aldo Leopold’s notes by a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.13 When the sweet notes faded, I asked my students to open their eyes and talk about what they heard. I expected them to jump right to talking about birds—the different calls, how many, their comings and goings. Instead, I was told, “That was really peaceful.”

The ensuing discussion reflected not only how stressful daily campus life could be, but also how a few moments of listening to birds could help students get out of their own heads even just for a bit. I realized how the discussion of disembodied environmental problems could so easily contribute to a sense of helplessness. Even though I found myself at times frustrated with how “personally” students seemed to take these problems, I felt I should consider other approaches to help meet them where they actually are in their experience rather than continuing to wish that they would simply see things differently.

To this end, I have begun to adapt the previously shared four-stage practice of exchanging self for others into a broader environmental context. There is no single way to do this; it can be used both as a whole and in parts, as a prolonged exercise but also in pieces over a period of days or even weeks. It can also be used with a focus on a single issue—climate change, for example—by focusing on the daily activities in which we all engage (mindfully or otherwise) that might contribute to a global rise in temperature. This kind of focus, however, works well with a follow-up that encourages students to look beyond their own practices to systemic inequalities. Otherwise, the assignment of responsibility solely to the individual level can have a disempowering effect rather than situating action within a broader political and economic context.

I have sketched out this exercise below as if I were speaking directly to my students, with each of the four stages framed as before: self at center, balancing self with other, privileging other, and dissolving self. In environmentally themed courses, the connections to resource use and personal habits generally arise quite quickly and easily even with the simple sample questions below. The specifics of each stage can vary, but framing the exercise is important in order to situate our practices within a sense of place. The version below may feel a bit lengthy in written form, but I invite the reader to briefly practice this as a contemplation while reading it, as a way to experience what it might be like when offered to students. In class, I briefly explain that we are going to engage in a contemplation that will help us to think deeply about the ways in which human behavior impacts the natural environment, as well as to ponder ways in which we might make shifts in these behaviors. I then ask students to take a comfortable but active posture—relaxed, but awake—and close their eyes to begin.

[Stage One: Self at Center]

Let’s consider an average day in your life here at school. I want you to take the time to play a day through your head just as it is, no need to change it, full of the things that you do every day. You wake up—what wakes you up? A sound? Where does the sound come from—another living breathing being, or a device? Once you are awake, what’s the first thing you do? And what do you need to be able to do it? Do you take a shower? Get dressed? Where do your water and clothing come from? How do they arrive to you? What is your clothing made of? How is it made? Before long you will need to eat, maybe have a cup of coffee. Where does your food come from? How does it land on your plate? If you go to class today, you’ll need to go outside. What do your feet land on as you step out the door? How does the air smell today? Is it raining? Is it always raining? Consider slowly what it feels like to move around campus during the day. What do you see? Who or what sees you?

Now let’s consider for a moment or two why you make the choices that you do. Why eat? Why go to class? Why walk outside in the rain? Why study? Why buy books or clothing? Why go out for a beer? We’re all essentially doing the same thing—we are trying to make ourselves happy. We are seeking something at each moment—a friend, delicious food, a new idea. We think the things we find will help us, make us feel better. And we tend to make choices at each moment that push us to satisfy that seeking. This isn’t good or bad, it just is. And it shapes what we do, this searching, but we can use it to cultivate a clearer sense of where we are and what is shared here, rather than focusing so much on what each of us wants at any given moment.

As you consider how you move about in this place, notice how your choices make you feel. What arises as you look more closely at the choices you make? Where in your body do you feel a reaction arise? Whatever it is, good, bad, comfortable, uncomfortable, focus on acknowledging rather than judging it. Just see it the way it is. Breathe into it a little if you can. Let it dissipate.

[Stage Two: Balancing Self with Other]

Now, let’s play the same day in your head again, but as you do so, ask yourself: How might your day be different if you remembered that at each step, you might have an impact on your surroundings? That everything you use connects you to the world outside—the chair you sit on, the orange juice you drink, the paper on which you print out your essay, the new laptop you ordered from Amazon, the buildings that shelter you from the rain, the squishy grass you cut across when you’re late for class. How would your day be different if you remembered that everything you need also comes from a bigger system that has needs—or at least, perhaps, had them before being transformed into something else? What might you choose to do differently? Would your food taste differently to you? Could you wait a little longer to upgrade your cell phone? Would you take your dog on a slightly longer walk? Or a second walk?

Again, let’s come back to noticing how the process of this day makes you feel. What arises in your mind? In your body? Does this feel different from the first observations you made? How?

[Stage Three: Privileging Other]

Let’s try this a third time—same day, same place, right here where we are now. But let’s change our big question and this time, let’s wonder: How would your day be different if taking care of your surroundings were more important than getting what you want? Would it slow down your choice to buy a new item of clothing? Would you hesitate to drive your car when you could walk or take the bus? How might you feel different if you put someone or something else ahead of yourself?

