“Happiness, not in another place, but this place…not for another hour, but this hour,” Walt Whitman assured us nearly two centuries ago. Yet how few of us truly appreciate life’s simple pleasures: the ecstasy of a deep, dream-dazed sleep after a dozen miserable nights of insomnia or the glorious freedom of a Sunday morning with no one to see and nothing to do? Do we rejoice at the sound of our lover’s key unlocking the door or the miracle of our lost dog finding his way home? No, instead we moan about our mortgage, gossip about the inconsequential lives of imbeciles, gripe about having to go to yet another pointless meeting, and impatiently tap our feet and let out an exasperated sigh when an elderly coupon-clipping lady holds up the line at the grocery store.
According to Pema Chodron, the ordained Buddhist monk behind the much beloved Wisdom of No Escape, the great thief of joy is resentment. When we forget what we have and only focus on what we lack and what we want, we conclude contentment is not in this place but another place, not in this hour but another hour. We’ll be happy, we tell ourselves, when we get the hip mid-century living room or the stylish wardrobe befitting a Vogue cover.
But what does the attainment of our ambitions actually get us? Do we feel less melancholic/despondent/angsty/anxiety-ridden when we fulfill our desires? No, getting what we want only makes us want more: the vintage velvet coach doesn’t look quite as charming in real life as it did on our Pinterest board, the blouse and trousers don’t look as chic on us as they did on that perfectly-proportioned fashion model. So we seek satisfaction in yet something else: a 1950s gold lamp, a Prada handbag hoping these things will finally satiate us.
For Chodron, the only way to escape this hedonic treadmill is to delight in what we usually neglect or ignore. To be awake to the beauty of ordinary moments— the unparalleled pleasure of clean sheets fresh out the dryer or the delight of an impromptu picnic in a field of tulips or the delectable bliss of chocolate raspberry gelato— is to step beyond the smallness of our own experience, beyond our bottomless desires and endless “more, more, more,” and into a wider perspective that recognizes the preciousness of every fleeting instant of our finite time on Earth. As Proust once reminded us, beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths. In a similar sentiment, Chodron urges us to marvel at the overlooked miracles all around us:
“That sense of wonder and delight is present in every moment, every breath, every step, every movement of our own ordinary everyday lives, if we can connect with it. The greatest obstacle to connecting with our joy is resentment.
Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how precious things are. Resenting what happens to you and complaining about your life are like refusing to smell the wild roses on your morning walk, or like being so blind that you don’t see a huge black raven when it lands in the tree that you’re sitting under. We can get so caught up in our own personal pain or worries that we don’t notice that the wind has come up or that somebody has put flowers on the table.”
For centuries, artists created “memento mori,” works meant to remind us of death’s inevitability. Latin for “remember that you have to die,” a memento mori often featured a skull or an hourglass, unsettling symbols of mortality. Though Jean Morin’s skull paintings or the elaborate crypts of friars’ bones beneath Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church in Rome might seem morbid or disturbing, they communicate an important— perhaps the most important— fact of life: we will die. “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be,” reads a haunting inscription in the Santa Maria catacombs. Whether you’re a pitiful peasant or a great king, in a hundred years, you— too— will be skull and bones, forgotten beneath the sands of time and reduced to a few insignificant words on a tombstone.
When we’ll perish, we cannot know. We could die fifty years from now, an old woman who’s done everything she set out to do— won the Pulitzer Prize, beheld the majesty of the Sistine Chapel, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, seen Machu Picchu— or we could die unexpectedly on the way to work tomorrow. The grim reaper rarely announces his arrival: we die suddenly of a heart attack and collapse over our morning coffee, we say “I love you” to our mother like we have hundreds of times, wave goodbye and never return.
Some say death is the domain of melancholy emo kids and brooding philosophers, but it’s actually something we should all ponder. When we reckon with death— that we will most certainly die but we can never know how or when— we will finally live. No longer will we overlook the loneliness-lessening comfort of recognizing ourselves in a character from a book, nor will we take for granted simple pleasures like a good laugh or hot chocolate on a chilly autumn afternoon. We’ll no longer postpone visiting that quaint town in the English countryside or procrastinate on doing the things we’ve always wanted to. Life with its clean sheets and tulip fields and chocolate raspberry gelato, we realize, is too precious to squander.
What is war? In its most literal sense, war is conflict between nations and soldiers on a battlefield. But a domestic dispute over dirty dishes, an argument about abortion with our right-wing great uncle are their own kind of war. War is just as much seething tempers and screaming matches as the thunderous hail of bomb blasts and gun shots.
The greatest (and perhaps most ironic) tragedy is that our closest relationships are often the most brutal battlegrounds. In the heat of an argument, we understand our husbands and wives— not as people we love/adore/admire— but as hostile enemies we must overpower. A lover’s quarrel is an attempt to defend your territory, a petty desire to be right and plant your flag in the ground. When a marriage— or any relationship for that matter— becomes strained enough, the two parties can’t leave the battleground and actually talk.
So how do end war both in our own lives and in the greater world? around the block and around the globe? In her small but infinitely insightful Practicing Peace, Buddhist monk and forgiver of our all-too-human frailties Pema Chodron suggests war and peace have less to do with nations than with individuals. After all, a nation will only attack another if its citizens harbor hatred in their hearts. If we want to end hostilities between countries, we first have to be loving and open-minded ourselves. As Chodron so eloquently notes:
“War and peace start in the hearts of individuals…war begins when we harden our hearts, and we harden them easily— in minor ways and then in quite serious, major ways, such as hatred and prejudice— whenever we feel uncomfortable. It’s so sad, really, because our motivation in hardening our hearts is to find some kind of ease, some kind of freedom from the distress that we’re feeling.
Someone once gave me a poem with a line in it that offers a good definition of peace: “Softening what is rigid in our hearts.” We can talk about ending war and we can march for ending war, we can do everything in our power, but war is never going to end as long as our hearts are hardened against each other.”
It’s not news that political polarization is at an all-time high. Recently, one study found that Americans feel disgusted by those who disagree with them— not just angered. The liberal, for instance, no longer views the stanch conservative as a supporter of nationalism, small government, and free enterprise; he sees him as a ruthless, greedy capitalist, a bigot, a racist, an anti-Semite. The conservative, on the other hand, no longer views the long-haired liberal as merely a lover of flower child notions like multiculturalism and income equality; he sees him as a threat to wholesome family values, a socialist, a menace to national security and the very foundations of American life.
In our polarized climate, it’s difficult— near impossible— to have a discussion with those on the other side of the political divide. If a liberal and conservative do try to have an open dialogue about an important topic— immigration, climate change, black lives vs. all lives— they usually argue, not debate. The aim? To prove they are wrong and we are right.
The problem is if we close our hearts to each other, we’ll eventually close our minds. When we make up our minds that an entire political party/nation is worthy of our condemnation, that they are wrong and we are right, we can no longer hear the other side. As Chodron writes,
“The next time you get angry check out your righteous indignation, check out your fundamentalism that supports your hatred of this person, because this one really is bad— this politician, that leader, those heads of big companies. Or maybe it’s rage at an individual who has harmed you personally or harmed your loved ones. A fundamentalist mind is a mind that has become rigid. First the heart closes, then the mind becomes hardened into a view, then you can justify your hatred of another human being because of what they represent and what they say and do.”
What, exactly, does this mean? It means that when we’re feeling certain of our position’s moral superiority, when our beliefs are dangerously close to solidifying into dogmatic ideology, we fight to keep an open heart and an open mind. The conservative Catholic shouldn’t condemn women who support abortion as murderers and degenerate sluts who have no respect for human life. Nor should the radical feminist denounce those who are pro-life as puritanical upholders of the patriarchy and oppressive violators of women’s rights. Will the two ever find common ground? Most likely not. But they can at least respectfully listen to each other’s point-of-view without resorting to school yard insults and self-righteous moralizing.
War in all its forms— from the micro-scale of personal relationships to the macro-scale of relationships between countries— only occurs when we adopt an us vs. them mentality. They’re wrong, we’re right; they’re ignorant, we’re informed; they’re gullible idiots who believe any half-brained conspiracy theory on Fox News; we’re critical thinkers who fact-check and only read the New York Times.
This notion of “us” and “them” is responsible for the most atrocious of human crimes— the massacre of millions of Jews, the enslavement of African Americans, the subjugation of women since the beginning of time. To stop violence of all kinds, we must never forget each other’s humanity: our opposition isn’t the enemy— we’re all on the same side.
Chodron might be an ordained Buddhist monk, but she— too— occasionally struggles to be compassionate and kind. Outraged that her opposition is being so small-minded, Chodron decides he’s headstrong and rigid. But after some reflection, she has a rather humbling realization: she’s being just as small-minded! In order to have a real conversation, both would have to empathically listen and let go of the egotistic need to be right. In the end, the goal of a conversation shouldn’t be to prove our position— it should be to gain some sort of wisdom or insight:
“I try to practice what I preach; I’m not always that good at it but I really do try. The other night, I was getting hard-hearted, close-minded, and fundamentalist about somebody else, and I remembered this expression that you can never hate somebody if you stand in their shoes. I was angry at him because he was holding such a rigid view. In that instant I was able to put myself in his shoes and I realized, ‘I’m just as riled up and self-righteous and close-minded about this as he is. We’re exactly in the same place!” And I saw that the more I held on to my view, the more polarized we would become, and the more we’d just be mirror images of one another— two people with closed minds and hard hearts who both think they’re right, screaming at each other.”
What is a habit? Oxford English Dictionary defines habit as a “settled or regular tendency or practice.” Brewing a cup of coffee, stumbling into the bathroom and brushing our teeth, rising at six every morning: each is a habit, a task we ordinarily undertake. Habits may make up the mundane material of our day-to-day, but they dictate our destiny (“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our our lives,” as Annie Dillard so exquisitely says.) It’s simple: if we have good habits, we’ll lead good lives. If, for example, we’re in the habit of exercising daily and eating only healthy, wholesome foods, we’ll be fit and full of vigor. If, on the other hand, we’re in the habit of smoking half a pack of Marlboros and guzzling a gallon of Jameson every night, we’ll waste our days miserably hung over.
The beauty of habits is they’re automatic: they don’t require much— if any— effort. When we leave for the office every morning, we don’t have to consciously think “turn the key in the ignition,” “shift from break to drive,” “press the accelerator.” Nor do we have to consciously think to find our way there. Because we drive to and from work twice a day, five times a week, we instinctively know where to get on and off the freeway, where to make a right or left turn.
Rather than fall into familiar roles and act out the same habitual patterns, ordained Buddhist monk and master of mindfulness Pema Chodron suggests we pause and get fully present before we react in the same unhelpful ways. In her life-changing Practicing Peace, she makes a radical, revolutionary assertion: war and peace begin with individuals, not with nations. If we want to create a more loving world, if we want to build a society based on loving-kindness and mutual respect rather than hostility and hate, we must first look at ourselves: how do we behave with others day to day? do we act with compassion and understanding or do we judge and discriminate? if there’s conflict, do we seek to find a compromise or do we wage war against our enemies? The key to peaceful relationships whether between nations and citizens or friends and family is thinking before we act and before we speak. Maintaining our composure, of course, is difficult when we feel wronged or angry. As Chodron writes:
“When we’re feeling aggressive— and I think this would go for any strong emotion— there’s a seductive quality that pulls us in the direction of wanting to get some resolution. We feel restless, agitated, ill at ease. It hurts so much to feel the aggression that we want it to be resolved. Right then, we could change the way we look at this discomfort and practice patience. But what do we usually do? We do exactly what is going to escalate the aggression and the suffering. We strike out, we hit back. Someone insults us and, initially, there is some softness there— if you can practice patience, you can catch it— but usually you don’t even realize there was any softness. You find yourself in the middle of a hot, noisy, pulsating, wanting-to-get-even state of mind. It has a very unforgiving quality to it. With your words or your actions, in order to escape the pain of aggression, you create more aggression and pain.”
What do we do when someone hurts or humiliates us? When someone attacks us, our first impulse is to fight back. Say our sister accuses us of being cheap. Outraged, we want to defend ourselves and collect evidence to support our case. Has she forgotten all the times we so generously picked up the tab? or that we just covered her share of the security deposit at our new place? How dare she call us cheap? Blood boiling, we want to shout and scream: She was the money-grubbing miser. She was wrong. She owed us an apology.
But where does hurling accusations get us? When two parties are in conflict, does criticizing or pointing fingers ever accomplish anything? Even if someone wrongs us first— makes an unfair allegation, calls us names— do we reach an amicable compromise by launching our own crusade? No, usually bombarding our enemies with bullets of belittlement only makes them fortify their walls and assault us more viciously. For there to be any hope of resolution, we must not add fuel to the flames:
“If we want suffering to lessen, the first step is learning that keeping the cycle of aggression going doesn’t help. It doesn’t bring the relief we seek, and it doesn’t bring happiness to anyone else either. We may not be able to change the outer circumstances, but we can always shift our perspective and dissolve the hatred in our minds.”
It’s a common misconception that Eastern religions advocate pacifism that borders on passivity. Buddhism recalls images of monks meditating serenely in monasteries or sitting cross-legged beneath bonsai trees, their tranquil faces radiating joy and peace. To be spiritually enlightened, we imagine we have to be similarly all-loving and all-forgiving. If a cashier is rude to us, if a hostess is discourteous after we’ve been waiting an interminable two hours to be seated, we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be irritated/irate/angry.
Buddhism may advise us to pause and reflect before we rant and rave, but it never recommends we repress or deny our feelings. We should validate how we feel: it is upsetting when the grocery store clerk barely raises his head to say hello, it is infuriating when the hostess doesn’t apologize for the long wait. We can feel our feelings but choose how to express them. The goal is to bring more alertness, awakeness, and aliveness to our interactions with our fellow human beings. Or—to paraphrase the poetic Rebecca Solnit— we can feel ire without inflicting it. No matter how strong the urge to exact revenge or unleash our rage, Chodron encourages us to simply stay with our difficult feelings:
“So when you’re like a keg of dynamite just about to go off, patience means slowing down at that point— just pausing— instead of immediately acting on your usual, habitual response. You refrain from acting, you stop talking to yourself, and then you connect with the soft spot. But at the same time you are completely and totally honest with yourself about what you are feeling. You’re not suppressing anything; patience has nothing to do with suppression. In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself. If you wait and don’t fuel the rage with your thoughts, you can be very honest about the fact that you long for revenge; nevertheless you keep interrupting the torturous storyline and stay with the underlying vulnerability. That frustration, that uneasiness and vulnerability, is nothing solid. And yet it is painful to experience. Still, just wait and be patient with your anguish and discomfort…This means relaxing with that restless, hot energy— knowing that it’s the only way to find peace for ourselves or the world.”
No human ability is more powerful than the word. “In the beginning was the word,” the Bible reminds us. Words birth new nations, begin and end bloody world wars. They can build bridges or erect walls, promote forgiveness or harden a grudge, resolve differences or incite rancor. They can be stitches and slings or bullets and bombs. They can bandage wounds or leave lifelong scars.
“For every time you regret that you did not say something, you will regret a hundred times that you did not keep your silence,” Leo Tolstoy once wrote. Though it’s tempting to slight our sisters when they say something mean or strike back with a spiteful comment when our boyfriend hurts our feelings or otherwise insults our dignity, retaliating only perpetuates the cycle of suffering. Yes, our boyfriend is a jackass for confessing he finds another woman attractive, but what do we accomplish by getting revenge? We make him insecure and jealous? Do we promote an atmosphere of trust by exaggeratedly checking out every remotely good-looking guy we pass on the street? Do we strengthen our relationship by intentionally drooling over every six-packed movie star we see on TV? No, no matter how much we want retribution for our lover’s insensitivity, our job in life is to keep our side of the street clean:
“At this point you’re getting to know anger and how it easily breeds violent words and actions, and this can be decidedly unnerving. You can see where your anger will lead before you do anything. You’re not repressing it, you’re just sitting there with the pulsating energy— going cold turkey with the aggression— and you get to know the naked energy of anger and the pain it can cause if you react. You’ve followed the tug so many times, you already know. It feels like an undertow, that desire to say something mean, to seek revenge or slander, that desire to complain, to just somehow spill out that aggression. But you slowly realize that those actions don’t get rid of the aggression, they increase it. Instead you’re patient— patient with yourself— and this requires the gentleness and courage of fearlessness.”
