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.’
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.
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.’
‘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.’
‘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.