Tag Archives: Pema Chodron

Pressure!

The word “pressure” has been bubbling around in my thoughts for the last few weeks. Have you ever had that happen? A concept will invade your psyche and then show up everywhere, light bulbs popping right and left?

It feels to me as if pressure is the descriptor for the times, as if the world is ramping up exponentially, and we’re all feeling it in our bodies and psyches. Not all pressure is a bad thing, of course. It takes a certain amount of force to propel us through our resistance, and that is exactly what so many of us are doing…forging ahead through layers and layers of emotional muck we didn’t even know we had. Great things, magical things, are happening as a result, too.

But unexamined pressure creates anger, and this is what I want to talk about. I suppose this isn’t really new news, although something about that combination of words – pressure creates anger – literally leapt off the page at me when I recently read The Mindbody Prescription, Dr. John Sarno’s bestseller from many years ago. Anger is an emotion I, like many, struggle to consciously experience, because I’m so afraid of it. I don’t want to experience it, so I push it away. According to Sarno, anger that’s pushed away builds to become suppressed rage. And suppressed rage becomes physical illness…from back, neck and shoulder pain, to inflammation of all kinds, as well as digestive disorders, anxiety and depression. Pretty much any illness can be traced back, from Sarno’s perspective, to the unacknowledged pressure of being human…pressure placed upon us from without and from within.

Pressures from without seem more enormous than ever before. Worldwide economic, ecological, societal and political pressures are being pounded into our consciousness on a 24-hour news cycle, not to mention our own overwhelming personal challenges. How do we possibly examine all that? And then, of course, there are the subconscious, anger-inducing pressures from within: worry, self-criticism, guilt, fear, perfectionism, blame, and all kinds of stressful, negative thinking.

Early Sunday morning I got up and drove to the beach, with an aching back, a sore jaw from clenching my teeth during my sleep, and a mind overrun with thoughts, but determined to do something good for myself. As I made my way through the breathtaking, dawn-lit vistas of Malibu Canyon, the now iconic image of that little Syrian boy lying face down dead on another beach on the other side of the world flooded my psyche… and broke me in two. The juxtaposition of the agony and the ecstasy of this world, and the huge question of my responsibility to it, became so overwhelming in my heart that I just cried my eyes out all the way to the ocean. I can still feel it as I write this…the emotional surge that rises up in my throat, and the knee-jerk, intellectual tamping down of that feeling with all kinds of thinking instead – political thinking, blaming thinking, numbing thinking, even big-picture-wisdom thinking. That day, though, thinking of every stripe was washed out by the tidal wave of feeling that needed to happen.

I wonder if that is what we all need right now? Maybe what is trying to happen, what the pressure is all about is that our hearts are under pressure to break wide open, and we are scared to death to let them.

The Big SqueezeOne of my favorite Pema Chodron teachings is called The Big Squeeze: that realization on the spiritual path of the large gap between our spiritual ideals and the far less than ideal reality of our daily lives. It’s breakdown time, examination time, transmutation time. We look at ourselves, not with finger-pointing or throwing in the towel, but with great curiosity and compassion. We feel ourselves, including all the previously hidden parts, both ugly and beautiful. Who am I really? Not who I project myself to be, nor who I am striving to be, but who am I, right this minute? Am I worthy, just as I am? Can I stand in this squeeze, fall down and get up again, each time a little more fully awake and in love with this rich and raw human experience? Can I give over to the forging?

“It’s the rub between those two things – the squeeze between reality and vision – that causes us to grow up, to wake up to be 100 percent decent, alive, and compassionate. The big squeeze is one of the most productive places on the spiritual path and in particular on this journey of awakening the heart.” Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty.

Blessings, my friends. We are in this together. Let us hold each other tight.

 

 

Freedom of Thought

FreedomThroughout the holiday weekend, in the midst of preparations and celebrations, I pondered the subject of freedom, as we do on the 4th of July. We are blessed with so many liberties here in the United States, but there is one that is universal, no matter what country or political landscape we are in: our freedom of thought, to which we are often blind. We are free to think as we please, and our perception of the world (and thus our experience of the world) is the outcome of that thinking. Granted, the societies we live in try to influence our thinking in various ways and through various mediums, but ultimately it is up to us whether to believe all that input or not. This is what I think it means to spiritually grow up, or awaken. We learn to witness our own thoughts, and choose whether or not they are indeed true and valuable, or whether they are causing us unnecessary suffering and divisiveness. As we do this, through meditation, prayer and contemplation, we start to see the barrage of thought, the barrage of input upon our thought.

