(by Pema Chödrön)
CHOOSING TO LIVE WHOLEHEARTEDLY
The mind is very wild. The human experience is full of unpredictability and paradox, joys and sorrows, successes and failures. We can’t escape any of these experiences in the vast terrain of our existence. It is part of what makes life grand—and it is also why our minds take us on such a crazy ride. If we can train ourselves through meditation to be more open and more accepting toward the wild arc of our experience, if we can lean into the difficulties of life and the ride of our minds, we can become more settled and relaxed amid whatever life brings us.
There are numerous ways to work with the mind. One of the most effective ways is through the tool of sitting meditation. Sitting meditation opens us to each and every moment of our life. Each moment is totally unique and unknown. Our mental world is seemingly predictable and graspable. We believe that thinking through all the events and to-dos of our life will provide us with ground and security. But it’s all a fantasy, and this very moment, free of conceptual overlay, is completely unique. It is absolutely unknown. We’ve never experienced this very moment before, and the next moment will not be the same as the one we are in now. Meditation teaches us how to relate to life directly, so that we can truly experience the present moment, free from conceptual overlay.
If we look at the dharma—in other words, the teachings of the Buddha, the truth of what is—we see that through the practice of meditation the intention is to remove suffering. Maybe that’s why so many people are attracted to meditation, because generally people don’t find themselves sitting in the meditation posture unless they have something that’s bothering them. But the Buddhist teachings are not only about removing the symptoms of suffering, they’re about actually removing the cause, or the root, of suffering. The Buddha said, “I teach only one thing: suffering and the cessation of suffering.”
In this book, I want to emphasize that the root of suffering is mind—our minds. And also, the root of happiness is our mind. The sage Shantideva, in the Bodhicaryavatara, in talking about the subject of suffering, offered a famous analogy for how we try to alleviate our suffering. He’s said that if you walk on the earth and it’s hurting your feet, you might want to cover all the earth with hides of leather, so that you’d never have to suffer from the pain of the ground. But where could such an amount of leather be found? Rather, you could simply wrap a bit of leather around your feet, and then it’s as if the whole world is covered with leather and you’re always protected.
In other words, you could endlessly try to have suffering cease by dealing with outer circumstances—and that’s usually what all of us do. It is the usual approach; you just try to solve the outer problem again and again and again. But the Buddha said something quite revolutionary, which most of us don’t really buy: if you work with your mind, you will alleviate all the suffering that seems to come from the outside. When
something is bothering you—a person is bugging you, a situation is irritating you, or physical pain is troubling you—you must work with your mind, and that is done through meditation. Working with our mind is the only means through which we’ll actually begin to feel happy and contented with the world that we live in.
There’s an important distinction that needs to be made about the word “suffering.” When the Buddha said, “The only thing I teach is suffering and the cessation of suffering,” he used the word dukkha for suffering. Dukkha is different than pain. Pain is an inevitable part of human life, as is pleasure. Pain and pleasure alternate, and they’re just part and parcel of anybody who has a body and a mind and is born into this world.
The Buddha didn’t say that, “I teach only one thing: pain and the cessation of pain.” He said pain is—you have to grow up to the fact, mature to the fact, relax to the fact that there will be pain in your life. You’re not going to reach the point where, if someone you love dies, you won’t feel grief. You’re not going to reach the point where if you fall down a flight of stairs you’re not bruised. As you age, your back might hurt and your knees might ache. These things and many others could happen.
Even the most advanced meditator has moods. The quality of energy moving through people—the heavier, more oppressive energies that we call depression, or fear, or anxiety—these kinds of mood energies run through all beings, just as the weather changes from day to day. Our internal weather is shifting and changing all the time, whether we’re fully enlightened or not. The question then becomes, how do we work with these shifting energies? Do we need to completely identify with them and get carried away and dragged down by them?
The word dukkha is also translated as “dissatisfaction,” or “never satisfied.” Dukkha is kept alive by being continually dissatisfied with the reality of the human condition, which means being continually dissatisfied with the fact that pleasant and unpleasant situations are part and parcel of life. There’s a strong tendency on the part of all living beings to want the pleasant, agreeable, comfortable, secure feelings to be all-pervasive. If there’s pain in any form—if there’s anything disagreeable, uncomfortable, or insecure—we want to run away from that and avoid it. This is why we turn to meditation.
We do not meditate in order to be comfortable. In other words, we don’t meditate in order to always, all the time, feel good. I imagine shockwaves are passing through you as you read this, because so many people come to meditation to simply “feel better.” However, the purpose of meditation is not to feel bad, you’ll be glad to know. Rather, meditation gives us the opportunity to have an open, compassionate attentiveness to whatever is going on. The meditative space is like the big sky—spacious, vast enough to accommodate anything that arises.
In meditation, our thoughts and emotions can become like clouds that dwell and pass away. Good and comfortable, pleasing and difficult and painful—all of this comes and goes. So the essence of meditation is training in something that is quite radical and definitely not the habitual pattern of the species: And that is to stay with ourselves no matter what is happening, without putting labels of good and bad, right and wrong, pure and impure, on top of our experience.
If meditation was just about feeling good (and I think all of us secretly hope that is what it’s about), we would often feel like we must be doing it wrong. Because at times, meditation can be such a difficult experience. A very common experience of the meditator, in a typical day or on a typical retreat, is the experience of boredom, restlessness, a hurting back, pain in the knees—even the mind might be hurting—so many “not feeling good” experiences. Instead, meditation is about a compassionate openness and the ability to be with oneself and one’s situation through all kinds of experiences. In meditation, you’re open to whatever life presents you with. It’s about touching the earth and coming back to being right here. While some kinds of meditation are more about achieving special states and somehow transcending or rising above the difficulties of life, the kind of meditation that I’ve trained in and that I am teaching here is about awakening fully to our life. It’s about opening the heart and mind to the difficulties and the joys of life—just as it is. And the fruits of this kind of meditation are boundless.
Meet the Author: Pema Chödrön was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936, in New York City. While in her mid-thirties, she traveled to the French Alps and encountered Lama Chime Rinpoche, with whom she studied for several years. She became a novice nun in 1974 while studying with Lama Chime in London. His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa came to Scotland at that time, and Ani Pema received her ordination from him.
Pema first met her root guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1972. Lama Chime encouraged her to work with Rinpoche, and it was with him that she ultimately made her most profound connection, studying with him from 1974 until his death in 1987. At the request of the Sixteenth Karmapa, she received the full bikshuni ordination in the Chinese lineage of Buddhism in 1981 in Hong Kong.
Ani Pema served as the director of Karma Dzong in Boulder, Colorado until moving in 1984 to rural Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to be the director of Gampo Abbey. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche gave her explicit instructions on establishing this monastery for western monks and nuns.
Ani Pema currently teaches in the United States and Canada and plans for an increased amount of time in solitary retreat under the guidance of Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. Ani Pema is interested in helping establish Tibetan Buddhist monasticism in the West, as well as continuing her work with western Buddhists of all traditions, sharing ideas and teachings. She is the author of numerous books, including: The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are, When Things Fall Apart, The Places that Scare You, No Time To Lose and Practicing Peace in Times of War. pemachodronfoundation.org