Every difficult conversation, every moment of doubt, fear, and insecurity offers an opportunity: will we reenact the same predictable patterns and believe our same habitual stories or will we behave in a new way? Will we be courageous enough to be vulnerable and open up or will we defend ourselves against possible attack by hiding behind an impregnable stockade?
Often times, anger and aggression mask a deeper vulnerability. Why, for instance, are we so outraged at discovering that our partner still stays in contact with his ex? We feel indignation perhaps because we find such a relationship inappropriate, yes, but our swearing and screaming is really just a guise for our insecurity. It’s easier to feel fury than realize just how utterly helpless we are at the hands of our beloved. Those we love— more than anyone else— have the profound power to hurt us deeply: sure, they might love us now, but one day they might reunite with their ex or run off with their skanky, short-skirted secretary. Rather than be vulnerable and reveal these anxieties to our partners (“I know you love me but it makes me feel insecure that you maintain a relationship with your ex. I worry you still harbor feelings.”), we lash out. We harden instead of soften, as Chodron might say: we call our husband a bunch of obscenities, we sulk and spoil our evening out to the movies, we reach out to our ex just to be petty. We don’t dare articulate our actual feelings (“I love you/ I need you/ I’m scared you might leave me.”):
“Behind resistance— definitely behind aggression and jealousy— behind any kind of tension, there is always a soft spot that we’re trying to protect. Someone’s actions hurt our feelings and before we even notice what we’re doing, we armor ourselves in a very old and familiar way. So we can either let go of our solid storyline and connect with that soft spot or we can continue to stubbornly hold on, which means that suffering will continue.”
How can we break destructive, dysfunctional relationship patterns and express ourselves openly and honestly? Chodron has a simple answer: live more mindfully. If we return again and again to the present moment, we can observe our thoughts from a place of detached objectivity, label our thinking as “thinking,” and choose our actions accordingly:
“Mediation teaches us how to open and relax with whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to return again and again to the present moment. We train in sitting with the itch…and with our craving to scratch. We label our story lines ‘thinking’ and let them dissolve, and we come back to ‘right now,’ even when ‘right now’ doesn’t feel so great. This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.”
What does it mean to grow up? Is it putting on a suit and tie and commuting an hour each way to work? solemnly sipping black coffee over the morning paper? getting married and buying a 3 bedroom house?
Most of us would say growing up means being responsible: adults pay their rent on the 1st of every month, they thoroughly research their options before investing in a washer and dryer, they have a retirement fund and plan for the future. To be an adult, we have to make decisions with our heads, not our hearts: we have to resist buying the gorgeous Spanish-style bungalow because it’s way out of our budget and doesn’t even have a backyard; we have to logically assess the strengths and shortcomings of a potential partner rather than allow ourselves to be blinded by first love.
In her simply-worded guide to spiritual surrender Wisdom of No Escape, ordained Buddhist monk Pema Chodron argues growing up is facing a few fundamental— if frightening— facts: we are born alone, we’ll die alone, and we alone our responsible for our existence. With equal parts tough love and gentle compassion, Chodron asserts it’s our duty to continuously push the boundaries of our comfort zone and leap out of the nest:
“In every human life (whether there are puberty rites or not) you are born, and you are born alone. You go through that birth canal alone, and then a whole process begins. And when you die, you die alone. No one goes with you. The journey that you make, no matter what your belief about that journey, is made alone. The fundamental idea of taking refuge is that between birth and death we are alone. Therefore, taking refuge in the buddha, the dharma, and the sangha does not mean finding consolation in them, as a child might find consolation in Mommy and Daddy. Rather, it’s a basic expression of our aspiration to leap out of the nest, whether you feel ready for it or not, to go through puberty rights and be an adult with no hand to hold. It expresses your realization that the only way to begin the real journey of life is to feel the ground of loving-kindness and respect for yourself and then to leap. In some sense, however, we never get to the point where we feel one hundred percent sure, ‘I have had my nurturing cradle. It’s finished. Now I can leap.’ We are always continuing to develop maitri and continuing to leap. The other day I was talking about meeting our edge and our desire to grab something when we reach our limits. Then we see that there’s more loving-kindness, more respect for ourselves, more confidence that needs to be nurtured. We work on that and keep leaping.”
Most of us possess a harsh inner critic who punishes us whenever we misbehave. No matter how small the infraction— we send an email with “there” instead of “their,” we indulge in one too many glasses of wine before bed, we yield to the temptation to smoke despite our determined resolution to quit— our stern inner schoolmistress sends us to the corner for time-out, our shoulders slumped, a humiliating dunce cap on our heads.
Though it’s our job to assume complete responsibility for our lives, we must forgive ourselves when we falter. Rather than relentlessly reprimand ourselves, we should be gentle. After all, it’s terrifying to leave the comfort of the nest and spread our wings on our own. When we’re courageous enough to interview for a new job or leave a twenty year marriage, what we need isn’t nasty disparagement or unmerciful censure, a slap on the wrist or whack with a ruler— we need loving-kindness, a reassuring hand and sympathetic squeeze on the shoulder. It is nerve-wracking to interview for another position, it is overwhelming to end a long-term relationship and start over. Just as exquisitely erudite British philosopher Alain de Botton insists self-love is the foundation of emotional health, Ms. Chodron believes difficulty is an invaluable opportunity to befriend ourselves:
“Taking refuge means that we feel that the way to live is to cut the ties, to cut the umbilical cord and alone start the journey of being fully human, without confirmation from others. Taking refuge is the way that we begin cultivating the openness and goodheartedness that allow us to be less and less dependent. We might say, ‘We shouldn’t be dependent anymore, we should be open,’ but that isn’t the point. The point is that you begin where you are, you see what a child you are, and you don’t criticize that. You begin to explore, with a lot of humor and generosity toward yourself, all the places where you cling, and every time you cling, you realize, ‘Ah! This is where, through my mindfulness and my tonglen and everything that I do, my whole life is a process of learning how to make friends with myself.'”
