Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tigers Above, Tigers Below

Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion
By Pema Chodron
Shambhala, $12.95 paper
ISBN: 978-1-59030-078-7

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
By Pema Chodron
Shambhala Classics, $12.95 cloth
ISBN: 978-1-57062-344-8

There is a story Pema Chodron cites in the middle of her book, Comfortable With Uncertainty, that sums up perfectly the notion that we should live in the moment. “A woman is running from tigers,” she writes. There is no escape but to go over a cliff via a hanging vine. The woman swings out over empty space, free from the pursuing tigers now above her, only to see another group below her, seemingly waiting for her to fall. She sees a small mouse begin to gnaw at the vine, and in the moment, realizes that her life is in grave danger. Her attention is distracted by a cluster of wild strawberries growing on the cliff face next to her. “She looks up, she looks down, and she looks at the mouse,” Chodron writes. “Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.” Even in the midst of danger, of extreme emotional distress, we must live in the moment. We must forget the tigers waiting to devour us and focus on the sweet beauty of what we have right now.

The story is part of her 56th meditation, “Experience Your Life.” Her book contains 108 in total, many of which are drawn from her previous writings and teachings.

Chodron was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, graduated and became an elementary school teacher. Marriage and family took up her time and focus, until a chance encounter in her mid-30s changed her life, and she became a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the “Vidyadhara” and preeminent teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in the west. Through her study with him, Chodron became a specialist in Mahayana lojong teachings, or mind training.

She went on to become a fully ordained nun, a rare honor for a westerner, and was appointed director of Gampo Abbey at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She continues to teach at the abbey and offers workshops around the country for dedicated followers and lay people in various aspects of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. She has also written many books on her teachings from which Uncomfortable With Uncertainty draws its 108 meditations.

The book is a good beginner’s course in Pema Chodron’s work. Each of the 108 chapters offers a single focus for meditation and reflection. The topics include the study of Bodhichitta, a Sanskrit word meaning “the awakened heart of loving-kindness and compassion,” how to approach meditation, work with selected Buddhist “slogans,” and reverse Samsara, another Sanskrit word meaning “journeying,” or “the vicious cycle of suffering that results from the mistaken belief in the solidity and permanence of self and other.”

The secret to this philosophy is deceptively simply. Impermanence is the only certainty in life. Any attempt to hang on to something is doomed to failure, because everything changes. We are all in a state of transfiguration, even to the smallest atomic particle. Trying to hang on to something and make it permanent can only lead to suffering. Until we free ourselves from such clinging, we are destined to be in pain.

Chodron’s advice is often spot-on for our difficult times, A second book addresses the arduous and challenging moments we are all facing today. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times was compiled from various teachings Chodron gave from 1987 to 1994. Her editor, Emily Hilburn Sell, suggested she work through her notes and lecture tapes and see if there was another book in them. Together, they rewrote, edited, and completed the book.

She begins with the idea that “fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” We are drawn to challenging circumstances without knowing if we can face them. This leads to a reluctance to live our lives, a fear of being present in every moment. She recommends immersion in the emotions we experience—fear, jealousy, hatred—and to withhold judgment. Above all, we should allow ourselves to study the feeling of fear, to live in it and appreciate what it makes us do. Only then can we modify our behavior to live fully in the moment. This theme recurs throughout the book.

What we come to discover is that our ultimate fear is the fear of death. How do we live in a world where we are destined to die? The answer, of course, is to live. This is not easy, as Chodron takes great pains to teach us, but “it takes death for there to be birth,” she writes, and there is no greater challenge than for us to accept our lives as they are and simply live.

Chodron goes on to address themes of loneliness, isolation, peace, and non-aggression. She discusses how hope should be abolished. Many Christian and Catholic faiths teach that giving up hope—despair—is a sin against God. But Chodron means something different and refreshing. Life contains both the good and the bad. To say that I have hope that tomorrow will be a good day, is a ridiculous wish. There will be good days and bad days. If we are mired in a terrible moment in our lives, we can rest assured that a good moment is on the way, and of course, the reverse can be true as well. To hope for only the best is not to live in reality.

The final chapter in the book lands on a common theme in several cultures. Chodron believes “the path is the goal.” Our wisdom comes from living the journey. “The source of wisdom is whatever is going to happen to us today,” she writes. “The source of wisdom is whatever is happening to us right at this very instant.”

Chodron is a proponent of starting right where we are. There is never a more perfect moment to begin to live then right now. Many people might wonder if these books are appropriate for people who have strong religious beliefs in other faiths, Christian, Catholic, Muslim, and Jew. One does not need to be a Buddhist to appreciate Chodron’s themes and ideas, nor is she proselytizing for her faith. Eastern philosophy has much to offer the west, as we have discovered over the years. It is not about becoming a Buddhist; the philosophical elements of the east have traveled well through the west in the writing of Emerson, Thoreau, Kerouac, Ginsberg and a host of others.

In the end, one reads Pema Chodron because she offers good advice and a way to live in these perilous times. Through her teachings, we can deepen the spiritual experience of daily life and come to appreciate our journey, knowing that now is all we have and all that we are given.

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