This augurs well

Pema Chödrön is wonderful at telling stories before a live audience; her easy-to-listen-to voice, her drollness and expressiveness are on full display. The following story is a great example so I recommend listening to it in the audiobook version if you can. I’ve transcribed it to text because, while it doesn’t show off her special gifts, it may yet communicate something of value to you.

The story concerns a woman reflecting on what she had learnt during a 10-month stay in a monastery, her amusing and all-too-human foibles, and the insight she gets:

“My whole life now is about not keeping this armour of anger to protect myself, but learning how to get in touch with the soft spot underneath the anger and defensiveness.”

In the story, the word shenpa means attachment, but as Pema suggests, it’s probably better translated as “being hooked”.

She begins …

*

“I have this good story about this woman at the abbey …

The woman wrote about how she would talk to her husband on the internet chat line. So she was telling him that she had met their mutual friend, and that it had been a really difficult time because Janet had started to do her habitual thing, and she had wanted to read the riot act and get really angry at Janet, as she had done many times, but she said after 10 months in a monastery, she gave Janet some space.

So her husband says, ‘Glad to hear it. This augurs well for your reunion with me.’

[audience laughter]

So she felt a little hurt and put down, unaccepted and a lot of things, but she didn’t say anything.

‘I awoke at 4am the next morning in touch with a very strong anger around manipulation. This is a very old and very strong current in our relationship. I want to let things out, and he wants to keep things in, and I feel he manipulates me, so I bounced out of bed filled with rage at 4am in the monastery.’

Down to the basement she went. She was going to write to him and tell him that this was unacceptable and wasn’t alright and he had to stop this, and then she remembered the teachings on shenpa.

She remembered that her heartfelt desire was to find the root shenpa of her rage that characterised her interaction, not only with her family, but with her co-workers, and with her whole world.

Rage.

And so she realised that she was hooked. And she sat down on the edge of her bed and read these lines from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche:

Blind to mind’s true nature, we hold fast to our thoughts, which are nothing but manifestations of the true nature. This freezes awareness into solid concepts, such as I and other, desirable and detestable, and plenty of others. And this is how we create samsara.

So she said, ‘That kind of stopped me in my tracks.’

And then she said, ‘Surely, I must be an exception to this dharma teaching.’

[audience laughter]

‘Is this dharma teaching really asking me to put aside my anger which has protected me from the world, and is going to help me to stand up for myself and not be walked on and taken for granted? Surely not.’

[more laughter]

‘I am coming from the other end of the scale of ego, and I need to assert my needs and rights.’

But as she said ‘the seed of doubt was already there’, and it had taken the wind out of the sails of her anger.

Then she read further:

If you train in how to leave your thoughts free to dissolve by themselves as they arise, they will cross your mind as a bird crosses the sky – without leaving a trace.

And then she just started to cry, and she realised one of the things she had learned in her stay was that the strongest of emotions, the strongest of shenpas in her relationships with other people only had a shelf-life of about 24 to 48 hours.

Then she said, ‘You know, if my husband and I were on our deathbeds, would this be an issue? Will this be an issue in three years’ time?’

And then she said, ‘Yes, this teaching applies to me.’

She concluded, ‘My whole life now is about not keeping this armour of anger to protect myself, but learning how to get in touch with the soft spot underneath the anger and defensiveness. Be less solid, more pliable and flexible, and more in touch with my heart.’”

*

~ as told by Pema Chödrön in Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns & Encountering Naked Reality

Image: The young Pema Chödrön, before she became Pema Chödrön.

The bus driver

This morning I created the intention of waking up in every moment. I was on a bus in the city, the only passenger, when the bus driver started making annoyed comments about pedestrians not crossing the road at the right place, and would-be passengers not signalling him clearly, and so on.

I didn’t make any response but started thinking about him instead and trying to see more clearly what he looked like.

A bit later, I felt OK to ask him a question about how he liked the new bus route. “It’s better for us drivers,” he said, and we chatted for a while. He didn’t quite give up being annoyed at the people we passed, but it lessened. A few minutes later he started talking about his daughter and how she was a teacher, and then out of the blue, he said she’d recently had a nervous breakdown. After that, there was no barrier. He talked about his worries for her, and about he and his wife, and so on. I just listened mostly.

At the end of our trip together, I went up close to him to get off and saw he had the face of a kindly Santa Claus. I realised that if I’d stuck with the initial impression created by his comments about pedestrians, I’d never have seen him at all.

*

Image: Detail of Berlin Buddha by Zhang Huan, photo from 2014 installation at Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart, Australia

We don’t need to change ourselves

 

“But loving-kindness, or maitri, toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That’s the ground, that’s what we study, that’s what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest.”

