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Good Medicine For This World


& in Conversation

Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön and novelist Alice Walker on how tonglen meditation practice opens our heart, expands our vision, and plants the seeds of love in our lives. From an evening of discussion at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts Theater.


Alice Walker:
About four years ago I was having a very difficult time. I had lost someone I loved deeply and nothing seemed to help. Then a friend sent me a tape set by Pema Chödrön called ďAwakening Compassion.Ē I stayed in the country and I listened to you, Pema, every night for the next year. I studied lojong mind training and I practiced tonglen. It was tonglen, the practice of taking in peopleís pain and sending out whatever you have that is positive, that helped me through this difficult passage. I want to thank you so much, and to ask you a question. In my experience suffering is perennial; there is always suffering. But does suffering really have a use? I used to think there was no use to it, but now I think that there is.

Pema Chödrön: Is there any use in suffering? I think the reason I am so taken by these teachings is that they are based on using suffering as good medicine, like the Buddhist metaphor of using poison as medicine. Itís as if thereís a moment of suffering that occurs over and over and over again in every human life. What usually happens in that moment is that it hardens us; it hardens the heart because we donít want any more pain. But the lojong teachings say we can take that very moment and flip it. The very thing that causes us to harden and our suffering to intensify can soften us and make us more decent and kinder people.

That takes a lot of courage. This is a teaching for people who are willing to cultivate their courage. Whatís wonderful about it is that you have plenty of material to work with. If youíre waiting for only the high points to work with, you might give up, but thereís an endless succession of suffering.

One of the main teachings of the Buddha was the truth of dukha, which is usually translated as ďsuffering.Ē But a better translation might be ďdissatisfaction.Ē Dissatisfaction is inherent in being human; itís not some mistake that you or I have made as individuals. Therefore, if we can learn to catch that moment, to relax with it, dissatisfaction doesnít need to keep escalating. In fact it becomes the seed of compassion, the seed of loving kindness.

Alice Walker: I was surprised how the heart literally responds to this practice. You can feel it responding physically. As you breathe in what is difficult to bear, there is initial resistance, which is the fear, the constriction. Thatís the time when you really have to be brave. But if you keep going and doing the practice, the heart actually relaxes. That is quite amazing to feel.

Pema Chödrön: When we start out on a spiritual path we often have ideals we think weíre supposed to live up to. We feel weíre supposed to be better than we are in some way. But with this practice you take yourself completely as you are. Then ironically, taking in painóbreathing it in for yourself and all others in the same boat as you areóheightens your awareness of exactly where youíre stuck. Instead of feeling you need some magic makeover so you can suddenly become some great person, thereís much more emotional honesty about where youíre stuck.

Alice Walker: Exactly. You see that the work is right ahead of you all the time.

Pema Chödrön: There is a kind of unstuckness that starts to happen. You develop lovingkindness and compassion for this self that is stuck, which is called maitri. And since you have a sense of all the other sentient beings stuck just like you, it also awakens compassion.

Alice Walker: I remember the day I really got it that weíre not connected as human beings because of our perfection, but because of our flaws. That was such a relief.

Pema Chödrön: Rumi wrote a poem called "Night Travelers," It's about how all the darkness of human beings is a shared thing from the beginning of time, and how understanding that opens up your heart and opens up your world. You begin to think bigger. Rather than depressing you, it makes you feel part of the whole.

Alice Walker: I like what you say about understanding that the darkness represents our wealth, because thatís true, Thereís so much fixation on the light, as if the darkness can be dispensed with, but of course it cannot. After all, there is night, there is earth; so this is a wonderful acknowledgment of richness.

I think the Jamaicans are right when they call each other ďfellow sufferer,Ē because thatís how it feels. We arenít angels, we arenít saints, weíre all down here doing the best we can. Weíre trying to be good people, but we do get really mad. You talk in your tapes about when you discovered that your former husband was seeing someone else, and you threw a rock at him. This was very helpful (laughter). It was really good to have a humorous, earthy, real person as a teacher. This was great.

