What happens to our empathy when we visualize boundaries?

From protective bubbles to black smoke, it’s hard to find a metaphor for both sanctuary and connection.

I will start by admitting that I never liked the popular meditation in which you visualize yourself in a protective bubble. The idea is to imagine a barrier, however lovely and light, that keeps negative or harmful forces at arm’s length. The image is the most basic of all boundaries, an enclosed sphere surrounding oneself like the membrane of a cell. Only good vibes may enter.

Visualizations can alter how we feel, particularly in our interactions with others. Mental imagery has enormous power to change our emotional state and transform our relationships. Whenever I’ve tried the bubble visualization, however, something felt off.

During meditation, you can loose the sense of being an individual self, seeing the emptiness of identity and illusion of separation, which melts into a felt sense of oneness with all that is. Those are not just pretty words. They describe a shift in cognition stemming from the insight that much of what we perceive about ourselves and our place in the world is not perception at all, in the ordinary sense, but a deep set of interwoven, constructed concepts. In other words, it’s stuff we imagine and regard as reality. Certain forms of meditation are essentially an inner dismantling of imagined reality.

It is difficult to reconcile visualizations that put the self in a bubble with experiences during meditation that dissolve the self entirely. Ordinarily, meditation leads me to feel an opening of my heart. The bubble imagery, however, is difficult for me to adopt without feeling my heart close.

Enter the Black Smoke

In stark contrast to the idea of a protective bubble, the Buddhist practice of tonglen involves visualizing oneself breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out peace and light. As part of this practice, you begin by visualizing the suffering of others as a black smoke that enters your lungs.

One of the goals of tonglen is to destroy our “self-cherishing” and make it possible for us to truly care about others. The word tonglen, which means “sending and taking” in Tibetan, is based on a practice of exchanging self and other, to regard others as we do ourselves. Tonglen encourages a view of others as equivalent to oneself, equal in importance with desires and needs as valid as one’s own.

These two visual exercises, the bubble and the smoke, are completely in conflict. While tonglen involves breathing in the pain of others in the form of smoke and exhaling light, some instructions for the protective bubble involve the reverse: “Imagine your bubble extracting the heaviness and toxicity inside and sending it out to be absorbed by the atmosphere.”1

If I did these two meditations back-to-back, it seems I’d be right back where I started.

Self-Sacrifice and Trauma

Both practices have value, but both the bubble and the black smoke have proven challenging for me as visual aids. When I first learned of tonglen, I was reminded of my home growing up. For the first ten years of my life, I lived in a small house with my mother and grandmother who were both heavy, chain smokers. The inside of my house was constantly full of actual thick smoke. I had severe asthma and at least one case of pneumonia that required a hospital stay. At one point I slept with a tent over my bed with one end open to a humidifier. I was dependent on albuterol inhalers until my mother remarried and, at the insistence of her new man, finally stopped smoking.

It may be an antidote to greed and self-absorption, but some have wondered whether tonglen can cause psychological harm. Some practices which work well in the East don’t function quite the same way for Westerners. For one, traditionally, tonglen can be ushered in by asking practitioners to visualize their mothers. This is intended to help people open their hearts. This is generally not how tonglen begins in the West.

In a research study on tonglen, Daphna McKnight, Ph.D., found that many people in the West cannot perform tonglen without a little tweaking:

“Breathing in the black smoke of other people’s suffering is traditional Tonglen imagery, but with such a large number participants having difficulty with the smoke… it may be beneficial in the future to use slightly less difficult imagery with new practitioners in populations where cigarette smoking is known to be highly unhealthy, subjects often know several people who have died from smoking-related illnesses, and more positive images of smoke such as from campfires or winter fireplace fires are rarer occurrences. Other imagery for breathing in suffering might include dense, heavy fog or heavy hot air – something which is still symbolic of suffering and difficult to breath in, but which holds fewer negative connotations for Westerners.”