How many days have I spent lost in worry? How many hours have I spent held captive by blame turned inwardly or outwardly, held captive by anger, greed, small-mindedness, jealousy, self-righteousness, victimhood? These subtle but big-blanket thoughts are usually running underneath our consciousness, influencing our words and actions without our awareness. They appear less as actual thoughts and more like feeling-tones, inner landscapes. They are like tinted glasses we wear and forget we are wearing them.

We often think that meditation is all about having a peaceful experience, but I’ve learned that this is not true. We may be moving toward peace, but much of the meditative process is coming face to face with our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations, and then witnessing just how much these experiences are calling the shots in our life. This can be painful, but it is a cleansing pain, a liberating pain, if it is done with compassion.

Freedom of thought is our greatest gift and our greatest responsibility.  It is the work of our lifetime.

Here is an excerpt from Pema Chodron’s book The Places That Scare You, that illustrates the basic choice we make in our thinking each day:

“When I was about six years old I received the essential bodhichitta [open-heart] teaching from an old woman sitting in the sun. I was walking by her house one day feeling lonely, unloved, and mad, kicking anything I could find. Laughing, she said to me, ‘Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.’ Right there I received this pith instruction: we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.”

It takes courage and tenacity to look inward.  As human beings, we naturally resist what might hurt, and it can definitely hurt to see ourselves clearly. It can be quite challenging to let go of a thought, too, even though we know it is causing us harm.  Some, like greed, revenge, or even worry have an addictive quality, a magnetic quality. I can’t tell you how difficult I find it to let go of worry! It seems on the surface like a loving thing to do! But I know this isn’t true. Worry benefits no one and causes great harm.

As  you move into the second half of 2015 (I tend to think of July 4 as the dividing line), and as you catch yourself thinking thoughts that are not lifting you up, be kind with yourself, be forgiving. But right there, on the spot, to the best of your ability, liberate yourself. CHOOSE AGAIN! I promise to do this to the best of my ability, too. We are in this together!

Blessings.

Tigers Above, Tigers Below

“A woman is running from tigers. She runs and she runs, and the tigers are getting closer and closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds on to it. Then she looks down and sees that there are tigers below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks at the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.” – Pema Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty.

The perfect strawberryThis is such a perfect example of a Zen teaching in its simplicity and its subtle potency. It is my meditation for today.

In all of our lives, there come pockets of time when we are experiencing tigers above and tigers below. I am in one right now. A series of revelations has brought me face to face with the hard, clinging nature of my ego, this fist of self-protection that has cramped into a knot and won’t seem to let go. I feel it in my mind, but I also feel it in my neck and chest and belly.

One of the many lessons I have learned in meditation is that emotions can have long life-spans if they are not allowed to be experienced.  I don’t even know what the rational circumstances are behind this fist of fear that has arisen and made itself known. I only know how primal and shameful and terrifying it feels. The meditative path instructs us to simply feel the feeling; drop the storyline and feel the feeling. So that is what I am attempting to do. No commentary, no analysis, no finger-pointing inwardly or outwardly, just experience the emotion. Most of the time when I have done this, the process moves rather quickly, but this particular fist is quite tenacious. I have faith that it will open, though, and I’m practicing the lessons I’ve been taught. I’m breathing with it,  and I’m offering myself as much  patience in this place as possible.

The challenge today is to seek and enjoy the strawberry, to be with the joy that is also available in the midst of all these raging tigers. This itself is a huge teaching, for instantly we experience just how strong the pull of problem-focus can be! When we are able to turn our attention from the tiger to the strawberry, however, we reconnect with a force within us that is far more potent than any challenge!  And we discover that right in front of us, in the very now of life, there is always something sweet to experience – a piece of fruit, a smile, our own continued pulse. When I think of this…as I write this to you…I find that I can breathe a little better.

