Difficult moments are to be expected and often times are all too abundant. Pema Chödrön challenges us to meet these with acceptance and heart-lifting grace.
I can distinctly recall the first time I read her famous book, When Things Fall Apart. It was one of the most beautiful and unique reads I had come across as I was into my second marriage and already in couple’s therapy. Her pages of eloquent and timely words seemed to jump out at me every day for a year. I wasn’t necessarily searching for her book when I purchased it at the local bookstore, rather it found me. Her words were a turning point that guided me to daily journal writing and believing in the worthiness of my own beating and loving heart.
Pema Chödrön was born Dierdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936, New York City. Her education stemmed from a Bachelor’s degree in English literature, followed by a Master’s degree in elementary education from the University of California at Berkeley. She worked as an elementary school teacher in both California and New Mexico after graduation, and before her conversion to Buddhism. She has two children and three grandchildren, all of whom live in the San Francisco Bay area.
As a notable American figure in Tibetan Buddhism, Pema Chödrön was initially a disciple of Chogyan Trungpa Rinpoche. Her wealthy list of credentials beyond Buddhism include being an ordained nun, author, a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage Trungpa founded and a resident teacher and founding director of Gampo Abbey, a monastery in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, established in 1984.
Her teachings have a central theme revolving around the belief that “shenpa,” the Tibetan word for “attachment,” is interpreted as the moment one is hooked in the habitual negative or self-destructive actions and thought. Shenpa, or getting “hooked” according to Chödrön, occurs as a response to a comment, situation or other stimulus that is similar and related to past experiences. She also asserts that often those negative experiences can lead to a pattern of self-destructive thoughts and behaviors, such as excessive eating or drinking or angry emotional outbursts.
With her enormous following and honest and peaceful ways, the heart journey is an ongoing process. Here are ten heart-lifting moments through her words that will continually inspire:
1. “If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”
We must stay alive and willing to accept all people without judgment.
2. “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
The yin and yang of dark and light—it’s a constant and needs to be revered in order for us to be whole.
3. “You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather.”
Your life, much like a clear blue sky, a seemingly infinite space of freedom and possibility; stressors or our emotional reactions, the variable weather of your day. As with all life-events (big or small), it can be all too easy to identify with what’s happening in the moment, good or bad. Only when we are able to look beyond these emotions and expectations we can see the true nature of our entire life.
4. “Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not squeamish about taking a good look.”
Being open, real and vulnerable about our feelings is the gateway to freedom.
5. “The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.”
We have the choice to either be responsible for our actions or walk away from them. It’s not always pretty, but it is necessary.
6. “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”
Being scared of anything takes us step by step down a road that will prove beautiful and authentic.
7. “If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart.”
Focusing on who wronged us is a moot point. It’s so much more of an enriching and growing experience to set our sights on what is actually causing us so much pain.
8. “We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart.”
Nothing is ever perfect. When we accept the fact that all aspects of the heart and its ability to break and repair is part of the human experience, we’re much stronger as a result.
9. “To be fully alive, fully human and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”
Let’s all learn the art of independence and be open to change. When that happens, our own personal resolution with life and death will set the world on fire.
10. “We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.”
Taking stock of our actions through kindness and fragility is the ultimate gain in love and the human heart. Our words can sting, just as much as our actions can pain another. Compassion, empathy and love are the elixirs to doing the best we can as individuals. Take that stance out into the world, heart by heart.
Oftentimes, when a teacher or mentor has beliefs and expresses them so eloquently, there isn’t much more to say. Simply sit back, look up at the sky, give thanks and praise, take many deep breaths and process Pema Chödrön’s words as if they were ingrained into your heart. I did many years ago, and I’ll always be grateful.
[image credit: Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche]