Friday, September 30, 2005

When Things Fall Apart (Pema Chodron)

This book is a collection of independent talks that were given at various times by Pema Chodron, the principal teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery in North America established for Westerners. Her editor sifted through the years of material to produce a large portion of the contents of this book. According to Pema, it was only later, once the book was more or less complete that a theme seemed to emerge. First, the great need of loving-kindness towards oneself, and developing from that the awakening of a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and that of others. The second underlying theme was, "dissolving the dualistic tension between us and them, this and that, good and bad, by inviting in what we usually avoid." Pema's teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, described this as "leaning into the sharp points."

The depth, pertinence, and usefulness of these talks are really quite astounding and even mind-altering. Something at a deeper level resonates with what is being said. Reading this material is like being told something you already know to be true, but you're not sure why or how. It's a fascinating experience of having been there before, in a kind of pleasantly incessant deja vu. Pema adopts a very down-to-earth writing style that gets to the heart of the matter in a language everyone can understand.

The first chapter is entitled Intimacy with Fear. The underlying idea is that we need to learn to stop running away from fear, and instead have the courage to embrace it when it arises. Further, that fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth. A powerful insight that tells of a kind of emotional/psychological barrier, beyond which lies some deep truth about ourselves or the world. I am reminded of Dante's Inferno, and the sage advice that the only way out of hell is through it's centre. As Pema says, "No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear. We are very rarely told to move closer, to just be there, to become familiar with fear."

It is from the second chapter that the title of the book takes it's name: When Things Fall Apart. We learn that Pema began her journey with the advent of what some would call a genuine spiritual experience: standing in front of her adobe house drinking tea, the car drove up and the door banged shut; her husband walked around the corner and told her without warning that he was having an affair and wanted a divorce. "When things fall apart and we're on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that's really swell." The idea is brought home in the famous quote by Karlfried Gras von Durkheim, "Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us."

The next chapter is entitled This Very Moment Is the Perfect Teacher. The basic idea here is to understand that everything we need to develop on our path is happening right now, that we don't need to create artificial situations which test our limits. It happens naturally all the time in the present moment. As Pema states, "Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape—all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can't stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain." Instead, when we meet our edge, we can realize that we have a profound growth opportunity before us. To just be with the experience, allowing the quality of what we're feeling to pierce us to the heart, without reacting or repressing. "Reaching our limit is like finding a doorway to sanity and the unconditional goodness of humanity, rather than meeting an obstacle or a punishment."

Skipping ahead we come to a very interesting chapter entitled Not Causing Harm. The essential idea here is to be mindful of everything happening inside and around us, so we can see things as they arise and before they acquire enough power to control us. Such mindfulness affords us the space to choose how to respond, rather than responding by force of habit or impulsively. In this way we avoid causing harm to others and to ourselves. This idea is very much related to the notion of refraining. However, this refraining is not repression, but rather holding back from habitual or compulsive behaviour, and creating a little space between stimulus and response. Interestingly, Pema states that when we begin to create space, we begin to approach an underlying groundlessness, a kind of free-flow or free-fall that we experience as restlessness, agitation, or fear. "There's something there in us that we don't want to experience, and we never do experience, because we're so quick to act." However, regularly experiencing this phenomenon, with calmness and acceptance, is key to being free from the grip of the compulsive ego, and gives way to the birth of genuine free will.

Another extremely insightful chapter is entitled Eight Worldy Dharmas. This title alludes to one of the classic Buddhist teachings on hope and fear which concerns four pairs of opposites: pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, and fame and disgrace. The idea is that we desire and are attached to the "positive" experiences of life while we dislike and reject the "negative" experiences. The key to understanding lies in seeing the powerful movements of mind to have one and avoid the other. This is what keeps us stuck in the pain of samsara—the continual habitual seeking for pleasure and running away from pain. So how can we be free from these patterns? Pema advises us to begin by noticing how we react when someone praises us, when someone blames us, when we suffer a loss, and so on. Do we just experience things? Or do we unconsciously fashion fantastic stories to accompany experiences thereby getting hooked and caught up in hope and fear—of wonderful and terrible phantoms of the mind that lie outside of what's happening in the present moment? "We might feel that somehow we should try to eradicate these feelings of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace. A more practical approach would be to get to know them, see how they aren't all that solid. Then the eight worldy dharmas become the means for growing wiser as well as kinder and more content." Interesting. Closely related to this is the idea of how, "... [w]e carry around a subjective reality that continuously triggers our emotional reactions." We unfailingly misinterpret statements, due to our conditioning and patterns, and spin off in these patterned directions. If we could only observe how we do this, bring this process into consciousness, we would achieve a level of freedom from these unconscious habitual processes. We would be able to see them as they arise, and we would no longer allow ourselves to spin. It is precisely these emotional reactions that manifest when we get hooked by one of the eight worldy dharmas, which in turn form the foundation of our subjective reality.

One last chapter worth mentioning which is particularly interesting from a practical perspective is entitled Going Against the Grain. It provides a concrete psychological tool for dealing with all kinds of physical, emotional, and psychological pain and turmoil. In fact, the method introduced as tonglen practice is more than just a tool for dealing with pain: it repatterns the mind by transforming old patterns of reaction and repression into new patterns of calmness and acceptance. But it goes further; tonglen practice actually reconditions the mind to be an agent of positive change, rather than solely a passive recipient and endurer of pain and suffering. The practice involves breathing in the pain of others (or our own), while allowing oneself to fully experience the pain, and breathing out calmness, kindness, or whatever we feel is appropriate in the present situation. One does not just visualize or imagine, but one actually attempts to create the feelings of calmness and kindness, while radiating these feelings outward with each out breath, focusing these feelings on the person(s) of interest. A powerful technique employing feelings and emotions to reprogram negative mental patterns into more constructive forms.

This is just a sampling of some of the material covered in the book. After reading, I found myself in better spirits, and better equipped to deal with the pressures and difficulties of modern life. I also found myself employing some of the techniques described in my daily interactions, resulting in a capacity to see through some of the games we play, and an ability to touch the underlying pain with a sense of acceptance and forgiveness. I'm grateful that Pema chose to share her extraordinary insights on the skillful handling of human pain and suffering. It is clear that she has been through difficult times herself, and is offering the benefit of the fruits of her personal experience, supported by an all-too-uncommon understanding of human nature.

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