Pema Chodron on Learning to Stay

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?  As the wonderfully erudite Maria Popova articulates, the tragedy of our times is that we routinely show up for life but are rarely present.  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 madhouse.  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.”

pema meditation

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 psyche- particularly our shared tendency to retreat into the reassuring realms of imagination and fantasy so as to elude the present in all its dismaying insecurity.  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.”

Pema Chodron on How Pain Enlarges Our Heart

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 real moral character.  Not only that, but it’s a fact of life that to fully experience any emotion, one must experience its converse: there can only be satisfaction if there’s discontent, enchantment if there’s disillusion, hope if there’s despair.  After all, we wouldn’t giddily anticipate Fridays unless we had to return to the office three days later.  “What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?” Nietzsche once wondered.  To sidestep suffering, then, is nothing short of denying ourselves the magnificent heights of human potential.

young pema chodron

Though philosophers have preached the value of suffering for millennia, it remains our natural inclination to avoid pain at all costs.  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 and ponder the grim futility of life, 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-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.”

pema chodron

“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.