Pema Chodron


Finding Compassion for Those Who Hate

I have always allowed myself to feel justified anger for unforgiveable acts – things like blatant acts of racism, or homophobia, or sexual violence. It has been a hard, bitter place in my heart, where there is no room for opening.

Talking with my teacher Tony about this, he gave me a challenge one day. He invited me to try to extend metta or compassion to the homophobe and the skinhead. I mulled it over for quite a while. I was willing to try, but I wasn’t very convinced that I could be successful.

As long as I can remember, I have been plagued by nightmares. There are many recurring themes, lots of things that I have examined and probed. And sometimes the dreams cycle towards healing, taking me to new places. Then they go back into deep hurt and terror, like that proverbial onion, always peeling one more new layer of fear and pain.

Recently, though, I had a dream that gave me an experience that I had never had before: a moment of grace.

Here is the dream:

I am a teenager, sitting with another teen on top of a car near the entrance to an alley, which leads to a path that heads to a park of some sort. We are sitting and talking, when we hear a sound. We look up, and see a man walking down the main street. He is kicking rocks, ping, ping, ping, slamming them up against people’s cars. I call out, “Hey, that’s not too bright!”

He ignores me. He turns in at the alley. I know there are dogs that live at the house at the corner, and I have a bad feeling. I see him continue to kick rocks. He hits one of the dogs with a small rock, then gives a half-assed kick to one of the dogs, then a stronger kick to the other dog. I yell at him to stop, but he ignores me.

I jump off the car, and grab my cell phone. I am going to call the police and report him, so they can pick him up somewhere in the park, and arrest him for animal abuse. Then I see him approach a stray dog. He grabs it, and starts to beat the hell out of it, kicking it and hitting it, just going and going and going. The dog is cowering, not trying to fight back at all. I start screaming as loud as I can. I wake myself up screaming, “No! No! No!”

I am sitting straight up in bed with my arms stretched out in front of me. I get out of bed, and I am sick to my stomach with the feeling of that man, beating the dog. I am standing up, but lay my head down on the bed. Sabrina woke up when I screamed, and she reaches out to me.

For some reason, I remember a Pema Chodron CD I just listened to, about putting yourself in the shoes of a person doing a horrible act, and I think of what Tony asked me to do, loving the skinhead or homophobe. And right in that moment, standing upright, with my forehead touching the mattress, I allow myself to feel what that man must feel like inside, to want to beat the dog. I am filled with an incredible sadness. It sweeps through my entire body.

It is not forgiveness, exactly, that I found. The experience has not erased that hardness I have. But it did give me one tiny glimpse into the possibility of compassion, in a place where I least expected it.


Starting Out Perfect

Shunryu Suzuki told a group of Zen students: All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.

It’s a beautifully simple way to express a Buddhist truth – each one of us is a manifestation of Buddha nature. Yes, there are things we should work on: being more open hearted, practicing generosity, avoiding slanderous talk, calming the mind, taming aggressive thought. But don’t lose track of the grandeur of the forest while focusing on all the life-scarred trees.

In Pema Chodron’s lecture series, Practicing Peace in Times of War, she mentions this quote from Suzuki. Taking it further, in a conversation with her own Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chodron asks, What is the one thing you would recommend to Westerners pursuing this path? Her teacher’s reply: Guiltlessness.

Chodron’s teacher said Westerners get caught up in the shame cycle, which serves no one. He said we all act badly, repeatedly – but that is ephemeral, fleeting, impermanent. What is constant and true lies underneath all of that. Our innocent original nature.

It’s the old question: Is the glass half empty or half full? Does it matter how we frame the way we look at ourselves? From the pessimist’s lens, seeing a flawed human being with occasional moments of goodness? Or from the optimist’s lens, seeing a good person with moments of less-than-stellar behavior?

I think it does matter. I wish I had had a Shunryu Suzuki in my childhood, telling me I was perfect, while at the same time encouraging me to keep growing. It might have saved me many, many years of debilitating self-hatred and guilt.

However, that was not my path. I have learned, over the years, to appreciate the rough road, because of where it has brought me. The journey hasn’t been easy, but I am very grateful that I have ended up here. Because here, in this Zen community, hearing the dharma talks of my teachers, reading the works of other Buddhists, I am finally finding the comfort I had been seeking all of my life. Not the comfort of “no problems” – there is still plenty of room for improvement. Instead, what I have found is a place of refuge in sangha and dharma, an increasing willingness to sit still with what is painful, and an ever-expanding sense of connection and possibilities.

I am beginning to see my own Buddha nature. And as for the rest of my imperfect self, I am learning to live in the realm of vows:

Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.


Wearing Shoes, Training the Mind

In Pema Chodron’s lectures from Don’t Bite the Hook, she tells the following story:

Imagine that there is a man who is barefoot. Everywhere he walks, he steps on sharp things – stones, thorns, briars. His feet are cut and burned and frozen at different times. And he thinks to himself, What I need to do is to cover the entire world with soft leather, so that nothing will ever hurt my feet again! But where could he ever come up with that much leather? And then a second thought comes: Oh! What if I just covered my feet with soft leather? Now, that I could do!

Chodron likens that thorny, prickly world to the things that bother us, things that make us uncomfortable or angry or annoyed or sad. The lesson is that instead of trying to make all of those troublesome things go away, by covering them up, what we must do instead is train the mind, cover our feet, so to speak.

During my recent days of stress and anxiety and sadness, I must admit that there was a part of me that wanted to cover up the world. I wanted there to be no suffering, no pain, no loss. I wanted to make it all go away.

I did, last night, finally, sit. And those thirty minutes gave me more peace than I had felt since this trouble started on Friday. That is Chodron’s lesson – keeping the heart open (the world uncovered, with all its flaws), and training the mind (finding equanimity even in the face of loss).

Maybe if I do it a million more times, it is a lesson that I will learn.


Accentuate the Positive!

I am listening to Pema Chodron’s Don’t Bite the Hook, and driving home tonight in the wee hours after a long day at work, one of her teachings was about something she calls “cheerfulness practice.”

Her message is that the human tendency is to focus on what’s NOT working – the unkind word, the friction, the unmet need. As an antidote, she suggests fully appreciating each positive thing that happens during your day, to retrain the mind. This can be anything, no matter how small. The point is to notice happiness when you experience it.

So, with that in mind, I’ve been reviewing my last two days. They have been hectic, and although overall the hours have been productive and relatively pleasant, I still had quite a few grumpy moments.

But, in an attempt to reframe, here are some of the good things:

  • A reader complimented me on a story from last week’s paper, and came into the office to buy extra copies.
  • My boss told me I did a good job on the photographs I took this week, and thanked me for all of my hard work on stories.
  • A co-worker who has a very elderly, frail poodle named Chica showed me her latest gadget – “doggles,” sunglasses/goggles for dogs – to help deal with the little girl’s increasing eye sensitivity. They were so adorable I couldn’t stop grinning.
  • I interviewed a new priest in town for the Russian Orthodox Church, and not only did he not flinch when I mentioned my female partner, but after the interview he gave me four of the beeswax candles he makes as a present, saying that I should use them while having a nice dinner with my partner.
  • I interviewed a couple who has been married 56 years, both of them veterans. They had received a U.S. flag flown in Afghanistan from their son, as a birthday present for the father. It will be placed in a shadow box containing all his medals. They were so thrilled to have me there, to share in their news; both had been moved to tears by the receipt of the flag. I felt honored to be their witness.
  • The grocery store had the new graham crackers that I’ve fallen in love with – up to this point, I’d only been able to find them at Whole Foods, which is a long way away.
  • The dogs and cats greeted me with tremendous enthusiasm when I got home at 2 a.m., after spending the day alone. Kenji the kitten appeared blinking, and we’ve already had a bunch of cuddle time.
  • I got an invitation to Thanksgiving diner at my best friend’s house.
  • I called my grandmother to see if she wanted to go to the Firefighters Bingo night on Nov. 21, and she was thrilled.

What surprises me about this list is that the more time I spend thinking, the more good things I come up with. How about that? And looking back on it, as memories of each of these happy moments flits through my consciousness, I have a stronger and stronger sense of just having had an amazingly good two days.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive….


Maitri: Unconditional Love for Oneself

I am still learning, each time I sit, about the incomprehensibly varied ways that zazen instructs me. This simple act, just sitting and breathing, somehow encompasses everything: my perceptions of myself, my relationship to my body, my connection to the other beings in the room, my weaknesses which can become strengths, my strengths which can become weaknesses.

A period of extended sitting, like last weekend’s sesshin, is somewhat like the intensive summer courses of Japanese that I took in graduate school, where I would learn two semester’s worth of material in just a couple of months. There is a rush, an excitement to it all. But there is an accompanying panic, an anxiety. I was so immersed in the language, that I grasped new concepts quickly and easily, absorbing a great deal. But I was so over stimulated that I collapsed into my bed at night with exhaustion, physically spent. In the same way that the unrelenting pace pushed me to rapid language breakthroughs, a sesshin can destroy the barriers that I manage to skirt in a normal daily zazen period. But it can also feel, at times, impossible to survive another minute.

Reading through some of my earlier blog entries the other day, I was amused to find that my most frequently recurring theme was “imperfection.” Being flawed, it appears, is the thing I struggle with most. I constantly strive towards some ideal of behavior, performance, and even thought, as if these paragons of my imagination were actually attainable. Even though I intellectually understand that I am human, and so by very definition fallible, I continue to act each day as if this is something I can correct, if I only try hard enough.

In The Places That Scare You, Pema Chodron discusses the concept of maitri, which she defines as unconditional love for oneself. In her introduction to this topic, she says:

…meditation is not just about feeling good. To think that is why we meditate is to set ourselves up for failure. We’ll assume we are doing it wrong almost every time we sit down: even the most settled meditator experiences psychological and physical pain. Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity. This complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is called maitri, a simple direct relationship with the way we are.

She then goes on to examine the first quality of maitri that is cultivated by meditation: steadfastness. She says that no matter what comes up, although “plenty of meditators consider it, we don’t go screaming out of the room.”

And this was the passage that reminded me so much of my sesshin experience:

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! That is how to cultivate steadfastness.

So, somehow, sitting in the zendo for those long periods of zazen, aching knees and all, wandering thoughts and all, self doubt and all – that was precisely what I was supposed to be doing. It’s all part of the plan. I can rest easy now. Every little imperfection is just a pebble along the path to the development of steadfastness, and that, ultimately, will lead to maitri, an unconditional love for myself. Let’s see how long I can hold onto that thought.

(Note to self: Stay!)


The Four Rabbinim

A friend recently turned me on to Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Most of you have probably heard of her – she is the author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, which every woman seemed to be reading about ten years ago. I knew of her, but had never actually cracked the book. My introduction to her was through a set of CDs called The Creative Fire, dealing with myths and stories about the cycles of creativity. I am putty in the hands of a good storyteller, and she is a delightful master at it. So I decided to check out the book as well.

And there, I ran across this story:

The Four Rabbinim

One night four Rabbinim were visted by an angel who awakened them and carried them to the Seventh Vault of the Seventh Heaven. There they beheld the sacred Wheel of Ezekiel.

Somewhere in the descent from Pardes, Paradise, to Earth, one Rabbi, having seen such splendor, lost his mind and wandered frothing and foaming until the end of his days. The second Rabbi was extremely cynical: “Oh, I just dreamed Ezekiel’s Wheel, that was all. Nothing really happened.” The third Rabbi carried on and on about what he had seen, for he was totally obsessed. He lectured and would not stop with how it was all constructed and what it all meant…and in this way he went astray and betrayed his faith. The fourth Rabbi, who was a poet, took a paper in hand and a reed and sat near the window writing song after song praising the evening dove, his daughter in her cradle, and all the stars in the sky. And he lived his life better than before.

Okay, first I have to admit: I love this story because the poet wins! Not wins – you know what I mean. The poet is the one with the healthiest response, the most life affirming reaction to seeing paradise.

It calls to mind for me Zen teaching I have heard about moments of enlightenment, altered states that result from periods of zazen, or from mindfulness, or those that simply arise as gifts from the universe. What happens if we have one of those moments? Do we go mad? Do we brush it aside with cynicism? Do we intellectualize it to death? Or do we just use that beautiful insight, that moment of connection, to further enrich our own everyday, ordinary lives, penning a poem or writing a song, and then moving on to the next right thing?

In the book The Places that Scare You, Pema Chodron tells of a student who has such an enlightenment moment. The student is standing on a street corner, and suddenly she feels no separateness between herself and everything else in her sight, and then that expands to a feeling of connection to the entire world. She is profoundly shaken by this, and rethinks everything she has ever believed. The problem came when she began to despair that she could not maintain this sensation all the time. Everyday life now felt dull and unpurposeful; all she wanted was to re-enter that state of blissful union. She became miserably unhappy.

Suzuki-roshi, too, lectures again and again about not becoming attached to enlightenment or special states. The message seems to be coming loud and clear from many directions.

I like the fact that the poet in this story has “right attitude” – for me, poetry has always been very Zen. It is a crystallization of the now, a nugget of beauty or surprise, a sigh, or simply one deep breath.

So, here is a breath for you, by Zen poet Saigyo:

Every single thing
Changes and is changing
Always in this world.
Yet with the same light
The moon goes on shining.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved