This is the eleventh of twelve posts in the Exploring Mindfulness blog series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. This post addresses Chapters Eighteen through Twenty. Participants are encouraged to practice mindfulness meditation daily throughout the twelve weeks, even if for five minutes at a time. (6 min read)
Pema observes that the heaviest burden we carry is also the least necessary. We are most burdened by our way of seeing reality—distorted to the point of illusion. This illusion is traditionally referred to as “ignorance.” We don’t like reality when it is painful. From a mindful perspective, there is only one reality, and all other interpretations, denials, or escapes from reality are ignorance. We think reality is our burden, yet the actual burden is our flight from reality. Wanting our reality to be different just makes us more unhappy because even moments of pain also contain joy—they are not opposites, they co-exist. Denying reality obscures the joy in the present moment. To awaken is to claim the joy that is already present. Pema writes that when we can do this:
Life feels spacious, like the sky and the sea. There’s room to relax and breathe and swim so far out that we no longer have the reference point of the shore.
This passage reminds me of what I felt whenever I visited the shore when I was young. I’d gaze at the ocean, and my first thought would be, “It’s still here”—the waves crash, and the undertow recedes just as it did when I was here before and all the time since. The second thought comes, especially at night, when I’d imagine swimming out into the sea’s dark expanse with its unfathomable depths. With terror, I’d imagine myself swimming until the shoreline receded. I felt a touch of this terror when I read the above-quoted passage. It strikes me that the most challenging part of mindfulness practices for me is my fear of spaciousness. Spaciousness is lovely in one sense, but Pema also uses the word “groundlessness”, which is spaciousness without a floor! In one of my most terrifying childhood nightmares, I was lifted into the sky by an invisible hand and carried away from everything I knew and everyone who cared for me.
I feel a little like that when I think about mediation—afraid to be alone, groundless without my familiar thoughts and stories, unprotected by a parent or god who makes everything okay. Yet, this is what it takes to recognize the joy, the goodness, and the openness that is always present. Each time I meditate I am opening myself up in a small way to my fear of groundlessness. My nightmare turns out to be true. The invisible hand of reality lifts me away from my illusion of safety and control. But this doesn’t have to be a nightmare if as I’m drawn further up into the sky, I exclaim, “Weeeeee”—delighted by the vast expanse, or I marveling at how small the house, the town, or the world that had defined me, really were.
Similarly, alone in the ocean with nothing but water and the horizon, I am free from the boundaries that define me. I can either feel joy in the freedom or fear drowning. There is only one reality. Even as we play joyfully in the vast sea, we will eventually tire and drown. Even as we enjoy life in the present moment, we will eventually succumb to accident or illness. Nowhere is safe from pain or death, but that is okay unless we miss the beauty for fear of not being able to protect ourselves, for fear of not being in control. Each minute I sit in meditation, I open myself up to spaciousness by swimming out into the ocean despite my fear and may gradually enjoy floating on my back a little more and fear sinking a little less.
The Dilemma of Coming up Short
In Chapter Eighteen, Pema discusses the discrepancy between our aspirations and our actual behavior. She gives an example of a moment of inspiration: Perhaps we just read something that shifts our perspective. “We feel”, she says, “that we’ve just connected with a truth we’ve always known and that if we could just learn more about it, our life would be delightful and rich.” At these moments, we feel expansive. We feel changed and committed to going about our life more generously— we feel, Pema explains, “a great tenderness toward everyone, and a commitment to benefit others”. Only hours or even minutes later, we may think critically about someone or turn down an opportunity to help a friend because of the inconvenience. When we realize we’ve done this, we may then feel deflated and self-critical.
But she tells us with equanimity,
It’s not a matter of the right choice or the wrong choice, but simply that we are often presented with a dilemma about bringing together the inspiration of the teachings with what they mean to us on the spot. There is a perplexing tension between our aspirations and the reality of feeling tired, hungry, stressed-out, afraid, bored, angry, or whatever we experience in any given moment of our life.
The Trick of Choicelessness
In Chapter Twenty, Pema introduces us to the Samaya Bond that a dedicated student of Buddhism may make with a teacher. She says,
a complete and unconditional relationship between student and teacher: a commitment to sanity—to indestructible sanity. Samaya is like a marriage with reality, a marriage with the phenomenal world.
She then extends the concept of Samaya to mean the commitment we can choose to make with reality. She describes Samaya as a trick. “Choosing” reality by choosing the world as it actually is. By committing to reality, we feel we have a choice. But there is no choice, there is only the world as it actually is. Reality is like a room with no exit. But by choosing not to escape, we do not spend our lives in the futile search for an exit. The trick, then, is in accepting what already is.
Three Traditional Methods For Working With Chaos
The three methods of working with chaos described in Chapter Nineteen make an excellent reference for some of the core teachings described in this book overall. I have included here an outline of the chapter. One option for a regular mindfulness meditation practice is to practice these three methods for a set number of days, such as 21, 30, or 90—whatever seems appropriate for you.
- No More Struggle
- Using Poison As Medicine
- Seeing Whatever Arises as Enlightened Wisdom
- No More Struggle: The primary method for working with painful situations
- During meditation, whatever arises in our mind, we look at directly, name it “Thinking,” and simply go back to the immediacy of the breath. Again & again return to pristine awareness free of concepts.
- Don’t judge the thoughts or judge yourself for thinking them.
- “Things arise, and things dissolve forever and ever”.
- Meditation practice is not about accomplishing anything, but about ceasing to struggle & relaxing as it is.
- Using Poison as Medicine. When any emotional or physical pain arises, let go of the storyline and breathe it in. Tonglen is a form of this method. The three traditional poisons are:
- Passion (craving, addiction, greed)
- Aggression (hatred)
- Ignorance (illusion, distorted thinking)
- The poisons of passion, aggression, and ignorance are taken as the seeds of compassion because pain is a universal experience of all beings.
- The main point of these methods is to dissolve the dualistic struggle: our habitual tendency to struggle against what’s happening to or within us. We can use everything that happens to us as a means of waking up (awakening).
- As one Lojong slogan says, “When the world is filled with evil, all mishaps, all difficulties, should be transformed into the path of enlightenment.”
- Regard whatever arises as the manifestation of awakened energy.
- We can think of ourselves as already awake; we can regard our world as already sacred.
- This reverses our fundamental habitual pattern of trying to avoid conflict, trying to make ourselves better than we are, trying to prove that pain is a mistake and would not exist in our lives if only we did all the right things.
- The elemental struggle is with our feeling of being wrong and our guilt and shame at what we are. That’s what we have to befriend.
- We can dissolve the illusion of dualism between us and them, between this and that, and between here and there by moving toward what we find challenging and wish to push away
In sum, lighten up, lower your standard, relax as it is, and enjoy the ride because you are already there.
Settle into a sitting position, and be aware that you are sitting. For a few moments, focus on your breath. Label any thought that arises as “thinking” and let it go.
Eventually, focus on each of the phrases below, one at a time. Speak each one of them aloud or quietly to yourself. Repeat each one at least once before going on to the next.
There is no better time than right now.
There is no better place than here.
There is no reason to struggle
I am already awake.
Thanks for participating!
ॐ I bow to you,
Next Post: 7/19/20 and will focus on Chapters Twenty-One and Twenty-Two.