This is the second of twelve posts in the Exploring Mindfulness blog series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. This post addresses chapter three through five. (4 min read)
In the introduction Pema Chödrön identifies maitri as the main underlying thread of the seven years of her talks that led to this book. I thought it would be helpful to begin this reflection by describing maitri in more detail.
Maitri (pronounced mītrē): Developing loving-kindness and unconditional friendship with ourselves. Maitri is to see ones habits and patterns unvarnished and with unconditional friendliness. Pema Chödrön emphasizes that this is not self-improvement process,
rather it is a process by which self-deception becomes so skillfully and compassionately exposed that there’s no mask to hide us.
In chapter three, she writes, “We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives”. So we meditate to be awake—not to be good at it, not to be good. And what is it that we are to be awake to? We are to be awake to being here and now. The present moment is the teacher that we need right here and right now. We have, then, a very reliable teacher on whom we can always rely.
But what if this teacher tells us that we are to “lean into the sharp points”; that we are to confront the painful things—the things that our instincts tell us to flee? What if this very moment is a very painful moment—a moment of fear, despair, shame, or physical pain? What if this moment seems unbearably lonely? Is this really a teacher we should stay with?
At first, it may seem contradictory to self-love to expose ourselves to such pain. The point, however, is that suffering is lessened by facing pain, seeing it for what it is, and coming to understand its impermanence. These things are hard to do, but they can be learned. Having the courage to learn this is an act of love and compassion toward ourselves.
Here’s how Pema Chödrön puts it:
The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening… Basically, life has just nailed us… Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limit and to not get carried away by hope and fear… What’s encouraging about meditation is that even if we shut down, we can no longer shut down in ignorance. We’re able to see how we run and hide… And we’re also able to see how we could open and relax.
So, consider the alternative to staying with the moment—pushing away reality and grasping at comfort and protection. Since what we grasp is not real comfort or real protection, we continue to grasp all the more desperately in the futile hope that we will find something to which we can hold on. This endless chase is the very core of addiction. The essence of Buddhist practices in general and mindfulness, in particular, is to refrain from pushing away pain or holding on to pleasure.
If only we can stay with our teacher—this present moment, however painful, we can learn what it has to teach.
Before beginning, here a some principles distilled from these chapters to help you to meditate.
- The goal is mindfulness. Meditation is only the vehicle. We do not strive to be good meditators.
- Mindfulness is broad awareness versus laser focus. It is helpful to think of it as a soft focus.
- Clear awareness is impermanent. That is the nature of things; a clear sky is impermanent; still water is impermanent. A cloud passes through the clear sky. The winds create a ripple in the water. Then it passes. So do not expect many consecutive moments of clear awareness—if you have three seconds, that is great.
- Label your rambling thoughts, “thinking.” Do this without judgment, loving-kindness toward yourself. Then simply begin again.
Sit comfortably but with a straight back, a relaxed chest, and with your eyes closed or half-closed. Say to yourself (aloud or silently) “I am here, and this is now.” For a moment, feel the seat or cushion beneath you. Be aware of the space you are in with everything around you, but focus on nothing in particular. You can look around or, with your eyes closed, scan the space by memory.
After a while, shift your focus to worry, pain, or sorrow that is present to you today. Think of it as if it is following you as you walk away. Imagine yourself stopping, turning around, and facing it. Say to it, “What do you have to teach me today?”
Then listen to its response in your body. Where do you feel this worry, pain or sorrow; in your chest? In your gut? What does it feel like? Notice its density. If it feels solid and static, ask yourself, “Is this really as solid and static as it feels?” Maybe your answer, in the moment, is “yes.” That is okay. Accept this. Say to yourself, “At this moment my (worry, pain, sorrow) feels solid, dense & enduring even as I am learning that this may not be the case.”
If you can locate a different pain, sorrow, or worry in your body, shift your awareness there. Focus on that for a moment in the same we just did. If you don’t have another pain, worry or sorrow, sit mindfully for a few minutes.
Thanks for participating!
ॐ I bow to you,
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Next Post: Refraining will be published on 5/17/20 and it will focus on chapter six.