Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Millions think this singer of Sufi devotional music is the voice of the century.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a soft-spoken man. Despite his ability to sing, without a microphone, in a voice of such power and grace that he is now South Asia's most popular musician, in person his words tumble out in whispers, disappearing into his ample chest.
The Pakistani singer is perhaps the world's greatest living master of qawwali, a mystical Sufi music in which the voice coils upward like a snake being charmed out of a basket, raising listeners to a kind of spiritual ecstasy.
Qawwali is among those forms of music in which religion and sex seem most closely intertwined: for while Khan's lyrics are all based on Islamic law, his voice, accompanied by a party of tabla drummers and harmonium players, has a quavering orgasmic quality that drives listeners wild, causing them to shower the stage with money and dance in a manner that would be considered most unbecoming by the ayatollahs of this world.
Although Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has recorded more than a hundred albums and enjoyed widespread popularity in Pakistani communities around the world for many years, it is only recently that Western audiences have begun to discover his work. His profile in the United States began to soar after Peter Gabriel performed live with him and helped distribute Khan's albums in the West. More recently, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam sought Khan out for a collaboration that appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Dead Man Walking.
A few days after attending the MTV Video Music Awards with Peter Gabriel, Khan sat down with me in the dimly-lit lounge of a hotel in midtown Manhattan, attended by an interpreter and manager. Although he is not a particularly tall man, he weighs several hundred pounds, with a protuberant mid-section that's difficult not to notice. But his hands look like they belong on a little girl, ending in wispy fingertips, and one finger is adorned by a jade ring the size of a grape. His watch, a sleek black and gold number from Cartier, would be at home on the wrist of an oil sheik. His eyebrows are barely existent, and he has a giant, smooth forehead with fiery eyes weirdly planted a bit higher in the skull than normal.
As his vast corpulence settled into the couch, his beige gown draping the floor, he seemed kingly, unearthly, and decidedly out of place in the middle of New York. Sitting there in the shadows, occasionally rubbing his eyes with evident exhaustion, Khan spoke softly and without any hint of his awesome lung power. His presence went largely unnoticed by passersby, who were unaware of the musical legend in their midst.
Dimitri Ehrlich: I know that your music is based on the Sufi tradition, but what is your personal religious affiliation, if any? Do you meditate or pray?
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: I am not Sufi, but I spent a lot of time since my childhood with the Sufis, and I deeply studied them. Sufi music, especially, is a kind of prayer. If you sing in this manner, you will become closer to God, very close. That's basically what I do.
What is your inner, mental experience when you are singing? What do you think about, or don't you direct your mind in any specific way?
When I sing traditional spiritual songs, I always concentrate on who it is that I'm singing about. For instance, if I am inspired by the holy prophet, I concentrate on the prophet. In my mind, there are many things, but when I sing, I sing for God, and for holy prophets, for Sufi saints. When I sing, their personalities are in my mind. I feel like I am in front of them. I feel their personalities, and I pray. I feel like I am in another world when I sing. I am not in the material world while I am singing these traditional holy messages. I'm totally in another world. I am withdrawn from my materialistic senses; I am totally in my spiritual senses. And I am intoxicated by the holy prophet, God, and other Sufi saints.
Is there a different sort of prayer or meditative mode associated with songs concerned with Allah, Mohammed, and the Sufi saints, respectively?
When I sing for God, I feel myself in accord with God, and the house of God, Mecca, is right in front of me. And I worship. When I sing for Mohammed, peace be upon him, our prophet, I feel like I am sitting right next to his tomb, Medina, and paying him respect and admitting to myself that I accept his message. When I sing about the Sufi saints, I feel like the saints are in front of me, and as a student, I am accepting their teachings. And I repeat again and again that I accept it, that I am really their follower.
I know that Sufism is essentially a mystical sect of Islam, but are there also strains of other religious thought involved with the liturgy or philosophy of Sufism?
Every religion has its own way of describing God. For instance, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhs-they all have their own way of following God. Sufism basically describes God and teaches how to come closer to God. So basically, I follow the Islamic form of Sufism to find my way to God.
I know that when you were sixteen you had a visionary dream in which your father, a great qawwali singer who had recently died, came to you and told you that you had been given his musical gift and should devote your life to qawwali. Since that dream, how has your understanding of your music changed?
Since the age of sixteen, when I started singing, I have had the same message to deliver to people about Sufism. But some changes have come accordingly as I grew and my experiences grew. Of course you really go to greater depths as time passes, more and more and more, and you grow and grow with the songs.
So how would you define your message?
My message is the message of humanity, love and peace. The goal of this message that I bring to people is to bring them toward brotherhood, to bring them closer to each other, without hatred, without any concern for race, religion or color. I try to bring people, through spirituality, to a position in which they'll be more honest with each other, and live a truer life, less concerned with the materialistic world where they cannot find themselves. I try to bring them to a place where they can at least recognize themselves.
Other than your musical practice, which clearly has a very powerful spiritual dimension, do you have any formal religious practice?
I pray five times a day. And I pray before I eat, giving thanks to my God for the opportunity to eat this food. And after eating, I pray and give thanks again. And after all of my practices of my music, I always pray and give thanks to my God and say, God, I am your slave, and thanks to you I have this opportunity to give my message to the world.
For many performers, the gulf between the ecstatic experience of being in the spotlight and the "coming down" that inevitably accompanies going offstage draws them into drug addiction and other self-destructive behavior. Obviously you've avoided that pitfall, but do you ever feel any kind of emotional depression from coming down from the high of being on stage?
During the time I am singing traditional qawwali songs, I feel that I am in a prayer position in front of God. When I finish my prayers, whether is it my singing or the formal prayers I do, I feel deeply peaceful. I feel that I have had some success in accomplishing the mission that God has given to me. I have no difficulty making a transition from that frame of mind to my normal daily activities because prayer is a routine part of my life and I do it all the time.
In Buddhist psychology, there is a vast pharmacopia of different meditative antidotes that can be applied to various mental afflictions. So, for example, there are certain practices you can do if you are very angry, and different meditations if you are greedy, or jealous, or hateful or whatever. Do you have any kinds of specific prayers that are designed to deal with specific problems, such as anger, jealousy and greed?
Because of this music and because of this message which we have in our hearts and our minds all the time, it is extremely rare to feel anger toward anybody. This is the basic medication that controls us, preventing us from getting angry and keeps us happy.
What did you learn from your father, other than the specific musical training that you got as a singer of qawwali?
From my parents I learned my religion, how to live and follow Islamic rules. When I was young I went to the mosque and read the Koran and learned all the Islamic rules. From my teachers I got a basic education in science, mathematics, geography, English, Urdu, all the common subjects. And from Sufis I learned about Sufism. I try to learn and integrate the teachings from these three sources-from the saints, from school, and from my father. Of course when I was a child, before I turned sixteen, I was just a regular young person. I got angry, I argued, I lived like a boy. But since I saw the dream and became a follower of Sufism, and began singing the traditional qawwali, it really gave me peace in my heart. Since then my life has been totally changed. Since then I control everything that comes to my brain and to my heart.
Let's talk a little about motivation. For some pop musicians, there is a desire for success that is equal to or even greater than the desire for excellence. Your music is so transcendentally spiritual, I wonder whether you ever think about making money and being a star as a motive behind what you do.
When I started singing, of course, I had in my mind the desire for success. I was always thinking that the people should listen to me, that the crowd should pay me respect as the artist. Of course, I wanted applause and felt that the singer should get some reward in the shape of appreciation from the public. But as time went by, I found myself in a situation where all I wanted was to give a lesson, the purpose of which was to give more happiness to people. My sleeping, my waking, my talking, my eating, everything in my life, the music is always with me in my mind. I'm always thinking about new tunes, new discoveries, and new music.
Dimitri Ehrlich writes for Interview, The New York Times, and other publications. His band, Dimitri and the Supreme 5000, released its debut album last year. He is currently writing a book about music and spirituality.
Concept Becomes Experience: A Composer's Journey
Concept Becomes Experience: A Composer's Journey
Peter Lieberson, composer of "King Gesar," describes his creative journey from the high intellectualism of twelve-tone theory to a trust in the play between spontaneity and technique.
Just before Prince Siddhartha sat down to his final meditation session, after which he would be known as the Buddha, or Awakened One, he had an interesting realization. Ascetic practices of mortifying the body and attempting to control the mind did not work. As the prince was contemplating this insight a young girl tending her cow passed and offered him some milk. Then a farmer gave him a seat of kusha grass. The prince accepted these gifts, and, after months of denying himself the basic necessities of life in his search for enlightenment, he ate the food and sat down on the mat of grass, comfortably arranged himself, and simply opened his mind.
In that moment the Buddha solved a spiritual conundrum: he realized enlightenment only when he finally stopped struggling to become enlightened. He discovered that the essential nature of his mind was primordially free and that the obscurations of neurosis and habitual patterns of all kinds were temporary.
The Buddha let go of his struggle because he saw through all the techniques he had been faithfully practicing for years. He understood that the intrinsic wakefulness of his basic being was beyond any concept of enlightenment.
At the same time, he discovered that freedom paradoxically came about through those very disciplines that were artificial, gradual in application, and, ultimately, constricting. So for those inspired to follow the Buddha's example, a path developed based on the skillful methods of the Buddha himself and of realized teachers in the lineages that followed.
From the very beginning of the Buddhist path simple techniques are presented to the student that encourage a state of wakefulness; in a sense one is deliberately playing a trick on oneself. Still, because one is trying to let go, there are nine yanas, or vehicles, in the Buddhist path that present ever more subtle and powerful techniques, each wearing out the previous ones. From this perspective, it might be said that enlightenment is a kind of transcendental exhaustion.
In the early 1970's, Buddhism's initial appeal to me was that it was not a religion in the conventional Western sense. Buddhism did not posit the existence of any external deity or savior or, for that matter, an individual personal ego. Although there were religious trappings in the form of rituals and observances, the great Buddhist masters seemed to be very eccentric and unpredictable. Their basic message was: be brave enough to experience existence without dogma or beliefs of any kind.
At that particular stage of my life, after much self-analysis, I was, finally, bored. I felt I was carrying an enormous conceptual superstructure in my head to get through situations. Fundamentally everything, especially myself, remained an enigma. Buddhism seemed to address this dilemma by removing the ground on which I thought I had been standing.
Among the books I first read was the popular Be Here Now (1971) by Ram Dass (Richard Alpert). He was entertaining and ridiculous. Vicariously enjoying his experiences, I felt I was slumming from my intellectual heritage. I loved the story of his Hindu teacher taking a fistful of LSD and remaining blandly serene while an agitated Ram Dass anticipated a crack-up. I began practicing meditation on my own, relying on The Secrets of Chinese Meditation (1972) by Charles Luk. It was a far more substantial book than the supermarket title suggests. I followed instructions for self-cultivation according to the Tian Tai school.
I discovered that Buddhism placed a tremendous importance on the role of the teacher, an accomplished fellow human being able to guide students on their path. I read stories of Chinese Ch'an and Japanese Zen masters. They were fiercer, more humorous, and more pointed than the Hindu masters; I preferred them.
Trying to find such a teacher, however, was another story. I attended a lecture given by a semi-certified American roshi at the New School. His brand of enlightenment was a huge guffaw and a few anecdotes about the ego as a swinging door. The analogy seemed fine, but he didn't. I wandered from bookstore to bookstore.
One day a friend introduced me to a book by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (1973). This book tossed me through my world into an uncertain space. I was instantly aware that someone was speaking to me from the other side, so to speak. From that moment on, I never had any doubt that Chögyam Trungpa was an enlightened person, and whatever the many things that could have meant at the time, it certainly meant that he saw reality in a way I had never seen it. I was inspired and terrified.
Chögyam Trungpa was former supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries in eastern Tibet. He was recognized at the age of thirteen months as the eleventh incarnation of the Trungpa line. He was known by numerous titles, but in the early days of his residence in the United States he was known simply as "Rinpoche," an honorific given to teachers that literally means "Precious One." But Rinpoche's students used the term more as an endearment than as an expression of guru worship. Worshipping the teacher as a way of elevating oneself was a form of insincerity that Chögyam Trungpa regarded with lethal cynicism.
Finally I met him. The occasion was a seminar. The place was a seedy loft in downtown Manhattan. The students consisted of hippies, intellectuals and a few people with full-time jobs. A number of women in the audience moaned, "Oh, Rinpoche," in theatrical distress when Chögyam Trungpa lit up a cigarette. I was thrilled.
He was brilliant. He drank sake and smoked cigarettes, great pluses as far as I was concerned. He dressed quite elegantly, too. He seemed to be one of us and yet not one of us. I could not quite make the whole thing out. To this day I remember one of his sentences: "Fear of losing ground causes a screen: aggression and tightness operate." Here was my own language being used in a way I had never heard it used before, skirting on psychological jargon but free of it, penetrating and accurate, right to the heart of everyone's squirming, nonexistent ego.
My friend introduced me to Chögyam Trungpa at the end of the talk. As we exchanged hellos, I had the distinct impression of encountering an energy that spun me like a top down the street and into the night.
"As for myself, I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me."
—Igor Stravinsky: Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, 1970
During this period I had nearly completed a master's degree in musical composition from Columbia University. My principal teachers were Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen, both brilliant men and composers.
I learned many secrets of musical composition from them. These I practiced diligently, living a Spartan life and seeing hardly anyone. The musical world I inhabited was hermetic—sealed and self-secret. This was the era of twelve-tone music and, especially, twelve-tone theory.
Theory to me meant the mysteries of a new musical universe locked up in the relationship between numbers, their inversions and retrogrades, their multiplicative transformations. These investigations were carried on in the famous journal Perspectives of New Music. Therein, the terrain Arnold Schoenberg had discovered by intuitive leaps of genius was methodically mapped out for the next generation. Not all composers were suited to this kind of thinking, but those who were not were made to feel irrelevant. For the rest of us, this was clearly the path of the future.
What was daunting, however, was the complexity of method. I would erect theoretical edifices capable of housing multiples of the twelve-minute piece I was working on. The possibilities were endless: the relationships within one set of notes could be extended to aggregates of sets and further expanded to multiple arrays of sets. Then one had to realize all this stuff as music, for performers who needed time to breathe or draw a bow across a string.
Curiously, after each piece was finished I would forget what I had done. Beginning a new piece involved the formulation of yet another set of theoretical concepts. I found these experiences to be true for other composers as well. Individually we all understood what we were doing, but each piece required its own particular explanation. There seemed to be no common ground other than an underlying theoretical method.
Justifying a piece by means of the theory behind it was solipsistic, the first symptom of disease. I became immensely dissatisfied with the musical results and not too sure about the ideas behind them either. I needed to rest and rethink what I was doing. This discontent combined with the politics of musical life—the intense competition for very few rewards—to provoke a sense of revulsion. I was fed up.
As time went on I was drawn out of my city hermitage into the world of the sangha, the community of Buddhist practitioners. I met Chögyam Trungpa again, this time in Boulder, Colorado, and asked to be accepted as his student. He said, "Sure," further throwing me off: didn't such a portentous move on my part require a like response? Little did I know.
When asked by a famous sitar player how he should meditate, the Buddha said that he should work with his mind the same way he would string his instrument: not too tight, not too loose.
In 1976, I moved to Boulder. I had enjoyed considerable success for a young composer. My music had been played by Pierre Boulez and the New York Philharmonic; I had a publisher and a number of grants, awards and commissions. But to the despair of my loved ones, I seemed to be throwing all this away. I was—or secretly hoping to. I would become a Buddhist teacher and leave the emotionally conflicting world of music behind. When I told this to Chögyam Trungpa, he said, "I think you should do more music."
That fall and winter I attended a three-month seminary, in which Trungpa Rinpoche taught the practice and doctrines of hinayana, mahayana and vajrayana Buddhism. There were 125 of us. We practiced sitting meditation for a ten-day period, and then for a similar period practiced sitting meditation alternating with classes taught by senior students and evening talks with Trungpa Rinpoche himself. At the end of seminary Trungpa Rinpoche gave us the special transmission that he received from his teacher on the nature of mind, formally empowering us as vajrayana students. It was what I had left home for, and it was also a return home.
To a certain extent I had learned how to meditate; I began to trust myself more. With some trepidation I returned to New York City, and, alone in my parents' apartment, I began work on a new piece.
I had not composed anything for nearly a year and started with a simple solo line. I recognized when I would begin to get tight and irritable, and I would let go, just what I had been doing on the meditation cushion for the previous three months. Some ventilation was taking place in my system. I began to feel I was understanding the principle of "not too tight, not too loose." I wrote the rest of the piece, a quartet for the group Tashi, with the simple command from my teacher in my ears: "Good in the beginning, good in the middle, good at the end."
In 1981 I was accepted to teach at that year's seminary. I had been teaching Buddhism and Shambhala Training for three years in Boston at our local center. I was married and the father of an eighteen-month-old daughter. I had just been commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to write a piano concerto for my friend Peter Serkin. This was my first orchestral commission by one of the country's most distinguished orchestras. I still felt I had not come to terms with how I wrote music, however, even as I embarked on what I envisioned as a grand scale work embodying the principles of Heaven, Earth and Man.
By the time I got to seminary I had completed the short score for the first movement, based on the Earth principle. I taught for the three-month program and had occasional meetings with Chogyam Trungpa about the courses. One day I met with him with two of my teaching colleagues.
The day before he had "received" a text. Trungpa Rinpoche was famous as a terton, someone who discovers spiritual teachings that are appropriate for their particular age. In Tibet, tertons were of many varieties: some would discover sacred objects that had been hidden away by teachers long since passed away; the location of these objects would come in visions. Some tertons would see texts in the mirror surface of a lake or in the sky. Other tertons would reveal a text from their own mind stream. Trungpa Rinpoche received texts in this latter way, and he simply wrote them down, often in one long, uninterrupted sitting.
At our meeting, I joked that "receiving" texts would be a great way to compose music, thinking of Mozart, who undoubtedly composed in a similar fashion. Rinpoche laughed and agreed, commenting that it actually felt somewhat like a headache. I presented my own particular dilemma, saying something like, "These days there is no common language, and such an overdeveloped intellectual approach. It feels as if I am only dealing with concepts and not spontaneous creation." Rinpoche looked at me and said, "Concept becomes experience." Suddenly tears came to my eyes. Then our meeting continued and moved on to other topics.
It is difficult to convey the significance a remark by one's teacher can have. Those whom we trust reflect back to us as a kind of mirror. Particularly with a genuine spiritual teacher, an ordinary exchange can have tremendous potency. A humorous remark or gesture by the teacher in that moment is known, technically, as a meeting of minds, but it is often so ordinary as to be uneventful. Still, for a moment, the world of confusion collapses in the sharing of a joke.
That one remark by my teacher seemed to turn my world right-side up. I began to regard techniques not as concepts that prevent genuine musical expression but as passports to different worlds of experience. I began to play with the techniques my musical teachers had shown me. I threw them around and threw them out, and like boomerangs they would return. I used them in different ways, looking at them from inside and outside. They became like putty, reshaping and reforming for each new piece, even if I still could not remember from one piece to the next what I had actually done or what I had spent so much time trying to understand.
The creative process is fundamentally a process of visualization: in the case of composing music, you see what you hear. Out of the space of mind something flashes—a first thought—that has potential. Further ideas occur as offshoots or main limbs through paying attention and through coincidence. Soon a form is before you that takes on a particular authority. Then sidetracks are out of the question.
Yet if you investigate what this music is made of, you find nothing more than bits of sound that have no inherent meaning whatsoever. Somehow, notes have been endowed with such passion that they magnetize further notes until, magically, a world is born that makes us cry and laugh. A Buddhist would say that is the true nature of our entire world: empty, devoid of any inherent existence, and yet luminous, vivid with the play of apparent phenomena.
Chögyam Trungpa used to say, "First thought, best thought," referring to a state of mind that is fresh, open, responsive. The awake mind can never be hampered by concepts but uses their energy for whatever purpose is beneficial. It is very interesting to work with whatever comes up in the mind and to have no plan other than trust in the process itself. This approach is completely different from "anything goes." I think such trust is possible only when a certain level of confidence has been attained.
One day, in the middle of a piece I was composing, all those techniques left me. Really, it felt more like a collapse. Lately, I have noticed that whatever technique a piece requires is suggested, even dictated, by the piece itself. Sometimes I am slow to catch on, but eventually I get it.
I would like to illustrate the message of the Buddha's enlightenment with a little story about Igor Stravinsky. My parents and the Stravinskys were friends. I had met Stravinsky when I was a child, but the occasion had no significance to me; he was simply another old person, though a charming one.
Then, when I was about twenty-two and had begun composing, I was invited to join my parents for a visit at the Stravinskys' hotel in New York City. Stravinsky was very old and frail. He sat on a couch in the living room with a blanket draped over his legs, drinking milk laced with scotch. Still, he looked quite fierce, and I was intimidated. My father said to him, "Peter wants to be a composer." I was embarrassed but nodded in agreement. Stravinsky said, "It is not enough to want…you must be!"
Peter Lieberson's compositions have been performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, among others. He is the winner of the 2008 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for his piece "Neruda Songs."
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Cultivating Openness When Things Fall Apart
Cultivating Openness When Things Fall Apart
& talk over life and all its problems
"Isn't that the kind of teaching we need these days, that difficult circumstances can be the path to liberation. That's news you can use."
Initially when I enter the classroom, I share with my students that we are there to think critically—to engage the world we live in—the world of ideas, fully, deeply, with our whole heart. Pema Chödrön's work gives me this gift. Consistently she challenges me to think beyond someplace where I have erected boundaries—where I've allowed myself to become stuck-attached-full of defences.
When I first read her, the writing irked me. I was disturbed by what I began to call its "strategic open-endedness." I wanted to be offered solutions, ways out. Instead, she kept extending an invitation to me and everyone to move into that enchanted space beyond right or wrong—to journey to the heart of compassion. And when you have stepped out on faith, straight into the heart of the matter, loving kindness appears less like a utopian dream. It becomes concrete—a place to practice wherever you are. Beyond the challenges she makes to the stuck places within us, Pema is most seductive and exciting when she urges us to revise our notions of safety, telling us: "Real safety is your willingness to not run away from yourself." She urges us to risk, to embrace rebellion, disruption, and chaos as a beloved site for transformation. Talking with her enabled me to bring issues that trouble my heart out in the open. My hope was that she could and would shed light on the matter. Those bits of light are here in our dialogue. May their radiance reach you.
bell hooks: Pema, one of the ideas in your work that really challenges me is abandoning the hope of fruition. That's really hard for me.
Pema Chödrön: The way I understand it is that we rob ourselves of being in the present by always thinking that the payoff will happen in the future. The only place ever to work is right now. We work with the present situation rather than a hypothetical possibility of what could be. I like any teaching that encourages us to be with ourselves and our situation as it is without looking for alternatives. The source of all wakefulness, the source of all kindness and compassion, the source of all wisdom, is in each second of time. Anything that has us looking ahead is missing the point.
bell hooks: Much of the work I do revolves around racism and sexism, and on one hand, I want to start right where I am in the now. But on the other hand, I also have to have this vision of a future where these things are not in our lives. Do you think that's too utopian?
Pema Chödrön: Personally, I work with aspiration. The classic aspiration is "Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them." That means that I aspire to end suffering for all creatures, but at the same time I stay with the immediacy of the situation I'm in. I give up both the hope that something is going to change and the fear that it isn't. We may long to end suffering but somehow it paralyzes us if we're too goal-oriented. Do you see the balance there? It's like the teaching that Don Juan gave to Carlos Castenada, where he says that you do everything with your whole heart, as if nothing else matters. You do it impeccably and with your whole heart, but all the while knowing that it actually doesn't matter at all.
bell hooks: Yet it seems very hard for people to fight this racism and sexism without hope for an end to it. There is so much despair and apathy because of the feeling that we've struggled and struggled and not enough has changed.
Pema Chödrön: The main issue is aggression. Often if there's too much hope you begin to have a strong sense of enemy. Then the whole process of trying to alleviate suffering actually adds more suffering because of your aggression toward the oppressor. Don't you see a lot of people who have such good intentions but they get very angry, depressed, resentful?
bell hooks: Yes, you're talking to one! I get so overwhelmed sometimes.
Pema Chödrön: Well, doesn't that get in the way?
bell hooks: Yeah, it does. I'm on tour right now talking about my book about ending racism, and I hear people say things like, racism doesn't exist, or, don't you think we've already dealt with that? And I start to feel irritable. This irritability starts mounting in me, and I notice how it collapses into sorrow. I came home the other day and I sat down at my table and just wept because I thought, it's just too much.
Pema Chödrön: Well, isn't that the point? That other people and ourselves, we're the same really, and we just get stuck in different ways. Getting stuck in any kind of self-and-other tension seems to cause pain. So if you can keep your heart and your mind open to those people, in other words, work with any tendency to close down towards them, isn't that the way the system of racism and cruelty starts to de-escalate?
The thing is, once we get into this kind of work we are opening ourselves for all our own unresolved misery to come floating right up and block our compassion. It's a difficult and challenging practice to keep your heart and mind open. It takes a lot to be a living example of unbiased mind! But when you see, bell, how you feel towards these people, you can begin to understand why there is racism, why there is cruelty, because everyone has those same thoughts and emotions that you do. Everyone feels that irritability and then it escalates.
bell hooks: Is it simply a choice of will to have an open heart?
Pema Chödrön: I think it begins with the aspiration to connect with open heart, the knowledge that cultivating openness is how you want to spend the remaining moments of your life.
Openness actually starts to emerge when you see how you close down. You see how you close down, how you yell at someone, and you begin to have some compassion. It starts with compassion towards yourself and then you begin to extend that warmth to the rest of humanity. It begins to dawn on you how it could happen that people are yelling at others because they're oriental or black or hispanic or women or gay or whatever. You begin to know what it's like to stand in their shoes.
bell hooks: How do you develop compassion towards yourself?
Pema Chödrön: A big part of compassion is being honest with yourself, not shielding yourself from your mistakes as if nothing had happened. And the other big component is being gentle.
This is what meditation is about, but obviously it goes beyond sitting on a meditation cushion. You begin to see your moods and your attitudes and your opinions. You begin to hear this voice, your voice, and how it can be so critical of self and others. There is growing clarity about all the different parts of yourself.
Meditation gives you the tools to look at all of this clearly, with an unbiased attitude. A lot of having compassion toward oneself is staying with the initial thought or arising of emotion. This means that when you see yourself being aggressive, or stuck in self-pity, or whatever it might be, then you train again and again in not adding things on top of that—guilt or self-justification or any further negativities. You work on not spinning off and on being kinder toward the human condition as you see it in yourself.
bell hooks: The idea in your work I find so moving is the unconditional embrace of one's being, which allows you to embrace others at the same time. But if I unconditionally accept myself, then what's the motivation to practice further?
Pema Chödrön: That willingness to stick with yourself is just another way of saying that you stay awake. It seems what blocks seeing things truly is our tendency to self-denigrate, to disassociate continually, to edit continually. When you don't close down and shut off, then insight begins to come. This insight is the wisdom that completely cuts through the conventional way of seeing.
So when you see clearly, the motivation to practice becomes stronger and stronger because you begin to have insights that are totally refreshing and powerful. The motivation to practice becomes stronger because you are discovering your true nature and it's painful to block that in any way. It's painful to see yourself being totally neurotic, selfish, all these things, and you can't stand to do that to yourself. You don't want to cover over your openness anymore. Plus you can't bear to see the suffering it causes other people when they do the same thing.
