This is the last of twelve posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. This post addresses Chapters Twenty-One and Twenty Two. Participants are encouraged to practice mindfulness meditation daily throughout the twelve weeks, even if for five minutes at a time. (3.5 min read)
Reversing the Wheel of Samsara
Are the dharma (teachings) and meditation enough? Are they relevant and accessible in the most painful or overwhelming situations? Pema Chödrön acknowledges the role of therapy as a path for some. Yet she feels that the dharma is more revolutionary. She writes,
For many of us the dharma itself supplies the tools and support we need to find our own beauty, our own insight, our own ability to work with neurosis and pain.
In traditional Buddhism, Samsara refers to the human predicament. Because of our conditioning, we grasp pleasure and push away pain, as opposed to honoring whatever arises, we are caught in the endless cycle of suffering known as the Wheel of Samsara. Outside the wheel, the human predicament is observed by a bodhisattva, one with an awakened heart, who is weeping for those of us trapped in our own suffering, like Jesus wept while gazing at Jerusalem from the hillside. At the hub of the wheel are the three poisons we discussed in the last post: passion, aggression, and ignorance. These propel the wheel continuously in the same direction unless the dharma is received, takes root and flourishes within us.
In Chapter Twenty-One, Pema tells of a moment when the dharma spontaneously expressed itself within her. She was facing a financial crisis. She described feeling a considerable weight and the beginning of panic. This was a familiar feeling from past crises. Pema explains that she doesn’t know why this was the moment that she saw things differently; nonetheless, she recognized her habitual thinking and, she writes,
I stopped following through with my habitual plan to save the day… I decided to see what would happen without my input—even if it meant that everything would fall apart. Sometimes you just have to let everything fall apart. I felt like there was a huge wheel that had colossal momentum for going in a habitual direction, and I was turning it around.
Pema stopped and responded differently than she otherwise would have. She speculates that she could experiment this way without becoming rigid or stuck because of the training she had in making friends with her thoughts and emotions.
The Path is the Goal
Pema explains that the path is not a road with a destination—with an estimated-time-of-arrival. It is “the moment-by-moment evolution of our experience…”.
When I was a child of about eight, my father, without realizing it, gave me instruction on the path as the goal. He was of the generation that was born before most people could afford cars, and he developed a life long love for driving and seeing the sights. One long weekend he and my mother piled their five sons into the station wagon to drive from Delaware to the western Maryland portion of the Appalachian range. The novelty wore off quickly for me, and I felt compelled to ask again and again, “Where are we going, and when are we going to get there?” In this case, his seemingly enigmatic answers—that we aren’t going anyway and that we were already there— were not the sarcastic retorts of an annoyed parent—but were literally true. In Pema’s words,
When something hurts in life, we don’t usually think of it as our path or as the source of wisdom”, she observes, adding, “In fact, we think that the reason we’re on the path is to get rid of this painful feeling (for example, “When I get to L.A., I won’t feel this way anymore.”) At that level of wanting to get rid of our feeling, we naively cultivate a subtle aggression against ourselves. However, the fact is that anyone who has used the moments and days and years of his or her life to become wiser, kinder, and more at home in the world has learned from what has happened right now… If there’s any possibility for enlightenment, it’s right now, not at some future time. Now is the time.
Even as we travel, we have already arrived.
Settle into a comfortable but straight-backed sitting position, and focus light attention awhile on your breath. Be lightly aware of the room around you and such things as temperature, sounds, smells, and—if your eyes are softly opened—light, shadows, shapes, and textures. Label any thought that arises as “thinking” and let it go—no need to struggle.
Eventually, focus on a difficult or awkward situation you are facing, perhaps something that you will be addressing in the next week. Imagine yourself in that situation. Allow yourself to experience the emotions that arise. Think of ways that you would typically react. Notice your conditioned thoughts, feelings, and actions. Imagine yourself responding in different ways. Ask yourself, “What would it be like to respond to this situation with interest, engagement, and compassion, but without investment in the outcome”?
I can think of no better way to end this series than by quoting the final sentence of When Things Fall Apart:
-May these teachings take root and flourish for the benefit of all sentient beings now and in the future. –
Thanks for sticking with this until the end.
ॐ I bow to you,