From Daphna McKnight, Tonglen Meditation’s Effect on Levels of Compassion and Self-Compassion: A Pilot Study and Instructional Guide (2010-2012)

Another side effect of tonglen in Western culture may be an exacerbation of romanticized self-sacrifice. The Christian idea of selflessness is centered around martyrdom, or accepting injury, embodied in calls to “turn the other cheek” or bear one’s cross. Growing up in Oklahoma, I encountered many narratives that portrayed the highest ideals of selflessness as the passive, ungrudging endurance of harm. I can’t imagine that a Christian version of tonglen would involve transforming the black smoke of others’ suffering into light. I think instead it might involve inhaling the smoke and dying from it in an act of self-immolation.

The imagery may also aggravate the negative impact of trauma and abuse. In the West, some of us may benefit more from a practice that emphasizes that we deserve to feel safe, we deserve to cultivate our own happiness, and our well-being matters as much as anyone else’s.

Big Oof

I was sitting in my backyard thinking about the practice of visualizing protective bubbles, on the one hand, and tonglen on the other. Can the two be reconciled in one visualization?

My intention was to come up with some alternative, some way I could conceptualize difficult relationships that would create a sense of safety without closing my heart. Instead of visualizing a bubble, I thought, what about visualizing a zone or sphere of light which has no membrane, no barrier… It does not block out anything but could instead change whatever passes into it? The protective bubble, as a metaphor, protects the self by blocking whatever dangers approach, like a wall or force field. This special sphere of light, in contrast, would protect by transforming whatever enters it.

Can I visualize protection and empathic love at the same time? Is there a visual metaphor that conveys safety without contradicting the sense of oneness? Can I have my cake and eat it too?

So I mushed the bubble and tonglen symbolism together like a toddler and hoped for a transmutation. For a short while, I imagined a sphere of transformative light surrounding me. It felt wonderful. How big should it be? I imagined it filling my entire yard, a full acre east of Orlando, then I wondered if I could expand it in my imagination to encompass Earth.

Could the sphere of light, a zone of transformation, function as a compromise between the protective bubble and the black smoke of tonglen?

Just as I was wondering this, my next-door neighbor did something for the first time that he’s never done since. He lit a massive bonfire in his backyard. Huge billows of black smoke rolled into my yard on a sluggish wind. Coincidentally, right into my face. Within minutes, my yard was so filled with smoke that my eyes and throat were burning. I had to run inside, and I couldn’t open my back door for hours without filling my house with smoke.

I had retreated to the protective bubble of my house. So much for my sphere of light!

Photo by Filip Bunkens on Unsplash

Metaphors Fighting Metaphors

As a visualization, the protective bubble is a metaphor for interactions with others, just like black smoke or light. It’s not a literal bubble, of course. After the incident in my yard, I began thinking about the distinction between literal and imagined harm, or physical harm (like actual smoke) versus relational or social harm (like criticism or hatred). When a giant cloud of black smoke fills my backyard, I can’t just sit there and breath it in. If I did, it would serve no one. This makes breathing someone’s smoke a limited metaphor for empathic kindness, care, or compassion.

What if my neighbor had instead poked his head over the fence and hurled insults? I’m reminded of this amusing exchange between two characters on Star Trek:

Garak: But really, Doctor, there was no harm done.

Doctor Bashir: They broke seven of your transverse ribs and fractured your clavicle.

Garak: Ah, but I got off several cutting remarks which no doubt did
serious damage to their egos.

Doctor Bashir: Garak, this isn’t funny.

Garak: I’m serious, Doctor. Thanks to your ministrations I am almost completely healed. But the damage I did to them will last a lifetime.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Season 4, Episode 1 – The Way of the Warrior

The danger inherent in social threats may not be physical, but I will not discount the pain that neighborly ill will can cause. Not long before this event, neighbors with whom my spouse and I had bonded (we thought) got a rooster for their chicken coup. This rooster did not care what time it was. It shrieked incessantly. In my bed with ear plugs and headphones and music, I could still hear that blustering, broken bagpipe.

With utmost gentleness, we asked our neighbor if we might find a compromise. We offered to buy all their new chicks. Soon after our conversation, they stopped speaking to us. (Apparently they looked into the city statutes, and roosters were not allowed.) The rooster disappeared, and then so did our neighbors.

I still feel a pang of grief when I remember how abruptly they shut us out. I guess they made a protective bubble, and we were on the outside.