On one level, our suffering is caused by bigotry and dogmatism and all these things, but ultimately we suffer because we don't understand how limitless we are. You could say that we live in a fantasy, that what we call reality is actually a dream. This is a an important truth—that this whole thing is a fantasy and we're totally completely caught up in it. We limit what is limitless. We condition what is unconditioned, and it makes us miserable. When you begin to understand that, you can't bear for other people to keep hurting themselves that way, and you can't bear to keep hurting yourself that way. Then you are really motivated to practice.
bell hooks: You have commented that we can't smooth out the rough edges, yet as I was listening to you I was thinking, isn't she describing a sense that the rough edges get smoothed out.
Pema Chödrön: No they don't, actually. What you realize is that there's enough space to accommodate all of it. There's enough space in your own being, enough space in the whole of creation, to accommodate all of it. All of it. It's because we pick and choose, because we have biases and prejudices, because we prefer smooth to rough and then react for and against, that we suffer.
bell hooks: Can you talk about the difference between blame and accountability? Because I feel, like you, that blame isn't very useful. But you have said, for instance in reference to men teachers who abuse their powers, that you feel the issue of accountability is real. How does one manoeuvre between giving up blame and being able to embrace the idea of accountability?
Pema Chödrön: This is the message of the first noble truth. You are willing to see suffering as suffering.
Obviously the less that you are caught in your own hope and fear, the more you can just see suffering very straightforwardly and without aggression. So accountability seems to mean you can be honest, incredibly honest. You see that harm is being done. You see someone harming a child, an animal, another human being. You see that clearly and your strongest wish is to de-escalate that suffering. Then the question is, how do you proceed so that the person you see as the problem becomes accountable, becomes willing to acknowledge what they're doing?
You realize how hard it is for you to acknowledge what you are doing in your own life. You see what it takes to become accountable yourself, and you begin to try to find the skillful means to communicate so that the barriers come down rather than get reinforced. It has everything to do with communication: how can you communicate so that someone can hear what you're saying and you can also hear what they are saying?
bell hooks: One of the issues that I've had with the students in my American literature classes is my sense that we're all accountable, that while I as teacher am a certain kind of center from which things radiate, everyone is accountable. They were very distressed last week because I said to them, you know, these papers are really boring. And they came back this week and they said, you were really mean, you were just so raw. And I said, excuse me, was I the only one thinking these papers were boring? Am I the only person who's accountable here?
Although I did not have the pleasure and pain of meeting Trungpa Rinpoche, I've always been moved by his teaching. I have always felt myself to be embodying in my own teaching and habits of being a certain wildness of spirit that's experimental, that's willing to push the boundaries. That's why my book on teaching is called Teaching to Transgress.
Pema Chödrön: Accountability, as you're talking about it, is my understanding of the spiritual path. With Trungpa Rinpoche, my feeling was that all he was doing was getting people to take responsibility for themselves, getting them to grow up. He was a master of not confirming. Talking to him was like talking to a huge space where everything bounced back, and you had to be accountable for yourself.
Personally I feel that the role of the teacher is to wean the students from dependency, and from taking the parent/child view of life altogether. That's what I think of as non-theism. Theism doesn't just have to do with God; it has to do with always feeling that you're incomplete and need something or someone outside to look to. It's like never growing up.
To me, theism is feeling that you can't find out for yourself what's true. You take the Buddhist teachings, or any teachings and you just try to fit yourself into them. But you're not really finding out. You're not grappling with it. You're not really digging into it and letting it transform your being. You are just trying to live up to some ideal. You are still looking for the security of having someone else to praise or blame.
So accountability is pretty groundless. There is no hand to hold. It's like the lojong slogan that says, "Of the two judges, trust the principal one." No matter what other people say, when it really comes down to it, you're the only one who can answer your own questions.
bell hooks: You have taken radically different paths at different moments of your life. I'm interested in how we can use mindfulness as a way of illuminating vocation, of knowing when we need to let one path go and move towards another. Do you still grapple with those questions?
Pema Chödrön: Oh, all the time. I mean, isn't that the way? The more you really get into it, the more you grapple. Life is such a stunner. It's always humbling you and showing you how little you know, how little you understand. It continues to inspire you to go forward, but wow, it's a pretty humbling experience. I don't know if that's really what you mean here.
bell hooks: It's a part of what I mean, but I was asking more concretely how we practice in a manner that illuminates our everyday life choices.
Pema Chödrön: What do you think, bell?
bell hooks: I was thinking about work in America and work as a place of suffering for lots of people. So many people spend their lives working in jobs where they feel miserable and I am certainly one of those who feels somewhat miserable in her own job.
Pema Chödrön: Well, there's always the simple answer of moving into a different field. There's nothing wrong with that. But just changing the outer situation doesn't get at the root of the discontent. This gets down to the truth of suffering again. As human beings, we need to look directly at suffering, at what causes it, at what makes it escalate, and at what allows it to dissolve. So the first thing is to acknowledge, with a lot of honesty and heart, that no matter where we go or what we do, there are always going to be both positive and negative feelings and that this is a fertile situation.
My own experience is that I've been a nun going on twenty-three years or so, and as the years go on my life gets in some ways simpler and clearer. But you know, bell, these feelings of worry, of not enough time, still come up. Then you realize how much of it is in our minds. Whether we're in a totally overwhelming work situation or a very simplified one, we still have to work with our minds.
That's why some teachings say that no matter what is happening in your life, it's always showing you the true nature of reality. No matter what movie you're in, no matter what the plot is of the current film you're starring in, it is the vehicle for showing you the true nature of your mind.
So I feel the whole thing comes down to being very, very attuned to one's emotions—to seeing how one is attached to the pleasant and has an aversion to what is painful. You work again and again on trying to discover how to get unhooked, to open and soften rather than to tighten and close down. It comes down to realizing the wisdom and compassion that are contained in this life that we have, just as it is. No matter how simplified or complicated life gets, it can make us miserable or it can wake us up.
bell hooks: One of the things I've been thinking about a great deal is poverty. I feel very strongly that in our society people have been made to feel that you can't lead a meaningful life if you are poor. So much of the agitation in the lives of the poor in this society has to do with this disdain.
Pema Chödrön: The question is how to help people, no matter how desperate their lives are, to realize that they are worthy to live on this earth, that they do not have to feel inferior or be ashamed of themselves. And the question is how to help people to get smarter about what causes suffering to increase and what causes it to decrease.
There is a famous saying that from great suffering comes great compassion. Well, from great suffering can come great compassion, or from great suffering can come great hatred. Maybe someone like you could really work on that message right there. From great suffering can come great openness of heart, a great sense of kinship with others, or from great suffering can come hatred, resentment and despair.
bell hooks: But it isn't an automatic thing. It isn't because you suffer that you will have compassion. In the past people have felt that this is some kind of reward for your suffering, that you will have compassion.
Pema Chödrön: People need a lot of support for suffering to turn into compassion. What usually happens to people when they don't have teachers and guides and the support of people who care is that great suffering leads to more suffering. You have mothers who don't have the money to care for their kids and on top of that they get completely lost in drugs, not to mention that their kids are getting into deep trouble. So the nightmare escalates and escalates.
The fundamental question is not whether there is or isn't suffering. It is how we work with suffering so that it leads to awakening the heart and going beyond the habitual views and actions that perpetuate suffering. How do we actually use suffering so that it transforms our being and that of those that we come in contact with? How can we stop running from pain and reacting against it in ways that destroy us as well as others? This is a message that people can hear, but they have to hear it a lot, and with great heart, and from people who really care, not from somebody who is just passing through to make a few dollars.
That's why I love the lojong teachings, because the lojong slogans are accessible. Basically, they teach how we can take difficult circumstances and transform them into the path of compassion. That's the kind of teaching we need these days, that difficult circumstances can be the path to liberation. That's news you can use.
bell hooks: Well, that brings me to my final issue. I have written it in big block letters: DON'T EVEN THINK FOR A MOMENT THAT YOU'RE NOT GOING TO DIE.
Pema Chödrön: Right. "Don't even think for a moment that you're not going to die." Dzongsar Khyenste Rinpoche said that to a friend of mine who had cancer and was close to death and was having trouble accepting it. And instead of it coming across to her as cruel, it came across as immense kindness, that someone was telling her the truth.
bell hooks: It does seem that so much of our longing to escape has to do with the sense that the closer I am to suffering, the closer I am to death.
Pema Chödrön: For me the spiritual path has always been learning how to die. That involves not just death at the end of this particular life, but all the falling apart that happens continually. The fear of death—which is also the fear of groundlessness, of insecurity, of not having it all together—seems to be the most fundamental thing that we have to work with. Because these endings happen all the time! Things are always ending and arising and ending. But we are strangely conditioned to feel that we're supposed to experience just the birth part and not the death part.
We have so much fear of not being in control, of not being able to hold on to things. Yet the true nature of things is that you're never in control. You're never in control. You can never hold on to anything. That's the nature of how things are. But it's almost like it's in the genes of being born human that you can't accept that. You can buy it intellectually, but moment to moment it brings up a lot of panic and fear. So my own path has been training to relax with groundlessness and the panic that accompanies it. Training to allow all that to be there, training to die continually. That seems to be the essence of the lojong teachings—to stay in the space of uncertainty without trying to reconstruct a reference point.
We can stop looking for some idealized moment when everything is simple and secure. This second of experience, which could be painful or pleasurable, is our working basis. What makes all the difference is how we relate to it.
bell hooks: Pema, I want to say how much I have wanted to speak with you, and I thank you for giving me this opportunity.
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Pema Chödrön's Three Methods for Working with Chaos
Three Methods for Working with Chaos
Times of chaos and challenge can be the most spiritually powerful . . . if we are brave enough to rest in their space of uncertainty. Pema Chödrön describes three ways to use our problems as the path to awakening and joy.
Sometimes late at night or on a long walk with a friend, we find ourselves discussing our ideas about how to live and how to act and what is important in life. If we're studying Buddhism and practicing meditation, we might talk of no-self and emptiness, of patience and generosity, of loving-kindness and compassion. We might have just read something or heard some teachings that turned our usual way of seeing things upside down. We feel that we've just reconnected with a truth we've always known and that if we could just learn more about it, our life would be delightful and rich.
We tell our friends of our longing to shed the huge burden we feel we've always carried. We suddenly are excited and feel it's possible. We tell our friend of our inspiration and how it opens up our life. "It is possible," we say, "to enjoy the very same things that usually get us down. We can delight in our job, delight in riding the subway, delight in shoveling snow and paying bills and washing dishes."
You may have noticed, however, that there is frequently an irritating, if not depressing, discrepancy between our ideas and good intentions and how we act when we are confronted with the nitty-gritty details of real life situations.
One afternoon I was riding a bus in San Francisco, reading a very touching article on human suffering and helping others. The idea of being generous and extending myself to those in need became so poignant that I started to cry. People were looking at me as the tears ran down my cheeks. I felt a great tenderness toward everyone, and a commitment to benefit others arose in me. As soon as I got home, feeling pretty exhausted after working all day, the phone rang, and it was someone asking if I could please help her out by taking her position as a meditation leader that night. I said, "No, sorry, I need to rest," and hung up.
It's not a matter of the right choice or the wrong choice, but simply that we are often presented with a dilemma about bringing together the inspiration of the teachings with what they mean to us on the spot. There is a perplexing tension between our aspirations and the reality of feeling tired, hungry, stressed-out, afraid, bored, angry, or whatever we experience in any given moment of our life.
Naropa, an eleventh-century Indian yogi, one day unexpectedly met an old hag on the street. She apparently knew he was one of the greatest Buddhist scholars in India and asked him if he understood the words of the large book he was holding. He said he did, and she laughed and danced with glee. Then she asked him if he understood the meaning of the teachings in that book. Thinking to please her even more, he again said yes. At that point she became enraged, yelling at him that he was a hypocrite and a liar. That encounter changed Naropa's life. He knew she had his number; truthfully, he only understood the words and not the profound inner meaning of all the teachings he could expound so brilliantly.
This is where we also, to one degree or another, find ourselves. We can kid ourselves for a while that we understand meditation and the teachings, but at some point we have to face it. None of what we've learned seems very relevant when our lover leaves us, when our child has a tantrum in the supermarket, when we're insulted by our colleague. How do we work with our resentment when our boss walks into the room and yells at us? How do we reconcile that frustration and humiliation with our longing to be open and compassionate and not to harm ourselves or others? How do we mix our intention to be alert and gentle in meditation with the reality that we sit down and immediately fall asleep? What about when we sit down and spend the entire time thinking about how we crave someone or something we saw on the way to the meditation hall? Or we sit down and squirm the whole morning because our knees hurt and our back hurts and we're bored and fed up? Instead of calm, wakeful, and egoless, we find ourselves getting more edgy, irritable, and solid.
This is an interesting place to find oneself. For the practitioner, this is an exceedingly important place.
When Naropa, seeking the meaning behind the words, set out to find a teacher, he continually found himself in this position of being squeezed. Intellectually he knew all about compassion, but when he came upon a filthy, lice-infested dog, he looked away. In the same vein, he knew all about nonattachment and not judging, but when his teacher asked him to do something he disapproved of, he refused.
We continually find ourselves in that squeeze. It's a place where we look for alternatives to just being there. It's an uncomfortable, embarrassing place, and it's often the place where people like ourselves give up. We liked meditation and the teachings when we felt inspired and in touch with ourselves and on the right path. But what about when it begins to feel like a burden, like we made the wrong choice and it's not living up to our expectations at all? The people we are meeting are not all that sane. In fact, they seem pretty confused. The way the place is run is not up to par. Even the teacher is questionable.
This place of the squeeze is the very point in our meditation and in our lives where we can really learn something. The point where we are not able to take it or leave it, where we are caught between a rock and a hard place, caught with both the upliftedness of our ideas and the rawness of what's happening in front of our eyes—that is indeed a very fruitful place.
When we feel squeezed, there's a tendency for mind to become small. We feel miserable, like a victim, like a pathetic, hopeless case. Yet believe it or not, at that moment of hassle or bewilderment or embarrassment, our minds could become bigger. Instead of taking what's occurred as a statement of personal weakness or someone else's power, instead of feeling we are stupid or someone else is unkind, we could drop all the complaints about ourselves and others. We could be there, feeling off guard, not knowing what to do, just hanging out there with the raw and tender energy of the moment. This is the place where we begin to learn the meaning behind the concepts and the words.
We're so used to running from discomfort, and we're so predictable. If we don't like it, we strike out at someone or beat up on ourselves. We want to have security and certainty of some kind when actually we have no ground to stand on at all.
The next time there's no ground to stand on, don't consider it an obstacle. Consider it a remarkable stroke of luck. We have no ground to stand on, and at the same time it could soften us and inspire us. Finally, after all these years, we could truly grow up. As Trungpa Rinpoche once said, the best mantra is "OM—grow up—svaha."
We are given changes all the time. We can either cling to security, or we can let ourselves feel exposed, as if we had just been born, as if we had just popped out into the brightness of life and were completely naked.
Maybe that sounds too uncomfortable or frightening, but on the other hand, it's our chance to realize that this mundane world is all there is, and we could see it with new eyes and at long last wake up from our ancient sleep of preconceptions.
The truth, said an ancient Chinese master, is neither like this nor like that. It is like a dog yearning over a bowl of burning oil. He can't leave it, because it is too desirable and he can't lick it, because it is too hot.
So how do we relate to that squeeze? Somehow, someone finally needs to encourage us to be inquisitive about this unknown territory and about the unanswerable question of what's going to happen next.
The state of nowness is available in that moment of squeeze. In that awkward, ambiguous moment is our own wisdom mind. Right there in the uncertainty of everyday chaos is our own wisdom mind.
We need encouragement to experiment and try this kind of thing. It's quite daring, and maybe we feel we aren't up to it. But that's the point. Right there in that inadequate, restless feeling is our wisdom mind. We can simply experiment. There's absolutely nothing to lose. We could experiment with not getting tossed around by right and wrong and with learning to relax with groundlessness.
When I was a child, I had a picture book called Lives of the Saints. It was filled with stories of men and women who had never had an angry or mean thought and had never hurt a fly. I found the book totally useless as a guide for how we humans were supposed to live a good life. For me, The Life of Milarepa, the great Tibetan yogi and poet, is a lot more instructive. Over the years, as I read and reread Milarepa's story, I find myself getting advice for where I am stuck and can't seem to move forward.
To begin with, Milarepa was a murderer, and like most of us when we blow it, he wanted to atone for his errors. And like most of us, in the process of seeking liberation, he frequently fell flat on his face. He lied and stole to get what he wanted, he got so depressed he was suicidal, and he experienced nostalgia for the good old days. Like most of us, he had one person in his life who continually tested him and blew his saintly cover. Even when almost everyone regarded him as one of Tibet's most holy men, his vindictive old aunt continued to beat him with sticks and call him names, and he continued to have to figure out what to do with that kind of humiliating squeeze.
One can be grateful that a long lineage of teachers has worked with holding their seats with the big squeeze. They were tested and failed and still kept exploring how to just stay there, not seeking solid ground. They trained again and again throughout their lives not to give up on themselves and not to run away when the bottom fell out of their concepts and their noble ideals.
From their own experience they have passed along to us the encouragement not to jump over the big squeeze, but to look at it just as it is, not just out of the corner of an eye. They showed us how to experience it fully, not as good or bad, but simply as unconditioned and ordinary.
Through meditation practice, we realize that we don't have to obscure the joy and openness that is present in every moment of our existence. We can awaken to basic goodness, our birthright. When we are able to do this, we no longer feel burdened by depression, worry, or resentment. Life feels spacious, like the sky and the sea. There's room to relax and breathe and swim, to swim so far out that we no longer have the reference point of the shore.
How do we work with a sense of burden? How do we learn to relate with what seems to stand between us and the happiness we deserve? How do we learn to relax and connect with fundamental joy?
Times are difficult globally; awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal. It's becoming critical. We don't need to add more depression, more discouragement, or more anger to what's already here. It's becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times. The earth seems to be beseeching us to connect with joy and discover our innermost essence. This is the best way that we can benefit others.