Pema Chödrön: When that marriage broke up, I donít know why it devastated me so much but it was really a kind of annihilation. It was the beginning of my spiritual path, definitely, because I was looking for answers. I was in the lowest point in my life and I read this article by Trungpa Rinpoche called ďWorking With Negativity.Ē I was scared by my anger and looking for answers to it. I kept having all these fantasies of destroying my ex-husband and they were hard to shake. There was an enormous feeling of groundlessness and fear that came from not being able to entertain myself out of the pain. The usual exits, the usual ways of distracting myselfónothing was working.

Alice Walker: Nothing worked.

Pema Chödrön: And Trungpa Rinpoche basically said that thereís nothing wrong with negativity per se. He said thereís a lot you can learn from it, that itís a very strong creative energy. He said the real problem is what he called negative negativity, which is when you donít just stay with negativity but spin off into all the endless cycle of things you can say to yourself about it.

Alice Walker: What gets us is the spinoff. If you could just sit with the basic feeling then you could free yourself, but itís almost impossible if youíre caught up in one mental drama after another. Thatís what happens.

Pema Chödrön: This is an essential understanding of vajrayana, or tantric, Buddhism. In vajrayana Buddhism they talk about how what we call negative energiesósuch as anger, lust, envy, jealousy, these powerful energiesóare all actually wisdoms in disguise. But to experience that you have to not spin off; you have to be able to relax with the energy.

So tonglen, which is considered more of a mahayana practice, was my entry into being able to sit with that kind of energy. And it gave me a way to include all the other people, to recognize that so many people were in the same boat as I was.

Alice Walker: You do recognize that everybody is in that boat sooner or later, in one form or other. Itís good to feel that youíre not alone.

Pema Chödrön: I want to ask you about joy. Itís all very well to talk about poison as medicine and breathing in the suffering and sending out relief and so forth, but did you find any joy coming out of this?

Alice Walker: Oh Yes!. Even just not being so miserable.

Part of the joyousness was knowing we have help. It was great to know that this wisdom is so old. That means people have had this pain for a long time, theyíve been dealing with it, and they had the foresight to leave these practices for us to use. Iím always supported by spirits and ancestors and people in my tribe, whoever theyíve been and however long ago they lived. So it was like having another tribe of people, of ancestors, come to the rescue with this wisdom that came through you and your way of teaching.

Pema Chödrön: I think the times are ripe for this kind of teaching.

Alice Walker: Oh, I think itís just the right medicine for today. You know, the other really joyous thing is that I feel more open, I feel more openness toward people in my world.
Itís what you have said about feeling more at home in your world. I think this is the result of going the distance in your own heartóreally being disciplined about opening your heart as much as you can. The thing I find, Pema, is that it closes up again. You know?

Pema Chödrön: Oh no! (laughter) One year of listening to me and your heart still closes up?

Alice Walker: Yeah. Itís like what you have said about how the ego is like a closed room and our whole lifeís work is to open the door. You may open the door and then discover that youíre not up to keeping it open for long. The work is to keep opening it. You have an epiphany, you understand something, you feel slightly enlightened about something, but then you lose it. Thatís the reality. So itís not a bad thing.

Pema Chödrön: No

Alice Walker: But itís frustrating at times, because you think to yourself, Iíve worked on this, why is it still snagging in the same spot?

Pema Chödrön: Thatís how life keeps us honest. The inspiration that comes from feeling the openness seems so important, but on the other hand, Iím sure it would eventually turn into some kind of spiritual pride or arrogance. So life has this miraculous ability to smack you in the face with a real humdinger just when youíre going over the edge in terms of thinking youíve accomplished something. That humbles you; itís some kind of natural balancing that keeps you human. At the same time the sense of joy does get stronger and stronger.

Alice Walker: Because otherwise you feel youíre just going to be smacked endlessly, and whatís the point? (laughter)

Pema Chödrön: Itís about relaxing with the moment, whether itís painful or pleasurable. I teach about that a lot because thatís personally how I experience it. The openness brings the smile on my face, the sense of gladness just to be here. And when it gets painful, itís not like thereís been some big mistake or something. It just comes and goes.

Alice Walker: That brings me to something else Iíve discovered in my practice, because Iíve been doing meditation for many yearsónot tonglen, but TM and metta practice. There are times when I meditate, really meditate, very on the dot, for a year or so, and then Iíll stop. So what happens? Does that ever happen to you?

Pema Chödrön: Yes. (laughter)

Alice Walker: Good!

Pema Chödrön: And I just donít worry about it.

Alice Walker: Good! (laughter)

Pema Chödrön: One of the things Iíve discovered as the years go on is that there canít be any ďshoulds.Ē Even meditation practice can become something you feel you should do, and then it becomes another thing you worry about.

So I just let it ebb and flow, because I feel itís always with you in some way, whether youíre formally practicing or not. My hunger for meditation ebbs but the hunger always comes back, and not necessarily because things are going badly. Itís like a natural opening and closing, or a natural relaxation and then getting involved in something else, going back and forth.

Alice Walker: I was surprised to discover how easy it was for me to begin meditating many years ago. What I liked was how familiar that state was. The place that I most love is when I disappear. You know, thereís a point where you just disappear. That is so wonderful, because Iím sure thatís how it will be after we die, that youíre just not here, but itís fine.

Pema Chödrön: What do you mean exactly, you disappear?

Alice Walker: Well, you reach that point where itís just like space, and you donít feel yourself. Youíre not thinking about what youíre going to cook, and youíre not thinking about what youíre going to wear, and youíre not really aware of your body. I like that because as a writer I spend a lot of time in spaces that Iíve created myself and itís a relief to have another place that is basically empty.

Pema Chödrön: I donít think I have the same experience. It's more like being hereófully and completely here. It's true that mediation practice is liberating and timeless and that, definitely, there is no caught-up-ness. But is is also profoundly simple and immediate. In contrast, everything else feels like fantasy, like it is completely made up by mind.

Alice Walker: Well, I feel like I live a lot of my life in a different realm anyway, especially when Iím out in nature. So meditation takes me to that place when Iím not in nature. It is a place of really feeling the oneness, that youíre not kept from it by the fact that youíre wearing a suit. Youíre just in it; thatís one of the really good things about meditation for me.

Judy Lief: I assume, Alice, that as an activist your job is to take on situations of extreme suffering and try to alleviate them to some degree. How has this practice affected your approach to activism?

Alice Walker: Well, my activism really is for myself, because I see places in the world where I really feel I should be. If there is something really bad, really evil, happening somewhere, then that is where I should be. I need, for myself, to feel that I have stood there. It feels a lot better than just watching it on television.

Judy Lief: This is where you bring together your private practice and your public action.

Alice Walker: Yes. Before I was sort of feeling my way. I went to places like Mississippi and stood with the people and realized the suffering they were experiencing. I shared the danger they put themselves in by demanding their rights, I felt this incredible opening, a feeling of finally being at home in my world, which was what I needed. I needed to feel I could be at home there, and the only way was to actually go and connect with the people.

Pema Chödrön: And the other extreme is when our primary motivation is avoidance of pain. Then the world becomes scarier and scarier.

Alice Walker: Exactly.

Pema Chödrön: Thatís the really sad thingóthe world becomes more and more frightening, and you donít want to go out your door. Sure thereís a lot of danger out there, but the tonglen approach makes you more open to the fear it evokes in you, and your world gets bigger.

Judy Lief: When you are practicing tonglen, taking on pain of others, what causes that to flip into something positive, as opposed to being stuck in a negative space or seeing yourself as a martyr?

Alice Walker: I think itís knowing that youíre not the only one suffering. Thatís just what happens on earth. There may be other places in the galaxy where people donít suffer, where beings are just fine, where they never get parking tickets even. But what seems to be happening here is just really heavy duty suffering.

I remember years ago, when I was asking myself what was the use of all this suffering. I was reading the Gnostic Gospels, in which Jesus says something that really struck me. He says basically, learn how to suffer and you will not suffer. That dovetails with this teaching, which is a kind of an acceptance that suffering is the human condition.

Pema Chödrön: It is true people fear tonglen practice. Particularly if people have a lot of depression, they fear it is going to be tough to relate with the suffering so directly.

I have found that itís less overwhelming if you start with your own experience of suffering and then generalize to all the other people who are feeling what you do. That gives you a way to work with your pain: instead of feeling like youíre increasing your suffering, youíre making it meaningful. If youíre taught that you should do tonglen only for other people, thatís too big a leap for most people. But if you start with yourself as the reference point and extend out from that, you find that your compassion becomes much more spontaneous and real. You have less fear of the suffering you perceive in the worldóyours and other peoplesí. Itís a lot about overcoming the fear of suffering.

My experience of working with this practice is that it has brought me a moment by moment sense of wellbeing. Thatís encouraging to people who are afraid to start the practiceóto know that relating directly with your suffering is a doorway to wellbeing for yourself and others, rather than some kind of masochism.

Alice Walker: I would say that is also true for me in going to stand where I feel I need to stand. I feel I get to that same place.

I also appreciate the teaching on driving all blame into yourself. We need a teaching on how fruitless it is to always blame the other person. In my life I can see places where I have not wanted to take my part of the blame. Thatís a losing proposition. Thereís no gain in it because you never learn very much about yourself. You donít own all your parts. There are places in each of us that are quite scary, but you have to make friends with them. You have to really get to know them, to say, hello, there you are again. Itís very helpful to do that.

Pema Chödrön: One of the things the Buddha pointed out in his early teaching was that everybody wants happiness or freedom from pain, but the methods human beings habitually use are not in sync with the wish. The methods always end up escalating the pain. For example, someone yells at you and then you yell back and then they yell back and it gets worse and worse. You think the reason not to yell back is because, you know, good people donít yell back. But the truth is that by not yelling back youíre just getting smart about whatís really going to bring you some happiness.

Judy Lief: The lojong slogan says ďDrive all blames into one,Ē that is, yourself. But there are definitely situations where from the conventional viewpoint there are bad guys and good guys, oppressors and oppressed. How do you combine taking the blame yourself with combating oppression or evil that you encounter?

Alice Walker: Maybe it doesnít work there. (laughter) Pema why donít you take that one. (laughter)

Pema Chödrön: Well, here would be my question: does it help to have a sense of enemy in trying to end oppression?

Alice Walker: No.

Pema Chödrön: So maybe thatís it.

Alice Walker: I think itís probably about seeing. As Bob Marley said so beautifully, the biggest bully you ever did see was once a tiny baby. Thatís true. I mean, I've tried that on Ronald Reagan. I even tried that on Richard Nixon, but it didnít really work that well.

But really, when youíre standing face to face with someone who just told you to go to the back of the bus, or someone who has said that women arenít allowed here, or whatever, what do you do? I donít know what you do, Pema, but at that moment I always see that theyíre really miserable people and they need help. Now, of course, I think I would love to send them a copy of ďAwakening Compassion.Ē (laughter)

Pema Chödrön: Itís seeing that the cause of someoneís aggression is their suffering. And you could also realize that your aggression is not going to help anything.

So youíre standing there, you are being provoked, you are feeling aggression, and what do you do? Thatís when tonglen becomes very helpful. You breathe in and connect with your own aggression with a lot of honesty. You have such a strong recognition in that moment of all the oppressed people who are provoked and feeling like you do. If you just keep doing that, something different might come out of your mouth.

Alice Walker: And war will not be what comes out.

Judy Lief: It seems to me that Dr. Martin Luther King had the quality of a tonglen practitioner. Yet he didnít ask us not to take stands.

Alice Walker: He was from a long line of Baptist preachers, someone who could really get to that place of centeredness through prayer and through love. I think the person who has a great capacity to love, which often flowers when you can see and feel the suffering of other people, can also strategize. I think he was a great strategist. I think he often got very angry and upset, but at the same time he knew what he was up against. Sometimes he was the only really lucid person in a situation, so he knew how much of the load he was carrying and how much depended on him.

As activists, it is really important to have some kind of practice, so that when we go out into the world to confront horrible situations we can do it knowing weíre in the right place ourselves. Knowing weíre not bringing more fuel to the fire, more anger, more despair. Itís difficult but that should not be a deterrent. The more difficult something seems, the more itís possibile to give up hope. You approach the situation with the feeling of having already given up hope, but that doesnít stop you. You said we should put that slogan about abandoning hope on our refrigerators.

