My Visit with Pema Chodron

Seven years ago, I was lost. I knew exactly one thing about my life: I loved my husband. I had very little idea how to be in a real adult relationship however, and, probably relatedly, I had only very dim analyses of where I’d been, where I was going, or which version of my carefully curated presentations was the real me (if any?). On one fateful trip to my local bookstore, I just so happened to wander from my usual stomping grounds (among books about how to firm my butt, color my parachute, attract money through the ether, and organize my closet) into the spirituality section. There, on a bottom shelf, totally out of the way, Pema Chodron’s book The Places that Scare You called to me. I didn’t even really look it over or open it. I just impulsively took it to the cash register and bought it.

In some ways, my path started on that day. The rest is history (and a longer story, to be sure). Seven years later, I find myself living, teaching, and dreaming the practices of yoga (which, by the way, are influenced by the practices of Buddhism, among other traditions, and I am proof that you do not need to be Buddhist or Hindu or Jain or Taoist to find huge benefits in these teachings). And seven years later, I found myself in a little Subaru heading out from Chicago to a small town in New York to study with the woman that set the whole grand, messy thing into motion. When I returned, many of my friends asked me, excitedly, how was it?! and seemed a little disappointed when I looked at them slightly blankly. Two months later, I can finally write this. This is some of what I learned from that trip. My intention is to write about a few of Pema's teachings and share how they are at work in my life and my practice as an example. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

(All credit for these teachings goes to Ani Pema Chodron and her teachers. All misunderstandings, confusions, and so forth are my own.)

“The whole mechanism of trying to get strong by avoiding disappointment is destined to fail.” After settling into our cabins and excitedly filing into the lecture hall, this was what we heard first. You could almost hear the mutual halting scratching record sound in the room. Wait…it is? I mean, I know that I guess, but why do we have to talk about it? I want to feel peaceful not afraid. What if I’ve built my whole life around trying to eat right, be pleasant to others, get my checkups, take my medicine, move my body, free my mind, and so forth, all to feel as though I could outrun or outsmart disappointment, failure, sickness, loss, death, even (OK, I know that one is a little silly, but I can't help myself)? For an hour, my whole schtick (Buddhists would call it ego-structure) felt like it was sinking into quicksand.
    Here’s the important point. This philosophy makes a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable. Pain will happen. You will get sick. Things will sometimes fall apart. It’s hard to think about and it can lead to some morbid philosophy. But ultimately, it’s true. Resisting reality, pretending we can control reality, pretending there is some final destination of perfection to arrive at, this is what leads to suffering according to this philosophy. Suffering compounds pain. Suffering is the force that has the power to rob us of our happiness even when life is good, propelling us unendingly into the past and future and robbing us of our present. The alternative, as presented by Ani Pema, is to recognize that life is more like flowing in a river than standing on solid ground. As the old saying goes, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” It’s like that in life, right? There is a fluidity and, once accepted, it can be very liberating. Things fall apart and they come back together.
   How I Practice: I basically have daily opportunities to practice this.  Every time I get a difficult work email or feel the jealousy or anger of a friend, or have an off day with my beloved, I pause. If possible, I go to my meditation cushion. I tighten up a little around whatever feeling it is: hurt, anger, sadness, pity, a parade on Mt. Ego, boredom. With my inhale, I take in the situation in BIG way, almost asking it to come forward even more. I tighten my eyes. I clench my body. I feel the weight and constriction of that feeling of wanting reality to be other than it is or of wanting reality to stay just like this. I call forward the crushing feeling that there is not some final destination sans disappointment. Ever. And then in one breath I exhale through the mouth, open my eyes, and let it go. I repeat this as necessary. For me, this does not eliminate the pain, but it does help to eliminate the resistance to the pain.  From there, I drop the storyline of whatever is going on and simply feel the feeling. Let it be what it is. Sit with it. Give it a voice and then listen to it, without pushing it away or making up some story about why it’s so-and-so’s fault or unfair or final in some way.