There are three traditional methods for relating directly with difficult circumstances as a path of awakening and joy. The first method we'll call no more struggle; the second, using poison as medicine; and the third, seeing whatever arises as enlightened wisdom. These are three techniques for working with chaos, difficulties, and unwanted events in our daily lives.
The first method, no more struggle, is epitomized by shamatha-vipashyana (insight-awareness) meditation instruction. When we sit down to meditate, whatever arises in our minds we look at directly, call it "thinking," and go back to the simplicity and immediacy of the breath. Again and again, we return to pristine awareness free from concepts. Meditation practice is how we stop fighting with ourselves, how we stop struggling with circumstances, emotions or moods. This basic instruction is a tool that we can use to train in our practice and in our lives. Whatever arises, we can look at it with a nonjudgmental attitude.
This instruction applies to working with unpleasantness in its myriad guises. Whatever or whoever arises, train again and again in looking at it and seeing it for what it is without calling it names, without hurling rocks, without averting your eyes. Let all those stories go. The innermost essence of mind is without bias. Things arise and things dissolve forever and ever. That's just the way it is.
This is the primary method for working with painful situations—global pain, domestic pain, any pain at all. We can stop struggling with what occurs and see its true face without calling it the enemy. It helps to remember that our practice is not about accomplishing anything—not about winning or losing—but about ceasing to struggle and relaxing as it is. That is what we are doing when we sit down to meditate. That attitude spreads into the rest of our lives.
It's like inviting what scares us to introduce itself and hang around for a while. As Milarepa sang to the monsters he found in his cave, "It is wonderful you demons came today. You must come again tomorrow. From time to time, we should converse." We start by working with the monsters in our mind. Then we develop the wisdom and compassion to communicate sanely with the threats and fears of our daily life.
The Tibetan yogini Machig Labdron was one who fearlessly trained with this view. She said that in her tradition they did not exorcise demons. They treated them with compassion. The advice she was given by her teacher and passed on to her students was, "Approach what you find repulsive, help the ones you think you cannot help, and go to places that scare you." This begins when we sit down to meditate and practice not struggling with our own mind.
The second method of working with chaos is using poison as medicine. We can use difficult situations—poison—as fuel for waking up. In general, this idea is introduced to us with the tonglen meditation practice of taking in pain and sending out positive energy.
When anything difficult arises—any kind of conflict, any notion of unworthiness, anything that feels distasteful, embarrassing, or painful—instead of trying to get rid of it, we breathe it in. The three poisons are passion (this includes craving or addiction), aggression, and ignorance (which includes denial or the tendency to shut down and close out). We would usually think of these poisons as something bad, something to be avoided. But that isn't the attitude here; instead, they become seeds of compassion and openness. When suffering arises, the tonglen instruction is to let the story line go and breathe it in—not just the anger, resentment or loneliness that we might be feeling, but the identical pain of others who in this very moment are also feeling rage, bitterness, or isolation.
We breathe it in for everybody. This poison is not just our personal misfortune, our fault, our blemish, our shame—it's part of the human condition. It's our kinship with all living things, the material we need in order to understand what it's like to stand in another person's shoes. Instead of pushing it away or running from it, we breathe in and connect with it fully. We do this with the wish that all of us could be free of suffering. Then we breathe out, sending out a sense of big space, a sense of ventilation or freshness. We do this with the wish that all of us could relax and experience the innermost essence of our mind.
We are told from childhood that something is wrong with us, with the world, and with everything that comes along: it's not perfect, it has rough edges, it has a bitter taste, it's too loud, too soft, too sharp, too wishy-washy. We cultivate a sense of trying to make things better because something is bad here, something is a mistake here, something is a problem here. The main point of these methods is to dissolve the dualistic struggle, our habitual tendency to struggle against what's happening to us or in us. These methods instruct us to move toward difficulties rather than backing away. We don't get this kind of encouragement very often.
Everything that occurs is not only usable and workable but is actually the path itself. We can use everything that happens to us as the means for waking up. We can use everything that occurs—whether it's our conflicting emotions and thoughts or our seemingly outer situation—to show us where we are asleep and how we can wake up completely, utterly, without reservations.
So the second method is to use poison as medicine, to use difficult situations to awaken our genuine caring for other people who, just like us, often find themselves in pain. As one lojong slogan says, "When the world is filled with evil, all mishaps, all difficulties, should be transformed into the path of enlightenment." That's the notion engendered here.
The third method for working with chaos is to regard whatever arises as the manifestation of awakened energy. We can regard ourselves as already awake; we can regard our world as already sacred.
Traditionally the image used for regarding whatever arises as the very energy of wisdom is the charnel ground. In Tibet the charnel grounds were what we call graveyards, but they weren't quite as pretty as our graveyards. The bodies were not under a nice smooth lawn with little white stones carved with angels and pretty words. In Tibet the ground was frozen, so the bodies were chopped up after people died and taken to the charnel grounds, where the vultures would eat them. I'm sure the charnel grounds didn't smell very good and were alarming to see. There were eyeballs and hair and bones and other body parts all over the place. In a book about Tibet, I saw a photograph in which people were bringing a body to the charnel ground. There was a circle of vultures that looked to be about the size of two-year-old children—all just sitting there waiting for this body to arrive.
Perhaps the closest thing to a charnel ground in our world is not a graveyard but a hospital emergency room. That could be the image for our working basis, which is grounded in some honesty about how the human realm functions. It smells, it bleeds, it is full of unpredictability, but at the same time, it is self-radiant wisdom, good food, that which nourishes us, that which is beneficial and pure.
Regarding what arises as awakened energy reverses our fundamental habitual pattern of trying to avoid conflict, trying to make ourselves better than we are, trying to smooth things out and pretty them up, trying to prove that pain is a mistake and would not exist in our lives if only we did all the right things. This view turns that particular pattern completely around, encouraging us to become interested in looking at the charnel ground of our lives as the working basis for attaining enlightenment.
Often in our daily lives we panic. We feel heart palpitations and stomach rumblings because we are arguing with someone or because we had a beautiful plan and it's not working out. How do we walk into those dramas? How do we deal with those demons, which are basically our hopes and fears? How do we stop struggling against ourselves? Machig Labdron advises that we go to places that scare us. But how do we do that?
We're trying to learn not to split ourselves between our "good side" and our "bad side," between our "pure side" and our "impure side." The elemental struggle is with our feeling of being wrong, with our guilt and shame at what we are. That's what we have to befriend. The point is that we can dissolve the sense of dualism between us and them, between this and that, between here and there, by moving toward what we find difficult and wish to push away.
In terms of everyday experience, these methods encourage us not to feel embarrassed about ourselves. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. It's like ethnic cooking. We could be proud to display our Jewish matzo balls, our Indian curry, our African-American chitlins, our middle-American hamburger and fries. There's a lot of juicy stuff we could be proud of. Chaos is part of our home ground. Instead of looking for something higher or purer, work with it just as it is.
The world we find ourselves in, the person we think we are—these are our working bases. This charnel ground called life is the manifestation of wisdom. This wisdom is the basis of freedom and also the basis of confusion. In every moment of time, we make a choice. Which way do we go? How do we relate to the raw material of our existence?
These are three very practical ways to work with chaos: no struggle, poison as medicine, and regarding everything that arises as the manifestation of wisdom. First, we can train in letting the story lines go. Slow down enough to just be present, let go of the multitude of judgments and schemes, and stop struggling.
Second, we can use every day of our lives to take a different attitude toward suffering. Instead of pushing it away, we can breathe it in with the wish that everyone could stop hurting, with the wish that people everywhere could experience contentment in their hearts. We could transform pain into joy.
Third, we can acknowledge that suffering exists, that darkness exists. The chaos in here and the chaos out there is basic energy, the play of wisdom. Whether we regard our situation as heaven or as hell depends on our perception.
Finally, couldn't we just relax and lighten up? When we wake up in the morning, we can dedicate our day to learning how to do this. We can cultivate a sense of humor and practice giving ourselves a break. Every time we sit down to meditate, we can think of it as training to lighten up, to have a sense of humor, to relax. As one student said, "Lower your standards and relax as it is."
1. No more struggle: "Whatever arises, train again and again in seeing it for what it is. The innermost essence of mind is without bias. Things arise and things dissolve forever and ever. Whatever happens, we can look at it with a nonjudgmental attitude. This is the primary method for working with painful situations."
2. Using poison as medicine: "When suffering arises, we breathe it in for everybody. This poison is not just our personal misfortune. It's our kinship with all living things, the seed of compassion and openness. Instead of pushing it away or running from it, we breathe in and connect with it fully. We do this with the wish that all of us could be free of suffering."
3. Regarding whatever arises as awakened energy: "This reverses our habitual pattern of trying to avoid conflict, trying to smooth things out, trying to prove that pain is a mistake that would not exist in our lives if only we did the right things. This view encourages us to look at the charnel ground of our lives as the working basis for attaining enlightenment."
Pema Chödrön is a fully-ordained Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of The Places that Scare You, The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart. This article is excerpted from When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. © 1997 by Pema Chodron. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications.
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The Power of Loving Kindness
The Power of Loving KindnessA discussion led by
It's too bad you can't hear the tape of this conversation we had with Alice Walker. There is a lot of heart and many powerful ideas in this printed version, but it can't convey the real depth and caring and calm certainty of Alice Walker. While Sharon and I often made reference to our particular Buddhist traditions to try to express our thoughts, here was someone who spoke directly from her own life experience, from intimate, direct knowledge of her own heart. Here is a person of true, self-realized spirituality. By way of background, Sharon Salzberg is a member of the Insight Meditation Society, a very fine Buddhist teacher, and author of Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Alice Walker is best known for, among her many writings, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, and as a committed social activist who has had the courage to take on difficult and often unspoken issues.
Sharon Salzberg: I'm really delighted to have this opportunity. I've loved your work and have been so moved by it. In speaking about metta practice, or loving kindness practice, one of the hardest things is not to sentimentalize. That's especially hard in our society, where the whole idea of love can be degraded and considered a weakness. But in your books, the power, the actual life force and potency of loving kindness, comes through so strongly.
Alice Walker: I think my feeling of loving kindness is rooted in a very irrepressible spirit that has always been earth-connected. When I was a child I felt so much a part of the countryside and everything that was in it, that I couldn't avoid the feeling that I had to have been loved very much, to find myself there.
So when I came to meditation—I actually started doing TM when I was living in New York after a divorce—it was a kind of going back. Just after being initiated in doing the training, when I finally sort of got it, I started to laugh, because I recognized where I was. I was back in a place where I had lived as a child, in my spirit, in a very open, spacious, loving place, where I felt totally at peace and in myself.
Then last year, when I was in another period of great struggle and trial, I read your book about metta practice, and it was wonderful. I was so comforted to have again such a place within my reach. It was that incredible thought that we can care about ourselves and not fall into the pit of thinking that just because life is not working now, there's something terribly wrong with us. That is what metta has done for me, this reassurance that of course we go through incredible periods of stress and pain, but if we hold on to our love of ourselves through it, we can come out the other side.
Sharon Salzberg: There's a teaching in Buddhism that suffering strengthens our faith. That's hard to understand, it's hard to even speak about, because so many people are embittered by suffering and are broken by it, rather than renewed by it. It's finding the transformative quality in the openness that makes all the difference.
Alice Walker: For me, it is also not having my love and faith in the earth itself broken. Ten years ago I experienced having Lyme Disease, which at the time I didn't even know existed, so I just thought I was dying of some mysterious thing that nobody had ever heard of. Then when I realized that this disease was caused by a tick bite, I thought that the earth had kind of turned on me. I had always been such a shameless pagan, out there fornicating in the grass and up the trees and everything, and I felt I had to withdraw from that kind of intimate contact with nature, because nature bites back, I thought. So I went for years with this kind of fear, and only after a very long time did my love for the earth and for nature prove so strong that I just decided that I loved it no matter what it did. And so (laughs), it's been wonderful.
Sharon Salzberg: In the tape you did, "My Life as Myself," you say something like, "Love makes me look at what I can't stand," which is a tremendous affirmation of the bigness of love.
Alice Walker: It's true. I think that feeling had to develop in me because so much of what I've had to look at in life is so hard. If I didn't have the love of the people and of the earth and of the life force itself, I couldn't bear it. I couldn't know that children are being subjected to all the things that they are being subjected to. I would just turn away, I think, as many people do. People go into drugs, they go into television, and they go into many things. But you can also go in through love.
Melvin McLeod: Can I ask what your understanding is of the actual practice of loving kindness. Many people might hope that they could access such love in their lives, love for themselves and for others, but how does one actually do it?
Alice Walker: Well, for me it has always been through activism. I've been a very contemplative person by nature, and was fortunate enough always to live very far out in the wilds of the country. I think this is where all meditation really comes from, that feeling of spaciousness in the countryside or with nature. But I was also very lucky to have been placed in a part of the country where one has to struggle politically and socially in order to grow, and actually to exist at all. So I was brought into contact with people and movements and with forces for change in society, and I could not help but grow. It was just inevitable that if I looked out and saw people in all their radiant fighting beauty, then I would just be struck with love for them.
I'm so happy that I lived in Mississippi for seven years, because each day I could see these warriors, who were really the least of everybody. They were poor, they could be thrown off their land, they could be jailed, they were often shot; you know, lynching was not uncommon. And there they were—they would stand up to anyone and hold their ground, insist that they were children of God, and that they had a right to exist. This was incredibly humbling, and I just found myself loving them without reservation. The thing about love that I've discovered in my life is that one love leads to another. It just gets bigger and bigger. You can let it start anywhere; it can be really tiny. You can start with a daffodil, but if you sincerely see it and if you sincerely love it, then it's like the key. The daffodil is like a key to the big, big, big storeroom. Then everything becomes something that is lovable.
Sharon Salzberg: You describe the naturalness of it all. I guess the problem is that we've forgotten, or we've got out of touch. It's not so much a practice to get more loving, but to remember more, and to feel more safe and confident in our ability to love.
Alice Walker: Yes, and also to see the good even in the midst of the dreadful. That has always been very powerful to me. I've known so many people in my life who were almost split in half, good and bad. You could see them doing something that was just horrendous and despicable on Tuesday. And then on Wednesday, you would see them drop all of that and stand up to incredible forces of oppression and despair, and call upon something very deep within themselves that was really precious.
Sharon Salzberg: It's like the creation of the other, even within oneself. We don't incorporate all aspects of our being into this loving space, and so it's that much easier to dishonor others and to feel so separate.
Alice Walker: I think you have to really work at it, to see the good, and sometimes you do it in such peculiar and maybe perverse ways. For me, I have had to recognize a real fear of Germans. When I travel through Germany I feel afraid, and all of that. But I made myself get a German car, and I really like it a lot. I drive around in it and it's perfectly smooth and wonderful and it makes me every day think about Germans in a different way. I don't think about them as people who are hunting me through the woods or frying people in concentration camps. I kind of think about them on the car level, the Mozart car-making level, that this is something very beautiful and very efficient also, in a positive way. I think we have to own the fears that we have of each other, and then, in some practical way, some daily way, figure out how to see people differently than the way we've been brought up to.
Melvin McLeod: Is there also a healthy type of anger or outrage that is compatible with, or perhaps even a companion to, loving kindness? Could this be the sense of the power of loving kindness that Sharon referred to originally?
Alice Walker: Creativity—for me, that is where the power is, that is where the healing is. Even if you don't consider yourself an artist, to make something that is beautiful and not destructive, or to make something that is useful and not destructive, that is the healing power of the artist. For me, as someone who spends so much time in solitude, it has been about making actual objects—making stories and making quilts, you know, things that you actually make. And making friends with somebody, that's very good. And we all together make political movements; we make change in society.
One of our big problems is that we live in a culture that bombards us with destructive images that are killing us. I think that the children are battered so badly by destructive, negative images from television, mainly, and the movies, that they often have no idea that they can create in a way that is not destructive. They actually think that creation itself is destructive. That's a terrible place for us to find ourselves, where our children believe that.
Sharon Salzberg: Maybe the power we're talking about is the clarity of truth telling and clear seeing. I would hate to call it the positive aspect of anger, but maybe it has some of the energy of anger.
Alice Walker: I love clear seeing. It is such a wonderful phrase. It just gets right to it, that you try to see things as clearly as they are. Then you try to express them to yourself, and then to the world, as clearly as you can. This, I think, is really the only hope. Because it's as if this world is constructed almost entirely of lies, and so we can't help but be lost. We are floundering about, trying to find the path, and they have deliberately said East where it's West, North where it's South, up where it's down, green where it's blue. And all the time they are wrong. These signposts have been deliberately put on the path to send us off somewhere else. So clear seeing, clear speaking—that is our responsibility.
Sharon Salzberg: It's also feeling the truth of our own experience, because being cut off from our own suffering, it's that much harder to open to the pain of others.
Alice Walker: That's why it's good to be a writer, or to be a poet, because you can at least offer your own truth. I've had the experience of writing about incest, wife beating, child molestation, female genital mutilation, all kinds of things, and having people say, this could not possibly exist, and even if it does, why would you want to tell us? And at some point you stop really caring whether it makes other people uncomfortable, because, as the Buddhists say, this is just basic human stuff (laughs). Essentially, your experience, whatever it is, is human stuff. And for people to pretend they don't know what it is, or that it's so shocking somebody said it, this is another signpost that says East instead of West. Because deep in your heart, you recognize what is human when you see it.
Sharon Salzberg: In your novel The Temple of My Familiar, Carlotta says to Fanny, well, maybe the problem is too large for anger. The way you phrased it in "My Life as Myself" is that maybe it's too big not to forgive. That sense of bigness is, I think, a spiritual understanding which is totally inclusive. It's not separate from what's happening, or trying to get beyond it, or transcend it in some way.
Melvin McLeod: For me, the problem is that it is so hard to recognize what is happening beyond our immediate sight. Literally, at this moment, there are terrible things being done to people around the world. Right now. Just over the horizon. Yet it is so difficult to see this world in its entirety and to see beyond our own lives to the terrible, terrible things that are happening right as we speak.
Alice Walker: Well, Melvin, you just did. So stop beating up on yourself. Have a little loving kindness, please! (laughs)
Well, I don't know. I think that with me, I do realize it's pretty messy all around. Lots of suffering, lots of pain. And I have just decided that there are places where I feel I am uniquely suited to be, and causes that just fit. Causes where I feel I understand some of what it's about, where I feel I can actually do this without being insulting or ignorant or not good for the people involved.
I work on what I am able to work on, more or less joyously. When I tackle something like female genital mutilation, I think about one child at a time, and I try not to think about a hundred million people. I can't really think about every one of them all in their collectivity. I have to just try to go after one child who has a possibility of not being harmed, if I speak now. And I go into that with a real light heart. It's very heavy, but because I'm off my couch, my heart is fairly light. And that's it. I give to the extent that I can, and then I sit back and I eat tomatoes. And I enjoy them, and I look out at the landscape and I love it, and I walk and I go swimming and I love being alive, and I enjoy my life. And then when I get my strength back, I go out again. That's all I can do, and I do it with such happiness. It's not in any way a strain, and when it gets to be a strain, I just take a nap. But it's good for me.
Sharon Salzberg: That reminds me of something out of the classical Buddhist tradition, that at the time of the Buddha, the Buddha would smile, throw a flower, or say three words, and 50,000 people would get enlightened. And it doesn't happen that way these days. I asked one of my teachers once, why not? And he said, it's basically because we can't open up to the suffering all at once. We have to do it gradually. It's not the point to suffer; it's the opening that's the point. It is that lightheartedness, that bigness, that spacious mind and love that can hold the suffering and accommodate it and integrate it and understand it. It's not just to suffer and be broken by it.
Alice Walker: I've had this experience where I go somewhere, and even on the way, I'll be thinking, oh no, it'll be so rough, how can I stand it? Then I'll get there, and I'll be with the people, and sure enough, they'll be up against some incredible madness, and I'll just find myself getting happier and happier and happier. And we'll all look at each other, and we'll be grinning and grinning and grinning, and by the time it's over, whatever it is, we will have decided that this was absolutely the high point of life. And so there's that to be experienced.
The book I'm just finishing is on activism. The point of it is that unfortunately we live in a time when people think that if their activism is not some huge, grand thing, that if they're not some great hero like the ones who have been assassinated already, then what they have to offer is not good enough. Just writing a letter, for instance, or teaching somebody how to vote, or picking up litter in a neighborhood where picking up litter is unknown, and so influencing the people there. They feel that, well, this is so small, I'd like to do it but what is it, it's so tiny. And I'm saying that the tiniest thing can be very powerful and very beautiful, and it's something that one should do for oneself. That's the whole point of it. It's not to clean up someone else's neighborhood, or feed their children, and just do this for them. It is really for you; that is where your happiness is.
Sharon Salzberg: It's so healing to recognize our connection. I've received a lot from people who had very little, and that has been an awesome experience. Like going to a country such as Burma to practice meditation, where every single meal is offered to us by people who are sometimes just dressed in rags. They're so happy for the chance to have fed you, and they have nothing. To receive so much from them is beautiful.
Alice Walker: Also, Sharon, you know what?
Sharon Salzberg: What?
Alice Walker: They are quite aware that they have everything and you have nothing.
Sharon Salzberg: That's true too.
Alice Walker: You're the one who left home to come to Burma.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes, that's very true. And sometimes when we do something small, we have no idea where it's going to lead anyway.
Alice Walker: Never. And also there's just the joy of beginning, beginning.
Melvin McLeod: I'd like to go back, Ms. Walker, to your ability to maintain a light heart. I saw part of a film on TV, which may have been your film about female genital mutilation, and it was an actual scene of a young girl undergoing some sort of terrible excision of her genitalia. The child was screaming, and I was completely shaken. I couldn't watch it. So when you've seen that sort of thing, as you have, how do you not get your heart broken, on one hand, and on the other hand, not be completely enraged at the people doing it?
Alice Walker: I think you feel all of that, and you just don't stay there. Once again, here it is—the most horrible thing in the world is happening, but by some miracle you are there at the beginning of seeing that it stop. So how could you not be light hearted? I mean, ultimately. But it's very difficult, I know. When I was in Africa, I was walking along—this was after a whole long line of young girls had been mutilated—and I couldn't watch it. And out of nowhere there was a little girl, I guess maybe three or four years old, who just came up to me. She'd never seen me before, and she just took my hand, and we walked along holding hands for a little distance. All I could think was, I'm doing this for other children, but we're not starting in time to save this particular child. And I'm telling you, it almost drove me under the ground.
At the same time, I think, well, I am here to help. I'm here with all of the skill that I have acquired as a writer over 25 or 30 years, and all the love that I feel for the people here, and all the love that I feel for myself and my connections to the people of Africa. So I felt like it was okay. It's better to start, even when things are so dire, than to be sitting home not starting.
Melvin McLeod: This reminds me of Trungpa Rinpoche's metaphor of the "Great Eastern Sun," which refers to the fact that in every situation, no matter how difficult, there is always the possibility of going forward, toward waking up, toward helping others. This situation seems exactly the definition of warriorship, that you can see the possibility of going forward, even while your heart is broken.
Alice Walker: You know, what are hearts for? Hearts are there to be broken, and I say that because that seems to be just part of what happens with hearts. I mean, mine has been broken so many times that I have lost count. But it just seems to be broken open more and more and more, and it just gets bigger. In fact, I was saying to my therapist not long ago, "You know, my heart by now feels open like a suitcase. It feels like it has just sort of dropped open, you know, like how a big suitcase just falls open. It feels like that."
Instead of that feeling of having a thorn through your heart, that feeling Pema Chödrön talks about in tonglen meditation, you have a sense of openness, as if the wind could blow through it. And that's the way I'm used to my heart feeling. The feeling of the heart being so open that the wind blows through it. I think that is the way it's supposed to feel when you're in balance. And when you get out of balance, you feel like there's no wind, there's no breeze, there's just this rock and it has a big thing sticking through it. I don't know how you get from one feeling to the other, except through meditation, often, but also activism, just seeing what needs to be done in the world, or in our families, and just start doing it.
Sharon Salzberg: I think open heart comes from a sense of community, and it can come from a meditation practice, or both ideally. Because when there's a central connection with others, that's also the source of joy. Realizing that what's happening to those little girls is not different from me, not other than me. Inevitably, it's awful and one's angry and terrified, but at the same time, that connection itself is the joy, that open suitcase heart.
Alice Walker: I don't know where that suitcase image came from (laughs), but now that I think of it, a suitcase is something that you also fill up again and move on off with (laughs). So it doesn't stay empty. It's also portable.
But I don't know, the world is in such a mess. What has been on my mind a lot lately is the land mines that have been planted all over. They are completely evil and horrible, and the damage that they do is so severe. This is something the world has to face up to and do something about. And the best place to do it is at the point of manufacture of the mines. It's too dangerous to go to these countries to try to remove the mines yourself, so some pressure has to be brought to bear on the manufacturers who sell these things.
Sharon Salzberg: I was at a conference with MahaGhosananda, who's one of the surviving Cambodian monks, who actually leads peace marches through mine fields. Somebody asked him how he encourages the people he's walking with and keeps them from being afraid, and his response was, "I tell everybody, just go step by step." And of course it's what we all need to do, go step by step.
Alice Walker: Instead of always being at the receiving end of the violence, maybe a shorter step, and a more effective step at this late date, is to just go after the people who are actually responsible for creating the violence and the disaster. It doesn't make sense for us to always be the ones catching the bullets or stepping on the mines, when there are some very wealthy industrialists sitting somewhere in an office and selling these very things that we have to put our bodies in front of and on top of, so that people will know that they are being made.
Sharon Salzberg: Perhaps that is also part of the role of community, both to enlighten one another as to what's going on, and also to support one another in taking that kind of action.
Melvin McLeod: There is also a pervasive issue which I think of as the team mentality, the division of the world into competing teams on the basis of nationality or ideology or race or gender or whatever. And for teams, winning is the issue, not the transcending interests of the whole. I know, Ms. Walker, that at times you've suffered accusations of not being "on the team" for taking on certain difficult issues. It's so easy for "my community" to become "my team."
Alice Walker: I know. Well, my little theory is that you find that you just keep doing the thing that gets you kicked out, and this has everything to do with living as your true self. And then you meet up with all the other people who've been kicked out. And then you have your team, and it's a team of everybody.
I definitely feel that way. I feel that because of the positions I have taken and the things that I have written, I often find myself totally out. But it never means that I'm alone, because then I discover that there are all these other people who also have subversive thoughts and have also done and written things that their particular clan didn't approve of. And so there we all are, and there begins to be built a whole other community, a whole other family of people who are not related by color, blood, sex or whatever, but by vision. That's how I feel, that I'm a part of a whole community of great people, and it's not about race, it's about vision and what we think the world will be and should be.
Melvin McLeod: Sadly, in situations of conflict, those people who see beyond the interests of their own side usually get crushed.
Alice Walker: But there's also the realization that you crush me today, and tomorrow you die of cancer. So it's not as if anybody is winning, and I think that's clearer today than it used to be. When I was growing up in the segregated apartheid South, the white supremacists actually thought that they would crush black people, and they even thought that they would live happily ever after. They would never be sick, and nothing could touch them. In a way, any kind of supremacist system means that the people who are at the top really feel that they're invincible, that they'll live forever. If not them, then their children will inherit the earth and roam over it. But in fact, we know that the earth is so poisoned, and so full of danger everywhere, that it is well for people to understand that whoever they crush on Monday, on Tuesday they themselves may find that Life is crushing them. So there is no winning. And I take solace from that, actually.
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