Pema Chödrön: Give up all hope of fruition.

Alice Walker: Right. Just do it because youíre doing it and it feels like the right thing to do, but without feeling itís necessarily going to change anything.

Pema Chödrön: Something that I heard Trungpa Rinpoche say has been a big help to me. He said to live your life as an experiment, so that youíre always experimenting. You could experiment with yelling back and see what that happens. You could experiment with tonglen and see how that works. You could see what actually allows some kind of communication to happen. You learn pretty fast what closes down communication, and thatís the strong sense of enemy. If the other person feels your hatred, then everyone closes down.

Alice Walker: I feel that fear is what closes people down more than anything, just being afraid. The times when I have really been afraid to go forward, with a relationship or a problem, is because there is fear. I think practice of being with your feelings, letting them come up and not trying to push them away, is incredibly helpful.

Question from the audience: Thank you both for being here and bringing so much pleasure to so many people tonight. Iím asking a question for a friend who couldnít come tonight. She was at Pemaís three day seminar and she left on Saturday feeling badly because she had got in touch with her anger and couldnít stay. Now she feels sheís a bad Buddhist, a bad practitioner. Iíve been trying to tell her itís okay but I think she needs to hear your words.

Pema Chödrön: Well, tell her weíre used to using everything that we hear against ourselves, so itís really common to just the dharma teachings and use them against yourself. But the fact is we donít have to do that anymore. We donít have to do that. Itís just like Alice saying that the heart opens and then it closes, so she has to realize thatís how it is forever and ever, Sheíll get in touch and then sheíll lose touch and get in touch and lose touch. So she has to keep on going with herself and not give up on herself.

Question from the audience: This is really hard on her because you two are her favorite people in the entire world.

Alice Walker: And she didnít come?

Question from the audience: Sheís so broken-hearted.

Pema Chödrön: She didnít come because she was so ashamed of herself for not being able to stay with it...thatís not true, is it?

Question from the audience: Yes, it is.

Pema Chödrön: Really. Wow. You should tell her that sheís just an ordinary human being. (laughter) Whatís a little unusual about her is that she was willing to get in touch with it for even a little bit.

Question from the audience: My name is Margaret, and I have practiced Tibetan Buddhism for a number of years. About eighteen months ago, right around the time that for the first time in my life I fell in love with a woman, the Dalai Lama made a number of comments pointing out where the Tibetan tradition did not regard homosexuality as a positive thing, in fact an obstacle to spiritual growth. It reached the point that I left the sangha I was connected with and found a different part of the spiritual path thatís working for me now. I have gay and bisexual friends who are interested in Buddhism but some of them have been stopped by what the Dalai Lama had to say and by the lack of coherent answers from other people. I think it would be a big service if you could address that.

Pema Chödrön: Well, listen. I have so much respect for the Dalai Lama and I think thatís where people get stuck. I didnít actually hear those comments, and I heard there were also favorable comments. But aside from all that, as Buddhism comes to the West, Western Buddhist teachers simply donít buy that. Itís as if Asian teachers said that women were inferior or something. I mean, itís absurd. Thatís all there is to it. (applause) Itís just ridiculous.

Question from the audience:
Let me ask you to say that often and loud.

Pema Chödrön: Sure! I go on record. And Iím not alone, itís not something unique with me. Western teachers, coming from this culture, we see things pretty differently on certain issues and this is one, for sure.

But the Dalai Lama is a wonderful man, and I have a feeling that if he were sitting here heíd have something else to say on the subject.

Alice Walker: You know, when he was here at the peace conference he was confronted by gay men and lesbian women and he readily admitted that he really didnít know. He didnít seem rigid on it.

But also, when there is wisdom about, we should have it! Wisdom belongs to the people. We must never be kept from wisdom by anybody telling us you canít have it because youíre this that or the other.

