One of my most cherished teachers is the gentle but tireless Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön.
Over the years, I have enjoyed her wonderful books, her timeless wisdom and her gentle and loving approach to life.
Perhaps the most attractive thing about Pema is her insight into the human condition of suffering and the universality of love and compassion.
While it is impossible to distill Pema’s wisdom into one post, I am outlining some of her lessons, guidelines and wisdom.
1. The Preciousness of Every Moment
There is a story of a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse. Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly. Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.― Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape: How to Love Yourself and Your World
I love the story of the tigers and the strawberries and how it highlights that we tend to focus on the tigers of our lives a lot of the time, instead of savoring the strawberries.
Take a deep breath and take in the deliciousness of life.
Instead of hoping for the future and thinking about the past, look for the delight in the here and the now.
Move slowly and gently, taking it all in. Allow radical kindness and compassion for you and other sentient beings.
Reduce distractions and multitasking… focus on the task at hand and direct your attention to it.
The truth, as Pema so eloquently puts it, is that every moment of the present is a gift or a ‘present’ and we can choose to appreciate it and savor the preciousness of it.
When you redirect your perspective and focus to that simple but undeniable truth, the stories of lack, limitation and tigers might just fall apart.
Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet. ― Thích Nhất Hạnh
2. The Chaos Theory of Life
We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times
Pema’s quote above says that this cycle of life–the chaos and order–are inevitable and always in the process of motion.
Likewise, the second law of thermodynamics in physics says that everything in the universe is moving towards chaos. Out of the chaos springs forth order, only to fall apart again.
At the outset, this may sound depressing, but if you go deeper and have the courage to embrace change, it is very liberating to know that things are continually transforming.
If you change your filter or perspective, this transformation will appear fascinating and inspiring instead of scary and depressing.
You may have gotten used to the idea of static comfort zones but eventually solidity, rigidity and non-transformation are more painful than the allowing of it.
Being vulnerable to the various seasons of life is scary but flexibility leaves more room for change in contrast to inflexibility and solidity. After all, a flexible branch or plant can weather the storm where solid trees get uprooted.
What can we do? Pema’s advice is golden in these difficult moments of life. She says that we need to allow and provide room for sadness and joy to happen, without selectively shutting out one or the other.
Instead of struggling against everything, non-grasping and allowing are more gentle and kind approaches.
Leading researcher on shame and vulnerability, Brené Brown echoes the same sentiment and expresses it well:
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. ― Brené Brown
3. The Rinpoche in Disguise
Feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are. ― Pema Chödrön
Pema mentions that all the troubles and problems in your life are great teachers, or revered Rinpoches, in disguise.
I read this idea in one of her books a long time ago and I was immediately captured by the elegance and the power of this simple suggestion.
You might be avoiding the difficult emotions, situations and moments of your life, but it might benefit you greatly to ask instead: “What can I learn from this?”
I realized that the only reason these wonderful teachers in disguise were showing up in my life, over and over again, was that I had not yet internalized the message that I needed to learn.
I also admire Pema’s choice of words that difficult feelings are messengers that show you, in terrifying clarity, where it is that we are stuck. And if we choose to see them in a different light instead of shunning them, we become aware of a different way to look at them.
But it also involves casting aside the judging, criticizing and egocentric mind and allowing the timeless wisdom of these life lessons to internalize and sink in. The only way that is possible is if you make room for them, allow them, welcome them and look at them differently.
Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. ― Pema Chödrön
4. Becoming a Self-Advocate
The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves. ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times
You might be your own worst critic and the popular media and social conditions do not assist either because they impose unrealistic and perfectionistic expectations on people.
We usually end up becoming our harshest critic, with the false assumption that the harder we push ourselves, the better we will get and it will lead to a life of great abundance.
But unfortunately, harshness and criticism replace compassion and self-love and transform into a habit that gets hard to shake off.
Instead, perhaps you should become the greatest advocate of you and treat yourself with the same amount of compassion and understanding that you afford others.
The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely. ― C.G. Jung
5. The Sky And The Weather
You are the sky. Everything else–it’s just the weather. ― Pema Chödrön
Pema teaches that at your deepest core, you are the unchanging brilliance of a crystal clear sky.
Everything else―situations, difficulties, emotions, feelings―are like the weather and come and go.
Do you associate yourself with the ever-changing weather or with the endless expansive sky? We forget that nothing lasts forever and jump headlong into the stories that we tell ourselves.
Another way is to understand the impermanence of the weather and not get carried away by it, choosing instead to become aware and dwell in the vast sky.
Be happy; without reason.― Tsoknyi Rinpoche
6. The Magic of Awakening
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
The search to become and feel safe might just be keeping you in your comfort zone and that significantly diminishes your life experience.
