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The Work of the Moment (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

The Work of the Moment

Like the monk who strived so hard he couldn’t see the goddess right behind him, if we push too hard for results we miss what is most intimate. When we and our work are one, says ROSHI PAT ENKYO O'HARA, even the most mundane of life’s activities are profound and beautiful.

Several years ago, I was in the Catskills with a colleague, celebrating the completion of a two-and-a-half-year project. It was summer, and it can get very hot in the Catskills, so we were sitting on the veranda of my friend’s place with tall glasses of iced tea and stacks of novels. We had worked really hard on this project, and we were ready for relaxation. As we sat there, I kept looking to the side of the house at a hillside entirely overgrown with shoulder-high tarweeds, the kind of weeds with leaves that are sticky to the touch. They had so completely taken over the hillside that they were killing all the other native plants.

Suddenly, without even thinking, I rose up out of my chair, got some tools, walked up the hill, and began pulling up and cutting away the weeds. I worked up there for the next three days, covered in sweat and sticky pitch, my hands stinging because I didn’t have any work gloves. My colleague couldn’t believe me; she could easily have had her caretaker do it. However, I remember it as a time of rapture, of enormous, satisfying pleasure. It wasn’t about “work” as we usually understand the word; it was about my whole body and mind being fully with the smell of the tarweed as I pulled and hacked away at it. It was about complete mergence with that hillside, not thoughts of how it would look later, but a complete at-oneness with what I was doing in a most profound and beautiful way.

That’s how I experience intimacy with work, even when the work is challenging. Spreadsheets, for example, are hard for me to understand and manipulate, and I find myself butting up against the software, asking stupid questions, and so on. Still, being immersed in that kind of work can also be a source of joy.

The word work is apparently about five thousand years old, and from the beginning—in its Proto-Indo-European version, werg—it simply referred to “something being done.” How are we in relation to this something being done in our daily lives? What is the heart of our work? What are the qualities surrounding our something being done?

Work can mean our career or simply how we make money; it can be our calling (our “life’s work”) or simply our functioning in the world: cleaning the zendo floor, making the beds, doing the dishes.

I like to think of work as what we do; it is the activity of the life we live. Work is any activity we’re engaged in that requires our energy and focus, whether or not we’re paid for it. We all know you can work really hard for no money. There’s work in the marketplace, and there’s work at home. There’s paid work and unpaid work. When I was a young woman, I took a few years off from the university and learned so much about the world. I learned to cook, to paint, and to write poetry; I tried my hand at pottery; I did canning; I gardened; I sold organic vegetables; I learned to quilt; I even sewed my husband’s shirts by hand. Then I’d go to a party, and someone would ask me, “What do you do?” And because what I was doing had no value in the marketplace (even though I was experimenting and learning and full of creative energy), I felt like saying, “I don’t do anything.” But I was working twelve hours a day on all my projects. Amazing!

What is valid work? I know a woman who is a wonderful writer. I met her because she walks dogs for my neighbors in the apartment building where I live. We have the same daily schedule, so we often meet in the mornings and evenings when she’s making her dog runs. I join her, and we walk the dogs together. This is her profession, how she makes her money. Simultaneously, she’s also a really fine writer and probably has many other talents. Yet our society looks down on those who do such tasks as walking dogs for a living when they actually may also be involved in creative, nurturing, and service work.

What is work? There’s a story about the great thirteenth-century Zen master Ju-ching, who was once the sanitation officer at a monastery. In those days, the job of the sanitation officer was to shovel the shit. Back then, they had wooden toilets, and shit and piss would fall into tiled trenches below. Every week Ju-ching would go and clean out the trenches with buckets and take the manure to the garden. Then he’d wash the tiles with rags and brushes.

One time his teacher, Setcho, asked him, “How do you clean that which has never been soiled?” He was asking Ju-ching about himself.

Poor Ju-ching did not know how to answer. He kept practicing with that question for a full year, during which time he continued cleaning toilets. Finally Ju-ching went to his teacher and said, “I have hit upon that which has never been soiled.”

This would be a good question for each of us to ask ourselves: How do you clean that which has never been soiled? Finally, after much struggle, Ju-ching saw that there is no work that isn’t of high value. Shoveling shit is not soiled work any more than walking a dog is soiled work. He went to his teacher and said, “I have hit upon that which has never been soiled.” To this day, in all Zen communities, a tradition for practice leaders during retreats is to go out in the middle of the night and quietly, unobtrusively, clean the bathrooms and toilets.

How do you think about work? Is some work of value and some not? Are you “too busy”? Are you trying to get one thing “done” so you can get the next piece “done”? Are you anxious about, angry about, or resentful of your work? Do you neglect your work? Do you do it in an obsessive way or in a sloppy, careless manner? Do you think, If I work harder, I’ll be successful, and when I’m successful, I’ll get what I want? Do you think, This work is not what I am capable of, or deserving of, so I’m not going to give it my all?

In terms of our work, we often think we have to act a certain way all the time, that we have to force ourselves into some kind of way of producing rather than being alive to what is here and now. In doing that, we close off our possibilities. We lose our creativity, even our compassion. Too often we find ourselves stuck in a loop of narrowing attention, trying to find some success, some acknowledgment, and in so doing, we lose what we seek.

There is a fairy story from China that illustrates this. Once there was a young man who wanted to meet Kuan-yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. He began to meditate very hard, feeling that if he were successful, he would become fully enlightened; he would achieve his heart’s desire. As he was meditating, Kuan-yin walked by and noticed him. Smiling, she walked up and tapped him on the shoulder. The young man said, “Please don’t bother me right now. I’m looking for Kuan-yin.” Delighted, Kuan-yin tapped him on the shoulder again. “Go away,” the young man said. “I’m busy meditating. I’m looking for Kuan-yin.” So Kuan-yin shook her head sadly and walked away.

I think each of us can recognize ourselves in this young man. Pushing too hard, being too busy, we miss the very reality we seek. We miss our context: the presence of our coworkers, our materials, the changing environment of which we are a part.

There is such a difference between complete effort and striving. It is possible to be thoroughly involved in work and yet not be attached to the outcome, to be thoroughly connected to the effort without grasping for some “result” that exists only in the mind as a concept, an anxiety, a figment. How can we realize and recognize the subtle difference between obsession and involvement? How can we sharpen our perception?

Once there were two Zen disciples who were biological brothers as well as dharma brothers. They lived together at the same study center. One day, as Daowu was sweeping the ground, his brother, Yunyan, passed by and said, “Too busy!” Daowu replied, “You should know there’s one who’s not busy.” Yunyan replied, “Oh, come on now, you’re saying that there are two moons!” With that, his brother Daowu held up the broom and said, “Which moon is this?”

Visualize this. I can just see Daowu sweeping, completely in the zone: focused, immersed in his action. And Yunyan is critical: “You are too busy!” Maybe he thinks that Daowu, like the young man in the previous story, is lost to what is here, that there is no leisurely element that is alive to all aspects of the moment. Thus, he is “too busy.”

Daowu replies, “You should know there’s one who’s not busy.” I picture him continuing with his sweeping. Daowu is saying, “Oh, the leisurely one is here. You just don’t see him.”

Very often we mistake activity for busyness, but that is not what is really there. What is there is complete immersion: self and broom and sweeping; self and child and play; self and computer and problem solving. The trick is discerning the difference both in others and in ourselves. Sometimes looking out the window is active engagement and typing madly is not; sometimes the reverse is true. How can we tell the difference?

Yunyan says, “Oh, come on now, you’re saying that there are two moons.” He thinks he’s caught Daowu: “Aha! You’re saying there are two realities: the reality of your being busy and the reality of your being not-busy.”

In the Zen tradition, the moon in the sky stands for true reality, and the second moon—the one we see reflected in the water—is our idea of reality. Here, Yunyan is implying that when Daowu says there is one who is not busy, he is actually separating his sweeping activity from the concept of being one with the wholeness of life.

Daowu holds up the broom and says, “Which moon is this?” He brings it back to no-separation: even in our most involved, focused activity, right there is the balanced one, the leisurely one. It is in our actual activity, in our intimacy with all aspects of this moment, that we are whole.

Who has not felt, in a moment of great activity such as creating, serving, giving, or holding, both the energy and the aliveness of the activity and at the same time the leisure, the ease, the simple movement? It is not poky and not frenetic; it is the smooth and unhurried quality of doing each thing at exactly the right moment—not too fast, not too slow, but at just the right moment. It actually has nothing to do with fast or slow; it has to do with the whole body connecting to reality itself.

We heal, we listen, we hold a hand, we find a solution or a way around a difficult problem, we draw a line, we make a sound, we make a meal, we clean a space, we give an honest answer or a steady hand up. Sometimes just the presence of our body sitting with someone when they are down, blocked, upset, locked up, or dying (or even dead) is the full-on activity that is needed.

This is true intimacy with our work of the moment, an intimacy with who we are and what we do, whether we are cleaning toilets or waiting tables or designing software or making art or playing music or teaching or whatever. Just the other day I was watching a young man working the back of a garbage truck, swinging up and down from the truck, picking up sacks of garbage, and manipulating the controls of the compressor. His whole body was synchronized, like a dance—utter involvement, aliveness.

Of course, not all work is like this. There will always be little breaks in the intimacy: a headache; a cranky boss or coworker; a hangover; the arising of resentments and comparisons and craving ideas in our mind that create anxiety, frustration, and boredom. What might we do at such a time? Again, the strategy is to include everything, to turn toward, not away from, the conditions that are emerging. Take a breath. Check your body and mind, and look directly at the obstructions. What is it that is pulling you away from this very moment?

The “second moons” trip us up. What are we to do? Daowu shakes his broom, saying, “No! Right here in what I am doing right now is everything: me, broom, floor, all of life is right here, flowing around me.”

The garbage worker grabs the next bundle of trash.


Questions and Answers

Question: It seems like a lot of things that are impediments to intimacy with our work are things that our society tells us are good. Like, you should make money, but thinking about making money can be an impediment to intimacy with our work. Or you should know what you’re doing, but knowing what you’re doing can be an impediment. Or you should work as hard as you can, or you should relax and take it easy. It seems like these can all be impediments to being intimate with our work.

Roshi: Yes. Buddhism often refers to the openings to insight as “gates.” The gate can swing in two directions, so with something we usually consider a vice, maybe we just need to turn it another way. We can just turn something that keeps us “out” and open it as a way “in.” Sometimes it’s just our language. “Working too hard” is different from “complete effort,” and “slacking off ” is very different from “being at ease in our work.” We get so caught up in language that it can condition us.


Question: There are these tasks that I hate, and I find it’s really hard to remember that once I’m doing whatever it is, it’s fine. For example, I hate doing the laundry. It’s so hard for me to remember that once I’m doing the laundry, it’s not a problem. 

Roshi: Yes, because it’s not doing the laundry anymore; it’s more like putting things into the washer and taking them out and folding them. That’s very different from doing the laundry.

(Click here to view O'Hara's exercises from this issue, on "How to Make All Your Work Meaningful.")

the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

From Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges, by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, © 2014 by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

Image(s) by Mark T. Morse

How to Make All Your Work Meaningful (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

How to Make All Your Work Meaningful

Whether you’re waiting tables or washing laundry, meditating or making art, the key, ROSHI PAT ENKYO O'HARA teaches, is always to savor the task at hand. 

(Click here to view O'Hara's feature from this issue, "The Work of the Moment.")

Find a calm space and sit comfortably. Try to view what you experience as neither bad nor good. Sit at ease and let the sounds in. Feel your body; allow the sensations in your body to be present and not blocked off. Include everything in your experience (annoying or not); allow all of it to arise. Without the veneer of opinion, preconception, and explanation, find the place of intimacy within yourself. Once you do, you’re like a tuning fork. Everything is fresh.

Now you are ready for the exercises.


Exercise for Working Alone or with a Group

Set a timer for ten minutes. Try to write continuously for the whole time without stopping to look back or edit what you’ve written. Write about effort in terms of the kind of effort you exert at home, at work, and in your community. Consider how your life and the quality of your effort affects those with whom you are connected.

Set the time for another ten minutes. Write about being intimate and wholehearted in your work. Under what conditions do you enjoy your work? Again, try to write continuously for the whole time, without stopping to look back or edit what you’ve written. 

If you are working alone, look at what you’ve written and notice how it makes you feel. Did you learn anything about yourself? Did anything surprise you? 

If you are working in a group, invite people to share what they have written or understood.


Exercise for Working with a Partner
or in a Group Working in Pairs

Sit facing each other. Take a moment to quiet your body and breath. Set a timer for five minutes. The questioner asks, “What stops you from being intimate with your work?” After each answer, the questioner says, “Thank you,” and repeats the question. The questioner’s role is just to be a witness. It’s best not to coach with facial expressions; very calmly, with a relaxed face, take in the other’s continuum of awareness. The dialogue might sound something like this:

Q: What stops you from being intimate with your work?

A: There are so many interesting distractions.

Q: Thank you. What stops you from being intimate with your work?

A: I’m impatient for results.

Q: Thank you. What stops you from being intimate with your work?

When the timer rings, reset it for another five minutes and switch roles. When the time is up, open a discussion of impressions and discoveries.

Most Intimate: A Zen Approach to Life’s Challenges, by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, © 2014 by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

From the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Under the Volcano (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

Under the Volcano

While vacationing on Hawaii’s Big Island, JUDY PANKO REIS suffered an unspeakable crime. Decades later, she sees that out of even the darkest violence a new life of service and transformation can emerge.

Waking Up Inside the Tent (1980) 

Under the gleam of a half-sliced moon, Phil noses our Mazda rental past fields of wild orchids into MacKenzie State Park. A hidden Hawaiian gem mounted on the cliffs of the Pacific, the park is tucked away outside the forested perimeter of the volcano Kilauea, the legendary home of Pelé, the fire goddess. The mixed fragrances of pine and brine welcome us to a night of camping on the Big Island.

I am focused on my sketches of Pelé—her purple crater and golden veins—as she is depicted in the travel journal spread across my knees. I decide my gushing words and bold images capture the aura of the volcano and my awe of Pelé, the legend of Hawaiian folklore.

Traditionally, islanders consider her a transformative figure who wields the dual powers of creation (island building) and destruction (home and landscape demolition). She hurls fire into water, spewing love and jealous anger in protection of her sacred land. For me, Pelé exemplifies a radiant female force of nature that blends polarities. I seek her guidance in my quest to reconcile the lighter aspects of the world with its darker shadow elements.

My excitement grows. I squeeze Phil’s sinewy fingers and run my hand through his curly hair. “It’s incredible here, isn’t it?” I whisper. “I can’t wait to get to Volcano House.” In Volcanoes National Park, I plan to study Pelé’s handiwork and temperament, to harness her creativity so I can awaken more enlightened parts of myself in the coming year. Phil grins, crinkling his eyes. “Tomorrow night at Volcano House will be awesome.”

As darkness descends over the dozens of scattered tents and vehicles dotting the campsite, we discuss our upcoming wedding and Philip’s future medical-career possibilities on the Big Island. He unzips the entry flap of the nylon tent, nodding hello to other campers. We crawl inside and pull off our shoes, emptying streams of sand onto the floor. In no time, our thoughts about Pelé’s transformative powers tumble out. We discuss how her firestorms decimated vegetation and then midwifed the birth of brilliant new spectrums of scarlet, yellow, and purple species of plant and animal life. How her explosions sculpted lush islands and reshaped the park’s jagged coastline.

Slipping into our sleeping bags, we celebrate the thought that our presence on the island draws us into Pelé’s self-perpetuating cycle of physical and spiritual regeneration. She is the progenitor of this splendor that regales all living creatures in her court—including a pair of lovers on this Wednesday night, the twenty-third of April, 1980.

Outside our tent, a restless wind roars through the giant ironwood trees. Sounds of thunderous waves hammer the rocks.

Before closing my eyes, I whisper to Phil that I feel Pelé has beckoned me here and I’m counting the minutes until we reach Volcano House the next day. He kisses me goodnight. In blissful fatigue, we surrender our awe to the night.

 In the distance, Pelé sleeps.

Trapped in a luminous orange cave, I rouse from slumber. Threads of orange daylight filter into my mucus-filled eyes. I feel pudding-thick blood clots slither down my cheeks into my mouth. The saline taste forces a gag. I choke down the stench of erupting vomit. Instantaneously, the contents of my bowels and bladder surge onto the floor of the cave. I heave torrents. Animal sounds of my retching echo through the cave. The avalanche of vomit mixes in a sea of body fluids that gush around me. Where am I?

In a haze, I recall pitching the tent with Philip the day before. Or was it two days ago? A lucid part of me takes control. I am… in a tent camping on the Big Island of Hawaii. My head explodes with pain that radiates through every nerve of my body. My heart pounding, I reach for my head to soothe the agony. Withdrawing my fingers, I see they are bathed in the crimson of fresh blood.

I turn to awaken Philip. He is still beside me in his sleeping bag. I urgently need his physician’s skills. I lunge toward him desperately and cry, “Philip, wake up, wake up, I’m hurt, I’m bleeding, I’m sick.” I heave, tears leak from my eyes. “Phil… wake up.” I grope through the orange folds of the collapsed tent that entombs us. “Give me your hand, Phil.” I extend a bloody hand to reach the flesh of his palm. He is inert.

A prism of light pours into the tent as I hear what I think is Phil’s voice. I say, “Phil, I’m thirsty, please help me.” Instead I hear, “What’s your name… phone number for a family member… who did this to you?” I rattle off my name and my parents’ phone number in Illinois. “Judy, try to stay awake—rescue is here,” says a male voice.

On April 25, 1980, Honolulu newspapers deliver these headlines: “Honolulu Doctor Slain,” “Two Beaten at Park.” The papers say the park had a history of thrill beatings, but no current suspects. A passerby walking his dog in the late afternoon had found us as I struggled, murmuring Phil’s name, to free myself from the collapsed tent.

Later that week, Phil’s corpse is slipped into a black nylon bag and shipped to his family in Queens, New York.

Because of the shortage of neurosurgeons on the Big Island, I am helicoptered to Straub hospital on Oahu to repair what remains of the right hemisphere of my brain. It is the same hospital where Phil had been practicing as a first-year medical resident before we left on our trip to the Big Island.

Approaching my hospital bed, my parents wear worried eyes and crumpled clothes. I vaguely hear a nurse explain my physical losses.

My father’s voice quivers in response: “Are they permanent?”

“It’s too soon to tell.”

The room is abloom with garlands of leis, tropical bouquets, and cards from Hawaiian residents offering apologies for the crime.

When the neurosurgeon inspects the tracks of sutures in my head, he turns to my folks and says, “You can take her home now.” Their collective gasp jolts the room.

Patricia, a social worker friend of Phil’s, swoops into the room in a blaze of light that pierces our confusion and dread. Waving a file bulging with admission papers for a rehabilitation hospital in Chicago, she says, “If this place can’t teach Judy how to sit up, read, dress, and feed herself, no one can. You’re lucky they’re in Chicago.” With a compassionate smile, she strokes my face and then embraces my parents.

Hilo detectives, visiting before we depart, tell me that my travel journal helped them retrace our steps. But it ends with our visit to Kilauea the day of the assault. My musings and sketches of Pelé are remarkable, the big copper-skinned native Hawaiian sergeant says, but offer no clues to the crime. In denial of Phil’s death and my multiple disabilities, I focus on the officer’s compliment of my artwork. He glares at my crushed skull and says that Phil’s murder and my assault are tearing him up.

In the distance, Pelé weeps. 


An adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Chicago’s College of Nursing, Judy Panko Reis lectures and writes on women’s health, violence, and disability. More than a decade ago, she was introduced to Buddhist meditation.

Read the rest of this article inside the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

The Bearable Lightness of Being (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014

The Bearable Lightness of Being

When we honor life but don’t make it a big deal, we lighten up, open up, and become more joyous. The fancy name for that, says PEMA CHÖDRÖN, is enlightenment.

Meditation teaches us how to let go. It’s actually a very important aspect of friendliness, which is that you train again and again in not making things such a big deal. When you have pain in your body, when all sorts of thoughts are going through your mind, you train again and again in acknowledging them openheartedly and open-mindedly, but not making them such a big deal.

Generally speaking, the human species does make things a very big deal. Our problems are a big deal for us. So we need to make space for an attitude of honoring things completely and at the same time not making them a big deal. It’s a paradoxical idea, but holding these two attitudes simultaneously is the source of enormous joy: we hold a sense of respect toward all things, along with the ability to let go. So it’s about not belittling things, but on the other hand not fanning the fire until you have your own private World War III.

Keeping these ideas in balance allows us to feel less crowded and claustrophobic. In Buddhist terms, the space that opens here is referred to as shunyata, or “emptiness.” But there’s nothing nihilistic about this emptiness. It’s basically just a feeling of lightness. There is a movie entitled The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but I prefer to see life from the view of the Bearable Lightness of Being.

When you begin to see life from the point of view that everything is spontaneously arising and that things aren’t “coming at you” or “trying to attack you,” in any given moment you will likely experience more space and more room to relax into. Your stomach, which is in a knot, can just relax. The back of your neck, which is all tensed up, can just relax. Your mind, which is spinning and spinning like one of those little bears that you wind up so it walks across the floor, can just relax. So shunyata refers to the fact that we actually have a seed of spaciousness, of freshness, openness, relaxation, in us.

Sometimes the word shunyata has been translated as the “open dimension of our being.” The most popular definition is “emptiness,” which sounds like a big hole that somebody pushes you into, kicking and screaming: “No, no! Not emptiness!” Sometimes people experience this openness as boredom. Sometimes it’s experienced as stillness. Sometimes it’s experienced as a gap in your thinking and your worrying and your all-caught-up-ness.

I experiment with shunyata a lot. When I’m by myself and no one’s talking to me, when I’m simply going for a walk or looking out the window or meditating, I experiment with letting the thoughts go and just seeing what’s there when they go. This is actually the essence of mindfulness practice. You keep coming back to the immediacy of your experience, and then when the thoughts start coming up—thoughts like bad, good, should, shouldn’t, me, jerk, you, jerk—you let those thoughts go, and you come back again to the immediacy of your experience. This is how we can experiment with shunyata, how we can experiment with the open, boundless dimension of being.

Enlightenment—full enlightenment—is perceiving reality with an open, unfixated mind, even in the most difficult circumstances. It’s nothing more than that, actually. You and I have had experiences of this open, unfixated mind. Think of a time when you have felt shock or surprise; at a time of awe or wonder we experience it. It’s usually in small moments, and we might not even notice it, but everyone experiences this open, so-called enlightened mind. If we were completely awake, this would be our constant perception of reality. It’s helpful to realize that this open, unfettered mind has many names, but let’s use the term “buddhanature.”

You could say it’s as if we are in a box with a tiny little slit. We perceive reality out of that little slit, and we think that’s how life is. And then as we meditate—particularly if we train in the way that I’m suggesting—if we train in gentleness, and if we train in letting go, if we bring relaxation as well as faithfulness to the technique into the equation; if we work with open eyes and with being awake and present, and if we train that way moment after moment in our life—what begins to happen is that the crack begins to get bigger. It’s as if we perceive more. We develop a wider and more tolerant perspective.

It might just be that we notice that we’re sometimes awake and we’re sometimes asleep; or we notice that our mind goes off, and our mind comes back. We begin to notice—the first big discovery, of course—that we think so, so much. We begin to develop what’s called prajna, or “clear wisdom.” With this clear wisdom, we are likely to feel a growing sense of confidence that we can handle more, that we can even love more.

Perhaps there are times when we are able to climb out of the box altogether. But believe me, if that happened too soon, we would freak out. Usually we’re not ready to perceive out of the box right away. But we move in that direction. We are becoming more and more relaxed with uncertainty, more and more relaxed with groundlessness, more and more relaxed with not having walls around us to keep us protected in a little box or cocoon.

Enlightenment isn’t about going someplace else or attaining something that we don’t have right now. Enlightenment is when the blinders start to come off. We are uncovering the true state, or uncovering buddhanature. This is important because each day when you sit down, you can recognize that it’s a process of gradually uncovering something that’s already here. That’s why relaxation and letting go are so important. You can’t uncover something by harshness or uptightness because those things cover our buddhanature. Stabilizing the mind, bringing out the sharp clarity of mind, needs to be accompanied by relaxation and openness.

You could say that this box we’re in doesn’t really exist. But from our point of view, there is a box, which is built from all the obstructions, all the habitual patterns and conditioning that we have created in our life. The box feels very, very real to us. But when we begin to see through it, to see past it, this box has less and less power to obstruct us. Our buddhanature is always here, and if we could be relaxed enough and awake enough, we would experience just that.

So trust this gradualness and welcome in a quality of patience and a sense of humor, because if the walls came down too fast we wouldn’t be ready for it. It would be like a drug trip where you have this mind-blowing experience but then you can’t integrate the new way of seeing and understanding into your life.

The path of meditation isn’t always a linear path. It’s not like you begin to open, and you open more and more and you settle more and more, and then all of a sudden the confining box is gone forever. There are setbacks. I often see with students a kind of “honeymoon period” when they experience a time of great openness and growth in their practice, and then they have a kind of contraction or regression. And this is often terribly frightening or discouraging for many students. A regression in your practice can create crippling doubt and a lot of emotional setback. Students wonder if they’ve lost their connection to meditation forever because the “honeymoon period” felt so invigorating, so true.

But change happens, even in our practice. This is a fundamental truth. Everything is always changing because it’s alive and dynamic. All of us will reach a very interesting point in our practice when we hit the brick wall. It’s inevitable. Change is inevitable with relationships, with careers, with anything. I love to talk to people on the meditation path when they’re at the point of the brick wall: they think they’re ready to quit, but I feel they’re just beginning. If they could work with the unpleasantness, the insult to ego, the lack of certainty, then they’re getting closer to the fluid, changing, real nature of life.

Hitting the brick wall is just a stage. It means you’ve reached a point where you’re asked to go even further into open acceptance of life as it is, even into the unpleasant feelings of life. The real inspiration comes when you finally join in with that fluidity, that openness. Before, you were cruising with your practice, feeling certain about it, and that feeling can be “the best” in many ways. And then wham! You’re given a chance to go further.

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind, by Pema Chödrön. © 2013 by Pema Chödrön. Reprinted with permission of Sounds True.

As seen in the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Pema Chödrön on 4 Keys to Waking Up (March 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | March 2014


Pema Chödrön on 4 Keys to Waking Up


About a year and a half before Ani Pema Chödrön teaches a program, she has to come up with a title for it. Now up on the stage at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, she quips that she never knows so far in advance whatshe’s going to teach, so she just comes up with something she figures she’ll inevitably say something about. Her title for this weekend is “Walk the Walk: Working with Habits & Emotions in Daily Life.”

As Ani Pema sees it, walking the walk is about being genuine; that is, not being a fake spiritual person.

“You got any idea what I mean by that?” she asks the retreatants. “One attribute that can be true of fake spiritual people is that they wear fake spiritual clothing,” she says, taking a light crack at her own tidy burgundy robes. But what being a fake spiritual person really means, she explains, “is that you’re suffering a lot and you want to mask your suffering with some kind of spiritual glow. You’re trying to transcend the messiness of life by being beatific and radiant.”

In contrast, Ani Pema continues, “Walking the walk means you’re very genuine and down to earth. You take the teachings as good medicine for the things that are confusing to you and for the suffering of your life.”

This weekend, there are 560 retreatants present, with an additional 1,200 people dialing in to the live stream from around the globe. As Ani Pema points out, most of us are attending because of our issues—our anger or addiction, our grief or loneliness. There are people here who are struggling with illness; there are people here who’ve lost their job. One woman is living with the memory of waking up to find her infant cold and blue. Someone else is trying to come to terms with her son’s homelessness. Every single one of us wants to hear something that is going to be of value in our life.

Over the weekend, Ani Pema will teach us about four qualities that are key to waking up. She feels they are critical for walking the walk and experiencing genuine transformation. Each of her four talks will focus on one of these qualities.


1. Stabilize Your Mind

When Ani Pema’s late teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was a child in Tibet, his primary teacher was a famous master named Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche. One day, Ani Pema tells us, Trungpa Rinpoche went to his teacher’s room, where he found him sitting in front of a window with the soft morning light falling on his face. In his hands, Kongtrul Rinpoche held a metal object that was shaped like a peculiar comb and was the color of the silver bowls on shrines. It was something Trungpa Rinpoche had never seen before.

“In the West, they use this to eat,” Kongtrul Rinpoche explained. “They poke it into meat and then they use it to lift the meat up and put it in their mouth. Someday, you’re going to go where people eat with these things.” At this point, Kongtrul Rinpoche smiled broadly at his prediction. “You might just find,” he concluded, “that they’re a lot more interested in staying asleep than in waking up.”

Ani Pema believes that Kongtrul Rinpoche had a point: there is a lot of cultural support for unconsciousness in this land of forks. It’s human nature to want to be distracted from uncomfortable, painful feelings such as boredom, restlessness, or bitterness. And now that we have such a multitude of ways to distract ourselves, from texting to television, it’s even more challenging to be awake and fully present. Even when we turn off the ringer, our cellphone still vibrates and the pull to check it is almost irresistible.

In the face of all this temptation, stabilizing the mind is the basis for showing up for our own life.

“You could call it training or taming the mind to stay present,” Ani Pema says, “but a more accurate way of describing it is strengthening the mind. That’s because we are strengthening qualities we already have, rather than training in something that we have to bring in from the outside.”

Throughout life, we have trained in distracting ourselves, so going unconscious feels like our natural MO. Our minds, however, have two essential qualities we can always draw on to help us wake up: being present and knowing what’s happening, moment by moment. To strengthen these natural qualities of mind, we can use meditation.

This weekend, Buddhist teacher Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, author of The Power of an Open Question, is leading us in our meditation sessions. Having spent more than six years of her life in retreat, she’s had ample practice. Shamatha meditation—calm abiding—is the technique she’s teaching, and she breaks it down into three parts: body, breath, and mind.

“When you’re meditating, the body should have some energy in it—it’s not slumped over,” Elizabeth says. “But also the body should be natural. Often we think we have to ‘assume the position,’ and sometimes the position we assume is quite religious, kind of stiff.

“Meditation is really just learning to enjoy your experience, so you don’t have to tense up. Don’t make meditation a project like everything else. The word ‘natural’ is very important. Yesterday, I was walking around Omega, and it’s so beautiful here. It feels like the last red leaf is about to drop, but it’s still there. We appreciate nature because it’s so uncontrived and unselfconscious. Bring that to mind and know that the body itself has its own intelligence.”

Next we have the breath, Elizabeth continues. “We breathe in. There’s this natural pause, and then the outbreath. There’s another pause. Then again, breathing in.” But don’t imagine that just because we’re focusing on our breath that everything else will go blank and our senses will close down. The breath is simply what we keep bringing the mind back to.

“The mind will get lost because it’s habituated to escaping the present moment,” Elizabeth explains. “So when you start getting lost in the activity of the mind, or when you see yourself bracing against experience in some way, be joyful because you’ve noticed! Don’t be hard on yourself. You get lost and you keep coming back—this is what’s supposed to happen.”

According to Elizabeth, the key to shamatha practice is to approach it with a bit of fierceness—not aggressive fierceness, but the fierceness of true commitment. Shamatha is a very basic practice, she says. Don’t, however, underestimate it. It’s extremely powerful.

Elizabeth shares with us the story of a friend of hers who suffered abuse as a child. This woman ended up living on the streets and selling drugs to support her own habit. Then she got arrested and was sent to a high-security prison, where she got put into solitary confinement for a year and a half.

One day, she was outside her cell for a brief break when she happened to meet a cook who worked in the prison kitchen. They talked for just a moment, but in that time he told her that if she didn’t learn to train her mind, she would go crazy in solitary confinement.

“I don’t know how to meditate,” the prisoner told the cook. “I only know how to count and pace.” That’s fine, he counseled. Just focus on that. And so she did. For a year and half, she could only walk seven steps in each direction, but counting and pacing was her calm abiding meditation. Today, says Elizabeth, “She’s organized and beautiful and caring and has a good relationship to her world.”

“In the Buddhist tradition,” Elizabeth explains, “we say that the untamed mind is like a limbless blind person trying to ride a wild horse. There’s not much choice in just letting that situation continue. You create choice by reining in the mind.”


2. Make Friends with Yourself 

One of Pema Chödrön’s students wrote her a letter. “You talk about gentleness all the time,” he began, “but secretly, I always thought that gentleness was for girls.” When Ani Pema recounts this story, the retreatants—predominantly female—laugh. Unsurprisingly, once this student tried being gentle with himself, he had a change of heart. In the face of things he found embarrassing or humiliating, he realized that it takes a lot of courage to be gentle.

Ani Pema points out that practicing meditation can actually ramp up our habitual self-denigration. This is because, in the process of stabilizing the mind, we become more aware of traits in ourselves that we don’t like, whether it’s cruelty, cynicism, or selfishness. Then we need to look deeper, with even more clarity. When we examine our addictions, for example, we need to be able see the sadness that’s behind having another drink, the loneliness behind another joint.

This brings us to unconditional friendship with ourselves, the second quality that Ani Pema teaches is critical for waking up. As she explains it, “When you have a true friend, you stick together year after year, but you don’t put your friend up on a pedestal and think that they’re perfect. You two have had fights. You’ve seen them be really petty, you’ve seen them mean, and they’ve also seen you in all different states of mind. Yet you remain friends, and there’s even something about the fact that you know each other so well and still love each other that strengthens the friendship. Your friendship is based on knowing each other fully and still loving each other.”

Unconditional friendship with yourself has the same flavor as the deep friendships you have with others. You know yourself but you’re kind to yourself. You even love yourself when you think you’ve blown it once again. In fact, Ani Pema teaches, it is only through unconditional friendship with yourself that your issues will budge. Repressing your tendencies, shaming yourself, calling yourself bad—these will never help you realize transformation.

Keep in mind that the transformation Ani Pema is talking about is not going from being a bad person to being a good person. It is a process of getting smarter about what helps and what hurts; what de-escalates suffering and escalates it; what increases happiness and what obscures it. It is about loving yourself so much that you don’t want to make yourself suffer anymore.

Ani Pema wraps up her Saturday-morning talk by taking questions. One woman who comes up to the mic says she’s been on the spiritual path for a while, yet it doesn’t seem to be helping her. Ani Pema—as she always does—fully engages with the questioner.

“Do you have a regular meditation practice?” she asks.


“And how does that feel these days?”

“It feels hurried.”


“I have a child with disabilities, so meditation has to be fit in. I can’t just decide to go sit down. It has to be set up.”

“I get it,” Ani Pema says slowly. “So, okay, that’s how it is currently—uncomfortable, hurried. Things as they are.” Then she comes back to what we’ve been talking about this morning: unconditional friendship. Ani Pema’s advice is this: don’t reject what you see in yourself; embrace it instead. Feeling Hurried Buddha, Feeling Cut Off from Nature Buddha, Feeling No Compassion Buddha—recognize the buddha in each feeling.


3. Be Free from Fixed Mind 

Nestled in the Hudson Valley, Omega Institute is like camp for spiritually minded adults. In the mornings, I attend a yoga or tai chi class before the sun comes up. In the evenings, I go to the Ram Dass Library and read on a window seat lined with cushions patterned with elephants. Other retreatants choose the sauna or the sanctuary, the basketball or tennis courts, the lively café or the liquid-glass lake. And the food is good, too—healthy dishes such as black beans over rice, spiced with salsa verde and topped with dollops of sour cream and sprinkles of cheese.

It’s Saturday afternoon and, having indulged too much at lunch, I’m in a cozy stupor when Ani Pema asks us all to stand up. We’re going to do an exercise. Inhaling, we’re going to raise our hands high in the air. Then exhaling with a “hah,” we’re going to quickly bring our arms down and slap our palms against our thighs. Simple enough, but the result is surprising. Although those are my hands making contact with my thighs, the jolt is unexpected. Suddenly, if just for the briefest of moments, I feel lucid, totally fresh. This, says Ani Pema, is an experience of being free from fixed mind.

Fixed mind is stuck, inflexible. It’s a mind that closes down, that is living with blinders on. Though it’s a common state in everyday life, fixed mind is particularly easy to spot in the realm of politics.

“Say you’re an environmentalist,” Ani Pema tells us. “What you’re working for is really important, but when fixed mind comes in, the other side is the enemy. You become prejudiced and closed, and this makes you less effective as an activist.”

On the spiritual path, being free from fixed mind is the third necessary quality for waking up. Even if we aren’t practitioners, life itself gives us endless opportunities to experience this freedom. These, for instance, are all things that have stopped my mind: loud, jolting noises; intense beauty, such as the sudden glimpse of an enormous orange moon; surrealist art, like Salvador Dali’s telephone with a lobster inexplicably perched on top.

“The experience of being free of fixed mind often happens because of trauma or crisis,” Ani Pema says. A sudden death or tragedy takes place, and on a dime we see that things are not the way we usually perceive them. Ani Pema tells the story of one woman who, on September 11, 2001, experienced a profound gap in just this way. Distracted and rushed, she was heading to work with her arms full of papers for a presentation she was about to give. Then she came up out of the subway and saw the destruction. The air was filled with papers like the ones she was holding—all the paperwork that had been filling up drawers in offices like hers. Her mind stopped.

When Ani Pema first started practicing meditation, she felt poverty-stricken because everyone in her circle was always talking about “the gap.” That’s the open awareness that’s revealed when we’re free from fixed mind, but she never experienced it and whenever she admitted this to someone, they’d smile smugly. “You will,” they’d say.

As she understood it, the gap was supposed to be something experienced in meditation, yet, she says, “What was happening with me was pretty much yak-yak-yak, intermingled with strong reactivity and emotional responses. But then I was in the meditation hall for a month. It was summer and there was this continual hum of the air conditioner. It never stopped, so after a while you didn’t hear it anymore. I was sitting there one day and somebody turned the air conditioner off. That was it! Gap!”

This simple experience gave Ani Pema a reference point for being free from fixed mind. It shifted her meditation practice and her life. “I’d be having a conversation with someone,” she explains. “I’d be getting all heated up and I would begin to have this sense of my mouth and my mind going yak-yak-yak. Then I got the hang of how I could just drop it. I could give myself a break and experience being free from fixed mind. Of course, the mind starts up again, just the way the air conditioner did. But once you’ve had the experience of this gap, or pause, you begin to notice that it happens a lot automatically.”

A practitioner’s work is noticing the gaps and appreciating them. In every action, every sound, every sight and smell, there can be some space, and in it there is wonder or awe at every—supposedly—mundane turn. “The potential of your human life is so enormous and so vast,” says Ani Pema.

At the end of her talk everyone bows, and I concentrate on letting the gesture be a doorway—a simple thing that can expand. There is the delicate wonder of my fingers curled lightly around my thighs and the solemn wonder of my back folding softly forward. There’s the awe of again sitting up straight and the awe of standing up and the awe of streaming toward the door with the other retreatants.

Outside, the sunlight is beginning to weaken into pale pink as I find the trailhead near the meditation hall. Until dinner, I listen to the wonder of my sneakers crunching and rustling as I walk through fallen oak leaves.


4. Take Care of Others 

My fellow retreatants Lelia Calder and Cynthia Ronan are sharing a cabin, and I pop by to ask them about their experience with Pema Chödrön’s teachings. Lelia, a resident of Pennsylvania, has been a dedicated student since the mid-nineties. Cynthia, from Ohio, has never before been to a retreat with Ani Pema but has been reading her books for the past five years.

When I ask Lelia for an example of how Pema Chödrön’s teachings have helped her in life, she laughs. “There have been so many! I wish I could think of one that is very dramatic but a lot of the time, they’re just so simple. We make things very complicated, but I think one of the things about dharma is that it really is simple. When things get simple, they seem like no big deal. Yet it is a big deal to be simple and direct and uncomplicated—to not make a big problem out of your life.”

Cynthia says the teachings strike a chord because she can relate to Pema Chödrön’s life experiences. Ani Pema frequently talks about how it was her second divorce that took her to her edge and brought her to the Buddhist path; Cynthia also endured a painful separation.

“There were times when I literally felt, I don’t know what to  do,” says Cynthia. “I don’t know how to get off the floor right now. But because of Pema’s teachings, I learned that I could just be there. It was great to have someone say, ‘Yeah, you’re on the floor! I’ve been on the floor, too. And you can stay there. Just stop the story line. If you stop it for two seconds, you’ve moved forward.’”

Meredith Monk is a renowned composer and performer who is a longtime student of Pema Chödrön’s. When I interview her under the umbrella of a tree, she tells me how Ani Pema helped her gain a wider perspective after her partner’s death.

“When we’re in very painful circumstances,” Meredith explains, “there’s a way we can see that those circumstances are part of the big flow of life. At the same moment that you’re having that pain, there are millions of other people who are having that same kind of pain. There are millions of other people sitting in a hospital waiting room. There are millions of people who are dealing with grief.”

During her last talk of the weekend, Ani Pema states: “When you feel bad, let it be your link to others’ suffering. When you feel good, let it be your link with others’ joy.” This understanding that our sorrows and joys are not separate from the sorrows and joys of others is a key to the fourth and final quality that is critical for waking up: taking care of one another.

Sea anemones are open and soft, but if you put your finger anywhere near them, they close. This, says Ani Pema, is what we’re like. We can’t stand to see our flaws or failings; we can’t stand our feelings of boredom, disappointment, or fear; we can’t stand to witness the suffering on the evening news or in the face of the homeless person on the corner. And so we shut down.

“That’s a kind of sanity,” Ani Pema posits. “Your body and mind intuitively know what’s enough. But in your heart, you have this strong aspiration that before you die—and hopefully even by next week—that you’ll become more capable of being open to other people and yourself. The attitude is one step at a time—four baby steps forward, two baby steps back. You can just allow it to be like that. Trust that you have to go at your own speed.”

Habitually, we allow our difficult emotions and experiences to isolate us from others. We feel alone in our depression or desperation or sadness. But when we use these to link us to everyone else in the world who’s suffering in the same way, we find that we are not alone, and we discover a deep well of compassion for others.

I take a long look around at my neighboring retreatants. Ani Pema, wrapping up the last talk of the weekend, is seated at the front with her glass of water and a flower arrangement. Flanking me, there is a middle-aged woman in a butterfly blouse and hoop earrings and a young woman in a hoodie and thumb ring. In front of me there is a man with a wisp of ponytail. Together, five-hundred-plus voices chant these four ancient lines from the Buddhist sage Shantideva:


And now as long as space endures,

As long as there are beings to be found,

May I continue likewise to remain

To drive away the sorrows of the world. 

Deputy editor of the
Shambhala Sun, Andrea Miller is the editor of the anthology Buddha’s Daughters: Teachings from Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West, which will be released in April.


From the March 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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