Question from the audience:
I have a question about the connection between tonglen and joy, because I kind of understood the question of the moderator, anyway, Judyís question when you breathe in so much suffering how do you avoid becoming so burdened or martyred by it, and what Iím understanding about tonglen is that thereís something kind of transformative about it, when you breathe in suffering and then you breathe out relief and healing. I keep thinking about that prayer of St. Francis of Assisi about being an instrument of peace, and where there is hatred, let me sow love, and where there is despair, let me sow hope. Iím wondering if joy has a place in the ability to make that transformation.

Alice Walker: I think the practice of tonglen is really revolutionary, because youíre taking in what you usually push away with everything youíve got, and then youíre breathe out what you would rather keep. This is just amazing. I mean, it really shakes you up. Iím sure there are many people who canít believe that youíre being asked to breathe in the dark, breathe in the heavy, breathe in the hard and the hot. They want to breathe in the white light. But the time has come for all of us to breathe in what is the most difficult, to own it, to get to know it, to feel it out. And then to really think about what the world needs, and to try to send that out. I think thatís the transformation.

Question from the audience: So itís the courage to face the suffering and the darkness?

Alice Walker: To bring it into yourself. Think of all the people who donít think that there is any darkness in them. There are millions of people who think they donít have any darkness. But itís something that we all have, and part of the problem is that weíve been pushing all this stuff away and denying it, so of course itís the biggest shadow you can imagine. Thatís whatís clobbering us, everything we pushed away.

Pema Chödrön: My feeling is that itís like taking off something thatís been covering your eyes and hindering your ability to see. Itís overcoming your fear of whatís painful, although actually youíre training in opening to both joy and suffering, You see if itís just aimed at joy, then suffering always seems like then you blew it, like this poor woman who didnít come tonight because she felt she wasnít living up to the instructions. Thatís very common. People want it all on the joy side or the success side or the victory side. Then when itís just naturally is part of life just naturally flips, or the mood changes, or the energy changes, you feel that youíve made some mistake or youíre a failure. So it has to include all of that.

One of the basic tonglen instructions, sort of like the tonglen outlook, is that when anything is delightful in your life, you wish that other people could have it. That heightens your awareness of even those fleeting moments of appreciate you usually donít notice. You start catching the moments of delight and pleasure, just the smallest kinds of happiness and contentment.

The other part of the instruction is that when you feel suffering, you also think of all the other people who are suffering. It covers everything: you share whatís good and you also realize weíre in the same boat with the suffering. So itís all bigger. Some kind of joy comes from that, strangely.

Judy Lief: Pema, how do you avoid the trap that has come up in these questionsówanting to be the perfect practitioner and feeling worse and worse because you canít accomplish it?

Pema Chödrön: You could do tonglen with that feeling of failure and include all the other imperfect failure people. So thereís nothing that can happen to you that you canít use. It takes a while to get the hang of that, but when you start to hear yourself saying ďbad dogĒ or whatever, you stop right there and acknowledge what youíre feeling and the billions of other people feeling the same way. Somehow that shakes up our ways of getting stuck.

When Iím teaching, Iím so aware that most people are hearing with a filter of turning it against themselves. I try very hard, as do most Western teachers, to address that, but it still keeps happening. You just have to keep addressing it. You know, it takes practice. Thatís why itís called practice.

Alice Walker: Itís also important to accept and even embrace the fact of our imperfection. Our imperfection is probably our one perfection. Also I think itís really good, when you have periods of happiness, to say , I am happy. I think that focuses you in the moment of being happy, and you really know that youíre happy. Otherwise, especially in this culture where youíre always being told to buy something or go somewhere or do something, you lose that moment of being happy because youíre projecting happiness as being somewhere or something else. So when you feel happiness, you just say it, even to yourself, maybe especially to yourself, but aloud, I think it helps to say it aloud, Just say, Iím happy.

Pema Chodron: I hadnít thought of making it so simple, but thatís right, just say it. Then you could also say, could other people have this, too. Words are powerful in terms of brainwashing ourselves. (laughter)


Pema Chodron is director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.

 Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple. She is the author of By the Light of My Father's Smile.  

Good Medicine For This World, from Shambhala Sun, January 1999

Click here for more articles by Pema Chödrön


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