This reimagining of your day invites you to look for opportunities to put someone or something else ahead of you in the choices you make. Consider when moments present themselves each day in which you could be helpful—not just to another person, but to this place we share, to the natural systems that sustain and feed us. And notice: When those moments arise, how does it feel to choose differently?

[Stage Four: Dissolving Self]

In this last reimagining of your day, I want you to consider what it would be like if you could let go of all of your own needs and wants, and move around during your average day focused primarily on bettering your surroundings. This is asking you to stretch your awareness quite a bit, perhaps—I’m not asking or suggesting that you run right out and do this, but I’m asking you to consider what it would feel like, and what would be different. What would your day look like if your motivation at each step was to be of benefit to this place we live in? What would you study? What would you read? How would you spend your free time? What would you buy or not buy? What kinds of questions would you ask yourself? What might you want to do differently than what you do now? This isn’t a judgment on how we all move around campus, but it’s an opportunity to imagine what we could do at any moment that might allow us to engage with this place differently.

And, one last time, notice how you feel at this moment, having considered this last possibility. What words would you use to describe your feeling? How has it changed over the course of these reimagined scenarios? Take a moment to acknowledge, without judgment, what may have shifted for you.

Especially if done as a whole, processing is an important part of the exercise. Students could first write on their own about what the experience was like, or they could share with one other person for a few minutes before opening up for a broader conversation. A key consideration in facilitating the discussion is to help students bring out opportunities for choice—to help them see how many moments can arise in which making an affirming, empowering choice is more simple and available than they may otherwise often think. Whatever the specific examples used, the language of acknowledgment and non-judgment is especially crucial; without it, students can begin to pile up self-criticism of their own choices rather than take the opportunity to situate those choices in context and to look for more constructive ways forward.

Practicing with Nature

As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “When we offer peaceful energy to others, we’re nourished by the peaceful energy they reflect back. The collective energy strengthens and nourishes us, helping us to continue on our path of awareness.”14 This may be even more true in an environmental context than in a human one; what we offer to nature is always returned to us, often in ways we fail to notice. In talking about the importance of contemplative practice in my courses, I emphasize the ways in which it can hone our ability to see more clearly. My students are in large part motivated by a desire to help the world. This is noble, but requires discernment. Encouraging them to observe and reflect—not only on their own inner lives but also on the places in which they engage—can assist them in thinking more carefully about how to match their good intentions with the skills and energy needed to make offerings to this place in which we live and breathe.


Rachel DeMotts is professor and director of the University of Puget Sound’s Environmental Policy and Decision-Making Program. Her research interests lie in southern Africa, especially the intersections of transboundary conservation, gender and natural resource use, and human-elephant conflict. She studies the ways in which people participate in and are affected by conservation, including human-wildlife conflict, peace parks and transfrontier protected areas, livelihood impacts of tourism, community-based conservation, and gendered differences in natural resource access and use. 


Photography by Alicia Brown.


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Notes

  1. Pema Chödrön, “A Bodhicitta Practice,” Lion’s Roar, March 24, 2015.
  2. See, for example, Stephanie Kaza, Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinking (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2008); Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012); L.E. Sponsel and P. Natadecha-Sponsel, “Buddhist Environmentalism,” in Teaching Buddhism: New Insights on Understanding and Presenting Traditions, eds. Lewis and DeAngelis (New York, NY: Oxford University, 2017), 318-343.
  3. S. Kolowich, “Confuse Students to Help Them Learn,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 14, 2014.
  4. H. H. Dalai Lama, “Ecology and the Human Heart,” excerpted from H. H. Dalai Lama, My Tibet (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), 53-54; available online at: http://www.dalailama.com/messages/environment/ecology-and-the-human-heart.
  5. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).
  6. Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2008); Sakyong Mipham, The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure (New York: Harmony Books, 2013).
  7. Remarks by the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, (5th Khoryug Conference on Environmental Protection, New Delhi, India. Press release dated November 12, 2013) Available at: http://kagyuoffice.org/environmental-conservation-must-be-the-essence-of-our-spiritual-practice-gyalwang-karmapa/.
  8. For more on these two clusters of interpretation, see especially Seth Devere Clippard, “The Lorax Wears Saffron: Towards a Buddhist Environmentalism,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics 18 (2011); see also Pragati Sahni, Environmental Ethics in Buddhism: A Virtues Approach (New York: Routledge, 2011).
  9. Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2008).
  10. Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life (New York: HarperOne, 2011) and Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Eat (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2014).
  11. Macy and Johnstone, Active Hope, 2012.
  12. Pema Chödrön, “Transforming the Heart of Suffering,” Lion’s Roar, July 14, 2016.
  13. John Allen, “The Sounds of Aldo,” On Wisconsin, Spring 2013. Available at: http://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/on_campus/the-sounds-of-aldo/.
  14. Thich Nhat Hanh, Love Letter to the Earth (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2013), 77.