How do social interactions evoke so much emotional pain? Not coincidentally, this was the focus of my graduate research. The short answer: Our social experiences are translated into sensory metaphors–not just visual but spatial and kinesthetic. Like the bubble. Happening somewhat automatically and without full conscious awareness, we understand the personal significance of things like being insulted by employing sensory metaphors, like being physically attacked. Social harm is experienced as though it were physical harm. An insult, for example, really is experienced as an injury, with greater activation in areas of the brain associated with physical pain.

If social experiences create pain through our unconscious, metaphorical imagery, the protective bubble might function as a way to counteract that process. The conscious, intentional imagery of the bubble overwrites unconscious, unintentional imagery of harm the way rubbing your elbow overwrites signals of pain traveling along the same nerve pathways.

Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, but I think it trades one problem in for another. In the bubble exercise, instead of seeing myself as subject to harm, vulnerable to dangers all around, I may feel protected, but I also feel cut off, stuck in a self-imposed quarantine.

The View from Everywhere

The essence of tonglen is to cherish others as we do ourselves, to find ourselves willing to trade places with those who are suffering. What sort of imagery can facilitate this, especially for people who don’t cherish themselves enough, or those struggling with extreme sensitivity to others’ pain? Maybe there is no “one size fits all.” This is underscored by the fact that Eastern practices must occasionally be modified for the West.

When I want to feel protected and, at the same time, retain a genuine, empathic concern for others, even people who mean harm, I find that I’m drawn back to a simple practice: imagining the perspective of all the surrounding space and everyone in it. The eyes of Everywhere.

Image by Madeleine Marchal from Pixabay

In this particular visualization practice, I imagine that my awareness expands beyond my little self and spreads out, encompassing everything. I can imagine every person in my life and the suffering they face. I can empathize with their pain and value their well-being and want to act in whatever way I can to help. At the same time, I can see my own needs and value my own well-being, as if I had a bird’s eye view, and I was looking at myself the same way I look at everyone else. I don’t have to imagine a bubble or smoke or any other physical interaction. I’m not far away and detached. My ordinary, small self is one among many, equally important.

When I imagine another person using the “eyes of Everywhere,” it doesn’t feel like I’m imagining someone else. Instead, it’s as if I’m experiencing another instance of my own self. I think this imagery allows me to see others as they are (at least, as much as I’m capable of understanding), not through my own subjective lens. I can empathize without becoming overwhelmed.

With this visual, I can think about someone who’s caused me a lot of pain and feel compassion for them without recoiling. At the same time, my motivation to safeguard my well-being, to back away from danger, is preserved. I can see each person, myself included, in a different light.

An analogy might be the eyes of a mother. Consider the way a mother can separate her quarreling children yet continue to see them as fundamentally innocent, each equally worthy of love, and still a part of the same world. If you were one of those children, could you see the situation from the perspective of a mother? After raising two boys, I find that’s gotten easier. In the “eyes of Everywhere” visualization, using this analogy, I am one of the children, and at the same time, I’m adopting the perspective of a mother.

Using this visualization, my heart opens, and I feel motivated to do whatever I can to improve life for everyone. This includes myself. I’m not at the center, but I’m not at the periphery either. It’s as if everyone is the center.

I can imagine watching the thick smoke roll into my yard, and knowing how I’ve struggled to breath, want protection from the smoke for myself, and at the same time, there is no knee-jerk reaction against the neighbor. I can imagine my neighbor having an ordinary afternoon doing what we all do on our acres of land surrounded by Florida scrub, and everything is fine on his side of the fence. There are no ill intentions. I feel a certain general warmth toward my neighbor, and I want to flee the smoke, and those sentiments are not in conflict.

In the same way, I can imagine being protected from social harm and, at the same time, feel compassion for the source of that harm, because my ordinary, little self may be inside a bubble, but my awareness is not.

Ironically, it’s only from that perspective that I can imagine the smoke transforming into light.


  1. This appeared in Healing Brave, a lovely blog by Jennifer Healey. While I don’t personally resonate with the bubble instructions, her site is a precious gem which I highly recommend. ↩︎

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