Though courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to act in spite of it, we often scold ourselves for being afraid. “You sissy…you shouldn’t be scared!” Yet fear is actually a sign we’re not cowards— if we’re afraid, we must be stepping outside our comfort zone. Growing up means being brave enough to leave the comfort of mother’s nest and strike out on our own. We become bigger, bolder versions of ourselves when we take monumental leaps, even minuscule steps, into the unknown:
“This need to cling, this need to hold the hand, this cry for Mom, also show that that’s the edge of the nest. Stepping through right there— making a leap— becomes the motivation for cultivating maitri. You realize that if you can step through that doorway, you’re going forward, you’re becoming more of an adult, more of a complete person, more whole.”
In Chodron’s philosophy, we have one purpose: to confront all aspects of the human condition with compassion and courage. Recalling Rainer Maria Rilke’s lovely sentiment that “all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage,” Chodron asserts life’s trials have something to teach: our jealousy of a romantic rival, for instance, might reveal our lack of self-love, the schoolgirl insecurity we feel when we catch the man we love looking desirously at someone else might point to unresolved trauma and trust issues from being cheated on. To be a bodhisattva, or spiritual warrior, we must face— rather than flee— the lessons our dragons have to impart:
“Working with obstacles is life’s journey. The warrior is always coming up against dragons. Of course the warrior gets scared, particularly before battle. It’s frightening. But with a shaky, tender heart the warrior realizes that he or she is just about to step into the unknown, and then goes forth to meet the dragon. The warrior realizes the dragon is nothing but unfinished business presenting itself, and that it’s fear that really needs to be worked with. The dragon is just a motion picture that appears there, and it appears in many forms: as the lover who jilted us, as the parent who never loved us enough, as someone who abused us. Basically what we work with is our fear and our holding back, which are not necessarily obstacles. The only obstacle is ignorance, this refusal to look at unfinished business. If every time the warrior goes and meets the dragon, he or she says, ‘Hah! It’s a dragon again. No way I am going to face this,’ and just splits…[we] become more and more timid and more and more afraid and more of a baby. No one’s nurturing you, but you’re still in that cradle, and you never go through your puberty rites.”
More than anything, growing up means being in control of ourselves. Unlike children, we can no longer get away with throwing temper tantrums in supermarkets or hurling petty insults at anyone who pisses us off. As adults, it’s (unfortunately) no longer acceptable to call people “butt heads” or push the friend who hurts our feelings into the sandbox. We have to maintain our composure, no matter what.
Sadly as many of us grow up, we develop emotional armor to protect ourselves from feeling much at all: we adopt a seemingly sophisticated cynicism to avoid getting our hopes up; we pretend not to care whether a new love interest calls. Humans are a fragile species, helpless against a million and one threats: cancer diagnoses and heart attacks; Somali pirates and Islamic extremists; drunk drivers and plane crashes; dictators and genocides; money-hungry multi-national corporations and rigged elections; earthquakes and flash floods; world wars and pandemics. We can’t defend ourselves against the inescapable sadness and suffering of existence. To be vulnerable is the human condition. Yet we spend our lives hiding behind a fortress. Our defense mechanisms— our habit of making everything a joke, our unwillingness to get too close to people and open up— are bulwarks meant to protect us from being seen, being hurt, being judged. But because we shut out potentially painful experiences like disappointment and rejection, we deny ourselves acquaintance with more exulted emotions like intimacy, connection and love. To be truly alive, Chodron believes, we have to open— rather than shut down— our hearts:
“When you leave the cradle…you are in this beautiful suit of armor because, in some sense, you’re well protected and feel safe. Then you go through your puberty rites, the process of taking off the armor that you might have had some illusion was protecting you from something, only to find that actually it’s shielding you from being fully alive and fully awake. Then you go forward and meet the dragon, and every meeting shows you where there’s still some armor to take off.”
With simplicity and sagacity, Chodron suggests we all have our own choice of armor:
“I will spend my life taking this armor off. Nobody else can take it off because nobody else knows where all the little locks are, nobody else knows where’s it’s sewed up tight, where it’s going to take a lot of work to get that particular iron thread untied. I may have a zipper that goes right down the front and has padlocks all the way down. Every time I meet the dragon, I take off as many padlocks as I can; eventually I’ll be able to take the zipper down. I might say to you, ‘Simple. When you meet the dragon you just take off one of your padlocks and then your zipper will come down.’ And you say, ‘What is she talking about?’ because you have sewn a seam up under your left arm with iron thread. Every time you meet the dragon, you have to get out these special snippers that you have hidden away in a box with all your precious things and snip a few threads off, as many as you dare, until you start vomiting with fear and say, ‘This is enough for now.’…To the next person you meet, you say, ‘All you have to do is get your little snippers out of your precious box and you start—” and they look at you and say, ‘What is he talking about?’ because they have big boots that come all the way up and cover their whole body and head. The only way to get the boots off is to start with the soles of the boots, and they know that every time they meet the dragon, they actually have to start peeling. So you have to do it alone. The basic instruction is simple: take off that armor. That’s all anyone can tell you. No one can tell you how to do it because you’re the only one who knows how you locked yourself in there to begin with.”
“Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy-” Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once reproached with contempt for his culture’s rampant obsession with productivity. Half a century later, German novelist and poet Herman Hesse likewise condemned the modern industrialized West’s preoccupation with factory-like efficiency: “the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry hurry as the most important objective of living,” he said, “is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.” Today this notion reverberates with particular poignancy as the driven and ambitious resolve to “get things done” and devour self-help books that promise to “optimize” their “productivity.” Ours is a culture of haste, one that prioritizes product over process, the mechanical over the mindful, quantity over quality. Most of us squander our lives dutifully crossing tasks off a to do list- starving, instead of nourishing, our desire for exuberant spontaneity.
In our era of mindless rushing, we’ve lost the art of mindful presence, of pausing. The art of stopping has no more poetic a proponent than Buddhist monk and prolific peace activist Thich Naht Hanh, the gentle voice behind such mindfulness manifestos as Peace is Every Step, The Miracle of Mindfulness,and How to Eat. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation– the most approachable beginner’s guide to Buddhism I’ve ever come across– Hanh examines the hazards of hurrying through life too haphazardly. A sage shepherd leading us along the windy path to enlightenment, Hanh relays an old Zen parable of a man and his horse to illustrate the ways we default to habit rather than live attentively:
“There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!” This is also our story. We are riding a horse, we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t stop. The horse is our habit energy pulling us along, and we are powerless. We are always running, and it has become a habit. We struggle all the time, even during our sleep. We are at war within ourselves, and we can easily start a war with others.”
What Hanh calls “habit energy” is our compulsive tendency to act without thought. Though habits can take the form of elevating, life-affirming rituals (the first cup of coffee in the morning, saying “I love you” to your significant other the last thing at night), they can also- by their numbing repetitiveness- deaden our senses and desensitize our spirits. When we too strictly abide by our routines, we’re simply not present. And what happens? We relinquish our better judgement. It’s so much easier to lose patience at people’s pettiness, to lash out at an assault, to retaliate at a slight (real or imagined) when we’re acting routinely. An emotion overcomes us and-rather than realize all emotions, like waves, rise but eventually crest and fall-we allow ourselves to be governed by their momentary intensity and permit bitter feelings like fear and anger to dictate our behavior, which only adds to the store house of human suffering.
So how do we break the cycle of unintentional living and, thus, halt the unconscious perpetuation of suffering? Hanh prescribes a simple remedy: be mindful. Being present is a super vitamin for the soul. When we pause to ponder instead of instantly react, we act from our noblest, most magnanimous selves. Such presence, Hanh believes, can heal a hostile world:
“We have to learn the art of stopping-stopping our thinking, our habit energies, our forgetfulness, the strong emotions that rule us. When an emotion rushes through us like a storm, we have no peace. We turn on the TV and then turn it off. We pick up a book and then we put it down. How can we stop this state of agitation? How can we stop our fear, despair, anger and craving? We can stop by practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful smiling, and deep looking in order to understand. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy.
But our habit energies are often stronger than our volition. We say and do things we don’t want to and afterwards we regret it. We make ourselves and others suffer, and we bring about a lot of damage. We may vow not to do it again, but we do it again. Why? Because our habit energies (vashana) push us.
We need the energy of mindfulness to recognize and be present with our habit energy in order to stop this course of destruction. With mindfulness, we have the capacity to recognize the habit energy every time it manifests. “Hello, my habit energy! I know you are there!” If we just smile to it, it will lose much of its strength. Mindfulness is the energy that allows us to recognize our habit energy and prevent it from dominating us.”
“The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion; only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life,” Henry David Thoreau once mused. Who hasn’t had the unsettling experience— in the hush of an ordinary morning, on the unremarkable commute home from work, amongst friends and the convivial chatter of dinner— of being physically present yet somehow not there? In our restless age of instant communication, we’re bombarded by a ceaseless onslaught of distraction, not living but simply existing in a sort of half-conscious stupor. Like pinballs, we mindlessly ricochet from one meaningless diversion to the next, compulsively checking the ding of every text message until we lose what little sanity we have left.
At no other juncture in human history has it been more vital to carve out periods of stillness. For many, meditation offers this much-needed repose from modern life’s madness. Once sanctified as the path to enlightenment in Eastern spiritual traditions, today meditation has metamorphosed into something far more secular— not an impossibly serene Buddha sitting under a lotus tree, but a practical exercise whose avid proponents include everyone from top-performing athletes to Oprah. So why has this ancient religious practice seen a resurgence in popularity in our decidedly non-religious culture? Perhaps it has to do with the abundance of scientific evidence demonstrating its wide-ranging physical and psychological benefits: not only has meditation been shown to improve self-control, lessen anxiety and depression, and decrease stress, it’s been proven to lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, and actually boost the immune system. Meditating as little as twenty five minutes a day can literally restructure the brain, increasing gray matter in the hippocampus, the hub of human memory and learning, and forever transforming its architecture.
Why we meditate is the question at the heart of The Places That Scare You, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron’s endlessly wise but endearingly accessible guide to cultivating courage in difficult times. Of all meditation’s far-reaching benefits, Chodron asserts the greatest is its capacity to teach us a kind of spiritual grit. Though many imagine the goal of meditation is to achieve a blissful state of trance-like tranquility, its chief aim is not to silence thoughts but to learn to sit still amidst the noise:
“Why do we meditate? This is a question we’d be wise to ask. Why would we even bother to spend time alone with our selves?
First of all, it is helpful to understand that meditation is not just about feeling good. To think that’s why we meditate is to set ourselves up for failure. We’ll assume we’re doing it wrong almost every time we sit down: even the most settled meditator experiences physical and psychological pain. Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and sanity.”