If you, too, are experiencing tigers above and tigers below, take some comfort in knowing you are not alone! I am right there with you! One of the greatest gifts the tigers have to offer is an expanding compassion for others who are caught in a similar struggle. That compassion flows both ways. As I think about all those around the globe who might be suffering in this emotional way or in another form – as I offer my prayer that your pain be lifted, whatever it may be – my own challenges seem less isolating and more useful, more bearable. This is how we touch.

Blessings.

Why I Love Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron 2A friend suggested I write a post on what it is about Pema Chodron’s work that I love so much.  I have read all her books, and as you can see from the photo attached, I don’t just read them, I dig in!  I have learned from many wonderful teachers, but there is something about Pema’s communication style that cuts through my resistance. The question my friend asked was, “Why Pema?”Taking the Leap pages

My answer is a two-parter, I guess.  The first part is about Buddhism itself.  The second part is Pema’s personal style.

That old adage, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come,” is certainly true, in this case.  Though I am not a Buddhist, I became deeply immersed in the teachings of Buddhism through Pema’s eyes, and one of the first things I came to see was that through meditation and Buddhist teachings I was becoming more deeply attuned to the teachings of Jesus as well.

Love is ultimately the main message in Buddhism, as in Christianity.  The thing that makes Buddhism so valuable to me, though, is that it teaches HOW to love when love doesn’t simply bubble up, or when love is blocked by anger, judgment, fear, etc.  Buddhism is a methodology, a deep and detailed methodology on how to open ourselves to love.

The idea of practice came to life for me in studying Pema’s works.  We don’t just throw a switch and become better people.  As a child in a fundamentalist Christian culture, I was confused by this because I was taught that accepting Christ would change my heart on the spot.  But that wasn’t my experience.  I accepted Jesus, but my heart still held judgment, anger, fear, jealousy, deceit, sorrow, loneliness.

In Buddhism, though, detailed instructions are given as to how to practice changing our hearts, how to work with and accept our human characteristics, (both negative and positive aspects), without being slaves to them.  If I can recognize and accept my anger, for example, and if I develop the muscle to catch myself in a flare of anger BEFORE it has manifested into a reaction from me, then in that pause, I can choose what to do that is best for all concerned, rather than striking out in knee-jerk fashion.

So that is what drew me to Buddhism…the detailed instructions that would, with a committed practice, move me toward the person that I wanted to be in my heart…and in my case, that was to be more like Jesus!  One of the things often said in Buddhist studies is not to take any of this information at face value.  Try it out.  See how it works for you.  I have done that.  And it has indeed worked for me.  I have grown from this work.

As to Pema’s personal style (for there are lots of wonderful Buddhist teachers)…I think it is because she not only teaches the undoing of shame through compassionate self-acceptance, but she exhibits it in her own personal examples.  She is a world-renowned nun, but she makes mistakes, even to this day, and instead of hiding them or downplaying them, she highlights them as examples of the teachings she offers.  I find this incredibly helpful.  She displays non-shame! Not only does it take the theoretical and bring it into practical, every-day experience, but it also creates a human link, a way for me to relax and breathe with my own faltering “becoming.”  If Pema Chodron still has to work with anger, or depression, or aging, or any other of ego’s illusions, maybe it is okay if I still have to work with them too! I don’t have to deny them.  I don’t have to bury them under a false smile.  Nor do I have to give in to the outward aggression that ego so often tries to trigger. I can simply be with myself, without judgment. I can breathe in and out.  I can learn.  I can witness emotions, thoughts, and physical challenges shift, change and dissolve. By simply being compassionately present with ourselves, we can learn to experience the fullness, the totality of our lives.

Comfortable with UncertaintyThere is much more I could say on this subject!  I love her humor, her light-heartedness, her practicality, her succinctness, her wisdom. But the blog-gods are shouting, “Wrap it up! Not another paragraph!” So I will close with simply expressing gratitude for Ani Pema and encouraging you to read one of her many wonderful books.  See if she speaks to your soul the way she does to me!   The first of her books I read was Comfortable with Uncertainty.  The title alone pulled me in!  Check it out!

Happy reading!