Regret

Pema Chödrön tells a story in one of her books about the Dalai Lama and regret. He’s speaking before an audience and recalls an incident from his past in which a man came to him asking to be a monk. The Dalai Lama told the man it was not possible because of some circumstance; from memory, I think it was that the man was too old to train to be a monk. A little while later, the man took his life in despair about not being able to fulfil his dream.

Stunned, the audience fell quiet and someone raised his hand to ask the Dalai Lama a question, “How did you get rid of the regret?” The Dalai Lama paused and said, “I haven’t. It’s still there.”

The following article from The Guardian is an interesting read about what happened when a woman asked her Twitter audience about their biggest regret. She got a huge response, and the article about her tweet has also had thousands of comments. The answers people give are frank and moving.

My biggest regrets are those times when I’ve been unkind to someone, and, as many other respondents said, that I’ve lived in fear for long periods of my life. As one of the respondents says,

“Yes. Fear. The straitjacket we wear throughout life.

But we can unbuckle it. It might take decades to get to that point, but when you do feel fearless, boy – now that’s living.

I was scared of everyone all my life. Still am a bit. But it no longer stops me.”

Here’s the article: What is your biggest regret?

Image: Symbiosis by Eugenia Loli

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Scratching the itch

I wanted to view the three months of comp preparation as if it were a spiritual retreat and so it was. I didn’t have to try too hard to make the leap. Just as on a spiritual retreat, everyday life recedes, as well as some of the sleep-walking involved in that mode. Start messing around with eating patterns, new levels of physical and mental exertion and soon everyone begins coming face-to-face with themselves.

Many days, I walked to the gym, the path dark and cold at 6am, and to keep myself company I’d listen to one of my favourite Buddhist audiobooks by the wonderful nun, Pema Chödrön. The teaching that had the biggest impact on me during this time is shenpa.

Shenpa is a Tibetan word that can be (poorly) translated as “attachment”. Pema says it’s much better to translate it as “being hooked” as it gives a more vivid and accurate picture of this experience that is common to all human beings.

Shenpa is the involuntary reaction – the tightening, the contraction, the itch – that occurs when something hooks us. It could be a look, a word, an absence of a word, a thought, and boom we’re hooked. What normally happens is that we then scratch the itch. We scratch using one of our habitual ways of scratching; Buddhist thought proposes three of them: we numb out, we crave or we use aggression (against others or ourselves).

My habitual ways of scratching are numbing out and blaming myself (an example of aggression towards myself). During comp preparation, I also saw I use spending money as a way of scratching; something about the handing over of money lessens the itch for a fleeting moment. With my newly shenpa-attuned eyes, I could also see many examples in my team members of the different styles of scratching.

Addictions of all kinds – food, alcohol, drugs, blame, criticism, gambling, and thousands more – are examples of shenpas.

Of course, each time we scratch the itch we make the shenpa stronger. There’s a momentary lessening of the original discomfort, the original unpleasantness or unsatisfactoriness we were trying to get away from, but then the itch returns stronger and more insistent.

What is there to do? Pema says we can train ourselves to stay with the itch instead of scratching and trying to get away. We can train our nervous systems to be with the discomfort or unsatisactoriness, while at the same time being gentle and friendly towards ourselves and our inclination to flee, to scratch. This is essentially what sitting or walking meditation is doing: training one in staying.

This is the training within the training that I’ve taken on during this comp preparation period and that I want to share with everyone.

To read more about shenpa and Pema’s wonderful teachings, I recommend starting with her audiobook, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality. With her lovely, easy voice, she’s at her best in audiobook form.

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The basic misunderstanding

People tell me, “You’re so positive”. If I’m on the ball, sometimes I explain that what they’re responding to in me is happiness, not positivity, because the two are worlds apart. I also hear people saying things like “I’m striving to be a better person”. This gives me a pain in my heart for them, and for myself. They don’t realise they are already fundamental goodness, already fundamental soundness and perfection.

Here is Pema Chödrön on the matter of this basic misunderstanding …

“The innocent mistake that keeps us caught in our own particular style of ignorance, unkindness and shut-down-ness is that we are never encouraged to see clearly what is, with gentleness. Instead, there’s a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to get away from painful things, then we would be happy. This is the innocent, naïve misunderstanding that we all share, which keeps us unhappy.”

~ Pema Chödrön, Awakening Loving-Kindness

Image: IAMI by Eugenia Loli

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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 …

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“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.’”

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~ 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.

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)

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