Just as running instructs us in the invaluable art of perseverance, meditation teaches us to persist— even when we think we can’t go on. To meditate is to observe the disarray of the mind from the watch tower of detachment— without getting swept up by the tumult of every tempest. We look upon our mental landscape as a spectator would a play: interested but not involved in the drama unfolding before us. Worries, anxieties, obsessions: all are but stars on the stage of a never-ending saga. Rather than shriek in terror at the sight of our countless neuroses (or too brutally, unmercifully judge them), we learn to courageously confront our demons:
“When we practice meditation we are strengthening our ability to be steadfast with ourselves. No matter what comes up- aching bones, boredom, falling asleep, or the wildest thoughts and emotions- we develop a loyalty to our experience. Although plenty of meditators consider it, we don’t run screaming out of the room. Instead we acknowledge that impulse as thinking, without labeling it right or wrong. This is no small task. Never underestimate our inclination to bolt when we hurt.”
A portal to grasping the mysterious workings of our own minds, meditation also sheds light on the universal human condition— particularly our shared tendency to retreat into the reassuring realms of imagination and fantasy so as to elude the present. Though the present has the profound power to transport us to transcendent heights of rapture, to exist completely in the here and now— or, as patron saint of presence Thoreau once said, to realize there is “no other land but this”— is to come face to face with life’s startling uncertainty. Unadulterated life is both torture and bliss, torment and rhapsody:
“In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness. Sometimes we get up and leave. Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds are far away. This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it’s impossible to stay. Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves but also about what it means to be human. All of us derive imaginary security and comfort from the imaginary world of memory and fantasy and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present.”
While the idea of sitting cross-legged atop a mountain sounds wonderfully replenishing to many a weary spiritual seeker, meditation practice is just that— practice, in other words, hard work. Instead of a few stolen moments of calm restorative bliss, meditating is most often a terrifying submergence into the storm-tossed seas of our subconscious. “God, how much longer do I have left?” “I’m hungry…what am I going to eat for lunch?” “Crap…I still have to walk the dog!” This chronic mental chatter brings about a startling— if distressing— revelation: we very rarely are where we are. But rather than castigate ourselves for our hopeless inability to stay present, Chodron pleads with us to be compassionate toward our shortcomings as self-love is the most priceless lesson meditation can impart. Only when we develop an attitude of loving-kindness, can we learn to “stay” with both our selves and the world at large:
“The pith instruction is, stay…stay…just stay. Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is like training a dog. If we train a dog by beating it, we’ll end up with an obedient but very inflexible but rather terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say “Stay!” “Come!” “Roll over!” and “Sit up!” but he will also be neurotic and confused. By contrast, training with kindness results in someone who is flexible and confident, who doesn’t become upset when situations are unpredictable and insecure.
So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage ourselves to stay and settle down. Are we experiencing restlessness? Stay! Discursive mind? Stay! Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay! Aching knees and throbbing back? Stay! What’s for lunch? Stay! What am I doing here? Stay! I can’t stand this another minute! Stay! This is how we cultivate steadfastness.”
German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche’s pithy aphorism “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is so oft uttered it borders on cliche. But, like all timeless platitudes, his words endure because they capture a truth abiding and incontrovertible: pain— though unpleasant— is essential. As satirist Russell Baker quipped, “I’ve had an unhappy life, thank God.” Though most of us would happily forgo crisis and catastrophe, adversity fortifies the soul; indeed, it is the life tormented by hardship and misfortune, trauma and woe that builds the most resilient, courageous individuals. Those unfortunate enough to lead a blissful existence never develop themselves.
Though philosophers have preached the value of suffering for millennia, it remains our natural inclination to avoid pain. Rather than meet the behemoth of pain boldly and stout-heartededly, we cowardly retreat, erecting all kinds of barriers to protect us from the intolerable discomfort of vulnerability.
But it is pain, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron suggests in her slim but imponderably insightful volume Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits and Fears, that reminds us of our shared human predicament and connects us with bodhicitta, the Buddhist term for “enlightened mind” or “open heart.” In Buddhist tradition, pain is not something to flee but rather something to embrace as an inevitable part of life. Despite our cultural aversion to anything difficult, hardship is crucial because it sheds light on the conundrum of the human condition and makes us kinder and more merciful.
When her mother dies and she has to sift through box upon box of her things, Chodron comes to the dispiriting realization that— though her mother cherished these belongings— they, in themselves, possess no objective meaning. But rather than let such a distressing insight send her into an existential tailspin, she uses pain as a portal to better understand the human plight. Warm and boundlessly wise, Chodron comes to feel compassion for all the people who— just like her and her mother— suffer because they attribute too much significance to the inconsequential:
“Before we know what natural warmth really is, often we must experience loss. We go along for years moving through our days, propelled by habit, taking life pretty much for granted. Then we or someone close to us has an accident or gets seriously ill, and it’s as if the blinders have been removed from our eyes. We see the meaninglessness of so much of what we do and the emptiness of so much we cling to.
When my mother died and I was asked to go through her personal belongings, this awareness hit me hard. She had kept boxes of papers and trinkets that she treasured, things that she held on to through her many moves to smaller and smaller accommodations. They had represented security and comfort for her, and she had been unable to let them go. Now they were just boxes of stuff, things that held no meaning and represented no comfort or security to anyone. For me these were just empty objects, yet she had clung to them. Seeing this made me sad, and also thoughtful. After that I could never look at my own treasured objects the same way. I had seen that the objects themselves are just what they are, neither precious nor worthless, and that all the labels, all our views and opinions about them, are arbitrary.