Pema advises that to experience unbridled aliveness and radiance and wakefulness, you need to trust the unknown and leave your safety nest behind.
Much like the paradox of the opposites, or Yin and Yang, our greatest aliveness might just be buried deep in the most insurmountable problems.
To strive for a greater cause, to challenge yourself, to have the heart and the stomach to step into the unknown, continually makes your life highly meaningful and vibrant.
7. On Seeking Resolution
As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity. ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
The judging mind is forever trying to label everything as right or wrong and seeks the resolution of everything in life. The need to compartmentalize everything neatly in its place leads to much suffering and lack of peace.
Pema suggests a better way, a middle ground instead of wanting to seek resolution when none is to be found. She suggests a state of mind that can find peace in spite of the uncertainty.
Instead of suffering due to wanting to resolve everything, we are better off accepting and allowing the paradox of uncertainty and deep ambiguity onto our lives.
8. The Way out of Fear
Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, “May I have permission to go into battle with you?” Fear said, “Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission.” Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?” Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear. ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
Fear whispers into your ears all the time and whether you listen to it or not is your choice.
Many of us make the mistake of assuming the fearful stories and scenarios that we confront in our imaginations as true. What if you chose to befriend fear and instead of getting paralyzed by the stories, you decided to find out for yourself and do the thing you feared.
Fear is built on structures of assumptions, lack of action and lack of awareness. Once you move through the fog of fear and shine the light of awareness by taking action or moving forward, fear loses its power and efficacy.
9. The Subtle Art of Detachment
We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea. ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
One of the main things that prevent people from enjoying and living a fulfilled life is the excess attachment to things that are, by nature, impermanent.
Pema’s words of wisdom remind me of the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley called Ozymandias. Shelley reminds us that even if we are great kings, we are still impermanent.
What really matters is what we are doing with the time that we are being offered. Do we choose to do the best that we can and enjoy every moment and live a life of worth and service, or do we stay attached and in fear?
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay . Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare . The lone and level sands stretch far away. ― Percy Bysshe Shelley
10. The Real Meaning of Meditation
Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. ― Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape: How to Love Yourself and Your World
Many people do not quite get the real reason of meditation and sitting in silence. They think it is a means to make the self better or improve a defective person.
The real meaning and purpose of meditation is to allow all the assumptions, false beliefs and judgments that you have made about who you think you are to fall apart, and in doing so uncover your true nature.
This true nature is also called ‘buddha nature‘ and is accessible to everyone equally. It a state of complete friendliness, compassion and equanimity with who you really are.
When you approach meditation and life with the open curiosity and deep compassion of becoming friends with your deepest self instead of ‘fixing yourself,’ you see it in an entirely different light.
I love the description of meditation from Sogyal Rinpoche:
Quietly sitting, body still, speech silent, mind at peace, let your thoughts and emotions, whatever arises, come and go, without clinging to anything.
The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this life. For it is only through meditation that you can undertake the journey to discover your true nature, and so find the stability and confidence you will need to live, and die, well. Meditation is the road to enlightenment.
Gone is the hurried wanting and desire or the competition to look cool and fit into a mould. Instead, it is replaced with the sheer joy and happiness of ‘maitreyi’ or unconditional friendliness.
As the twelfth-century Tibetian yogi Milarepa said when he heard of his student Gampopa’s peak experiences, ‘They are neither good nor bad. Keep meditating.’ ― Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times
11. The Unfettered Mind, The Beginners Mind
If your mind is expansive and unfettered, you will find yourself in a more accommodating world, a place that’s endlessly interesting and alive. That quality isn’t inherent in the place but in your state of mind. ― Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change
The question that I like to ask myself is whether I am being closed and shut down or am I approaching life with flexibility and expansiveness.
While the former is not bad and the latter good, rather, they are just different ways to experience the joys of being. Some ways take you closer to suffering and some take you into expansiveness, joy and aliveness.
When you maintain a limber, flexible mind and not get too tied up in your opinions and judgments, you are allowing the unfettered mind.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. ― Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind
12. Cultivating Fierce Compassion
Compassionate action starts with seeing yourself when you start to make yourself right and when you start to make yourself wrong. At that point you could just contemplate the fact that there is a larger alternative to either of those, a more tender, shaky kind of place where you could live. – Pema Chödrön
Just as the Persian Poet, Hafiz, says that there is a place between wrong doing and right doing and asks if you will meet him there, Pema also emphasized the importance of watching how we take sides.
Everything that you do and think is labeled as right and wrong, and if you even just begin to shine the light of awareness on that habitual thinking, you will realize that it may not always be so.