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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.