This was an experience of basic warmth. The loss of my mother and the pain of seeing so clearly how we impose judgements and values, prejudices, likes and dislikes, onto the world, made me feel great compassion for our shared human predicament. I remember explaining to myself that the whole world consisted of people just like me who were making much ado about nothing and suffering from it tremendously.”
The miracle of pain is that it enlarges our hearts. When we lie shattered after our partner deserts us, for instance, we join an infinite chain connecting millions of love lorn. Suddenly, we can sympathize with anyone who has suffered a broken heart. Empathy, tenderness, understanding: all are profound lessons pain can teach us:
“When my second marriage fell apart, I tasted the rawness of grief, the utter groundlessness of sorrow, and all the protective shields I had always managed to keep in place fell to pieces. To my surprise, along with the pain, I also felt an uncontrived tenderness for other people. I remember the complete openness and gentleness I felt for those I met briefly in the post office or at the grocery store. I found myself approaching the people I encountered as just like me- fully alive, fully capable of meanness and kindness, of stumbling and falling down and of standing up again. I never before experienced that much intimacy with unknown people. I could look in the eyes of store clerks and car mechanics, beggars and children, and feel our sameness. Somehow when my heart broke, the qualities of natural warmth, qualities like kindness and empathy and appreciation, just simultaneously emerged.”
“How far that little candle throws his beams!” exclaimed Shakespeare when contemplating the far-reaching reverberations of a small, ordinary act of kindness. However much we loathe its lessons, pain illuminates the world by instructing us in the vital ways of having a warm heart.
Beautifully paraphrasing an author whose name I’ve now long forgotten, one of my most beloved professors once said the saddest word in the English language is “temporary.” No other word has inflicted more despair, more torment, or more misery. In fact, no struggle in human history has been more unrelenting than the struggle against impermanence. It is an indubitable law of the cosmos that life is flux: just as peonies blossom under the renewing spring sun but one day disintegrate to rejoin the soil from which they came, all things must end- a fact that necessarily includes man. The idea that we- creatures of such astonishing intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities-are still earthly beings whose bodies must perish along with the brutes and beasts is petrifying. Nothing is more harrowing than confronting the inevitability of our own death. So we spend our lives endeavoring, as Buddhists throughout the millennia have observed, to get an “I” out of our experience- a sense of stable security in a world that is hopelessly transitory. But it is our very attempt to sculpt an “I” from the clay of our day to day lives, our strong-willed effort to solidify our sense of self as separate and other, that estranges us from the awe-inspiring ecstasy and raw immediacy of simply being alive.
In his brilliant 1951 volume The Wisdom of Insecurity, British writer and popularizer of Eastern philosophy in the West, Alan Watts, mourns man’s regrettable inability to remain present. Unlike animals, who are largely driven by the basic instinct to survive, man is blessed with the miracle of consciousness, or the ability to be aware of both the world and itself- a cognitive operation that’s been both exalted as a gorgeous fever and condemned as a thing to be subdued. Watts would undoubtedly agree with this latter view as it is this very capability that divides the self and alienates us from the now. Rather than truly hear music and surrender to all its evocative rhythms and beautiful cadences, for example, we bring our rational, egoistic self to the task, spending the course of the song analyzing and evaluating, judging and quantifying. This ceaseless interior monologue satisfies our desperate longing for a solid self- an “I,” an ego, an experiencer who represents the part of our psyche that must comment on experience, not participate in experience itself. But the tragic irony, of course, is that by trying to forge an “I” and fortify ourselves against the transience of life and the certainty of death, most of us forfeit living and simply exist:
“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found. To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.”
For Watts, metacognition- mankind’s uncommon ability to think about thinking- is a means of fleeing the present moment in all its terror and uncertainty. Although this self-defense mechanism supplies us with the steady sense of identity we so hopelessly crave, it divorces us from the love affair that is life. It is a tragedy that is distinctly pertinent to our age, an anxious era of endless distraction and ceaseless Twitter feeds: we mistake the oblivious stupor of existing in our minds for the exuberance of actually being alive. After all, to think, “The sky is spectacular!” is to not fully savor the stunning colors of a sunrise:
“While you are watching this present experience, are you aware of someone watching it? Can you find, in addition to the experience itself, an experiencer? Can you, at the same time, read this sentence and think about yourself reading it? You will find that, to think about yourself reading it, you must for a brief second stop reading. The first experience is reading. The second experience is the thought, “I am reading.” Can you find any thinker, who is thinking the thought, “I am reading?” In other words, when present experience is the thought, “I am reading,” can you think about yourself thinking this thought?
Once again, you must stop thinking just, “I am reading.” You pass to a third experience, which is the thought, “I am thinking that I am reading.” Do not let the rapidity with which these thoughts can change deceive you into the feeling that you think them all at once.”
So why is it that men rally so vehemently against remaining present? To inhabit each moment fully, to be completely awake and alive is to confront the unsettling reality that “I” is nothing more than a psychological construct meant to alleviate our fears of impermanence- there is no such thing as a fixed self. What we think of as “I” doesn’t exist beyond the present moment and is in a constant state of flux. “Who are you?” the protagonist of my favorite novel demands to know of her eccentric mother. “I am who I say I am and someone completely different the next,” she replies. Or to borrow James Joyce’s poetic phrase, “Me. And me now.” Though our capacity for memory gives us the illusion of a permanent, immutable self, at both the empirical level of behavior and the most fundamental level of molecules and atoms, “I” is continuously shifting, perishing only to transform itself:
“The notion of a separate thinker, of an “I” distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous circle of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and the present experiences. You reason, “I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.
But, as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves.
To understand this is to realize that life is entirely momentary, that there is neither permanence nor security, and that there is no “I” which can be protected.”