“Harshness is an obstacle to enlightenment.” In my experience, there is a tendency to hear the above and want to escape it. There are many ways that I've experienced of doing so, and I went through a few of them on retreat. First: a Nietzsche-inspired depression. I can almost imagine myself as Eeyore the sad donkey (he was a donkey , right?). I guess I can’t control anything, so why try? It’s all going to end in pain. Why try to build something? Next, I moved on to what I like to call territory. The surrealist bubble: This might as well just be a dream. What is reality anyway? What does it matter if this is all a dream? Third, would you like to meet my inner football coach? I'm on a retreat, I need to BRING MY A-GAME. 99 PERCENT PERSPIRATION. Do better. Get better. No more wandering off. Focus. GO TEAM GO. EYE ON THE BALL. IT'S JUST FOCUSING ON THE BREATH, YOU CAN DO THIS. TOUCHDOWN!!
    I say this with love and having been to those places: Nope. That’s not it. Those are too blunt of thinking tools. We need to sharpen that thinking a little. Those are ways of escaping the questions that we need to address.
    Harshness, or any other form of escapism, is not the way to enlightenment, per Pema. I remember starting a meditation practice years ago. I practiced simple breath mindfulness meditation. The instruction was to notice the thoughts as they arrive, acknowledge them with the word thinking and return to the breath. Well, it wasn’t long before I became like Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits. Every time a thought even dared to peek around the tree, I was there firing off my bazooka and yelling THINKING. THAT’S THINKING. BAD. This harshness did not take me further into peace when I practiced this way. It took me further into anger and confusion and self-aggression for several years. As one of my teachers says, “A jerk can walk into a meditation hall and emerge a more focused jerk.” That was pretty much what I did for a while. It's possible, even with the best of intentions.
    Pema taught us that pain need not be our only mode of operation or our only teacher or our default state. If we’re stuck in traffic and getting frustrated and there is an off-ramp, she said, take it. (Someone asked if this was a metaphor, causing one of the many group giggles. Yes, she said, it is.) If a relationship is doing more harm than good, set new boundaries. If a practice, medication, therapist, yoga practice, breath technique, or good old-fashioned break will help us be more present, it can be a healthy part of our routine. However, during those times where there is no off-ramp, or when the off-ramp is a form of self-destructive behavior, we are asked to work with the situation rather than resisting it.
    How I Practice: The instruction is to find some “unconditional friendliness,” as Pema puts it. The practice that I’ve found to be most helpful on my cushion? Smiling. That’s it. When I get an old familiar feeling that I’d usually push away or berate myself for, I just smile. I assign this feeling a form and I embrace it. Sometimes I will tease it a little, almost making a caricature of it. Here's an example of such a caricature of myself that I found helped me create lightness. All with love. I will acknowledge that it is a part of what makes my life rich. Tasting sour is a part of why I can taste sweet.
“Everything in life is a vehicle for awakening. Nothing needs to be rejected.” That flat tire? Your outburst of frustration? Yay, a promotion! That grand moment of forgiveness? Uh, oh, rejection! That “fantastic” meditation session? The friendship that ended in betrayal? It’s all part of the path. All of it. Pema teaches that every event, however big or small, is a chance to wake up. This is because all of it is a chance to soften, to find compassion, to create greater understanding of ourselves and of others. So, worry not. You need not retreat to a cave or monastery. Your ordinary life will do just fine. These practices are meant to help us in the real world, not necessarily to make us the eccentric one at the Thanksgiving dinner table (though, I must say, I took that prize years ago). Life is a big messy proposition and we’re not usually in complete control. We can choose to think of it like one problem after another or we can choose to think of it as life coming along to teach us some lessons (we call this karma in both yoga and Buddhist thought).
    How I Practice: When something I don’t like comes up, I consciously choose to regard it as my teacher. When something good comes up that I enjoy and savor, I consciously choose to regard it as my teacher. When boredom comes up, I consciously choose to regard it as my teacher. You get the picture. It’s simple: it’s just a cognitive task, but it works for me.

Thank you for reading my thoughts here. I’d love to hear yours, too. How do you incorporate yoga and meditation into your daily life? There are lots and lots of ways to do so.

If you’d like to go deeper, some possible journaling or reflective questions to inspire more thought follow.

  • How open are you to the inevitability of change?
  • Is the “you” that started reading this article the same as the “you” that is reading this sentence? Is there a core “you”?
  • Do you feel as though your life is more like floating on a river or more like standing on solid ground?
  • How can you bring more gentleness and friendliness into your life? What would it mean to drop some of the harsh commentary?
  • Do you have a daily meditation practice? Would you like to start one? (My students should feel very free to approach me for resources and support.)