~ From The Pocket Pema Chödrön by Pema Chödrön, pages 12–13 (available from Shambhala Publications)

*

The teachings of Buddha in one sentence

“The Buddha once said that the core message of all his teachings could be summed up in one sentence. On the off chance that that is so, it might not be a bad idea to commit that sentence to memory. You never know when it might come in handy, when it might make sense to you, even though it didn’t the moment before. That sentence is: ‘Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine.’ In other words, NO ATTACHMENTS – especially to fixed ideas of yourself and who you are.”

~ from Arriving at your own Door by Jon Kabat-Zinn

*

The teachings of Buddha in three words

“Shortly after the Buddha was enlightened, there’s a story that he was walking down the road, met some people who saw him and he was in a very happy state.

He was supposed to have been a very handsome prince before his going off to be a monk. So here’s this handsome prince and now wearing golden robes and recently enlightened and … very happy and very special from all accounts.

And they saw him and they said, ‘You seem very special. What are you? Are you some kind of an angel or a deva? You seem inhuman.’

‘No,’ he said.

‘Well, are you some kind of a god then?’

‘No.’

‘Are you some kind of a wizard or a magician?’

‘No.’

‘Well, are you a man?’

‘No.’

‘Then what are you?’

And he answered, ‘I am awake.'”

~ as told by Jack Kornfield in the audiobook, The Power of Meditation

*

When you suspect your life depends on it

“Only if you suspect that your life does indeed depend on your practice will you have sufficient energy and motivation to wake up earlier than you normally would so you can have some uninterrupted time for yourself, a time for just being, a time outside of time – or to make a time for formal practice at some other hour of the day that works better for you; and to practice even on days when you have a lot going on and don’t feel like it.”

~ From Arriving at your own Door by Jon Kabat-Zinn

*

You do not have to look for God

“There is a Buddhist teaching that might seem strange to you. This is the teaching of aimlessness (apranihita in Sanskrit). Aimlessness means not setting an object or goal in front of you and running after it. That is exactly what everybody does. We want this, we want that, and as long as we haven’t got it, we think happiness will be impossible.

We must bring about a revolution in our thinking: we must stop. We must do as the flower does. The flower is aware of the fact that it contains everything within it, the whole cosmos, and it does not try to become something else. It is the same for you. You have God within you, so you do not have to look for God.”

~ From Your True Home by Thich Nhat Hanh

*

The koan of the other

“Every human being with whom we seek relatedness is a koan, that is to say, an impossibility. There is no formula for getting along with a human being. No technique will achieve relatedness. I am impossible to get along with; so is each one of you; all our friends are impossible; the members of our families are impossible. How then shall we get along with them? … If you are seeking a real encounter, then you must confront the koan represented by the other person. The koan is an invitation to enter into reality.”

~ Bernard Phillips

Image: Eugenia Loli

*

When practising posing

Some readers will know I’m preparing to enter a bodysculpting competition in September, 2017. This is an insight I received when practising …

*

I noticed something when practising posing for the comp today. In each case, there’s a movement, a body part, that determines the success of a pose overall. It’s a gesture that unlocks the pose.

Stick it and the pose is guaranteed; miss it and the pose fails. So the task is to uncover this hidden lever.

It’s the same principle featured in this treasured poem about a long-ago Chinese cook:

“Prince Wen Hui’s cook Was cutting up an ox. Out went a hand, Down went a shoulder, He planted a foot, He pressed with a knee, The ox fell apart With a whisper, The bright cleaver murmured Like a gentle wind. Rhythm! Timing! Like a sacred dance, Like ‘The Mulberry Grove,’ Like ancient harmonies!

‘Good work!’ the Prince exclaimed,

‘Your method is faultless!’ ‘Method?’ said the cook Laying aside his cleaver, ‘What I follow is Tao Beyond all methods!

‘When I first began To cut up oxen I would see before me The whole ox All in one mass. After three years I no longer saw this mass. I saw the distinctions.

‘But now I see nothing With the eye. My whole being Apprehends. My senses are idle. The spirit Free to work without plan Follows its own instinct Guided by natural line, By the secret opening, the hidden space, My cleaver finds its own way. I cut through no joint, chop no bone.

‘There are spaces in the joints; The blade is thin and keen: When this thinness Finds that space There is all the room you need! It goes like a breeze! Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years As if newly sharpened!

‘True, there are sometimes Tough joints. I feel them coming, I slow down, I watch closely, Hold back, barely move the blade, And whump! the part falls away Landing like a clod of earth.

‘Then I withdraw the blade, I stand still And let the joy of the work Sink in. I clean the blade And put it away.’

Prince Wen Hui said, ‘This is it! My cook has shown me How I ought to live My own life!’”

~ Chuang Tzu (369-286BC)

*