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Holding Your Seat When The Going Gets Rough


The most straightforward advice on how to discover your true nature is this: practice not causing harm to anyone—neither yourself nor others—and every day, do what you can to help.

If you take this instruction to heart and begin to use it, you will probably find very quickly that it is not so easy. Often, before you know it, someone has provoked you and either directly or indirectly, you've let them have it.

Therefore, when the intention is sincere but the going gets rough, most of us could use some help. We could use further instruction on how to lighten up and turn around our well-established habits of striking out and blaming.

The four methods for holding your seat provide just such support for developing the patience to stay open to what's happening, instead of acting on automatic pilot. These four methods are:

1) not setting up the target for the arrow;

2) connecting with the heart;

3) seeing obstacles as teachers;

4) regarding all that occurs as a dream.

First, if you have not set up the target it cannot be hit by an arrow. This is to say that each time you retaliate with words and actions that hurt, you are strengthening the habit of anger. Then, without doubt, plenty of arrows will always be coming your way.

The pattern of striking out may already be very strong; however, each time you are provoked you are given a chance to do something different. The choice is yours: you can further strengthen your painful and crippling habit or you can shake it up a bit by holding your seat.

Each time you sit still with the restlessness and heat of anger—neither acting it out nor repressing it—you are tamed and strengthened. Each time you act on the anger or suppress it, you are weakened; you become more and more like a walking target. Then, as the years go by, almost everything makes you mad.

So this is the first method: remember that you set the target up yourself, and only you can take it down. Understand that if you hold your seat when you want to retaliate—even for 1.5 seconds longer than ever before—you are starting to dissolve a pattern of aggression that, if you let it, will continue to hurt you and others forever.

Second is the instruction for connecting with the heart: in times of anger, you can contact the kindness and compassion that you already have. 

When someone who is insane starts to harm you, there is the possibility of understanding that they don't know what they are doing. There is the possibility of contacting your heart and feeling sadness that this poor being is out of control and is harming themselves by hurting others. There is the possibility that even though you feel fear, you do not feel hatred or anger— you might even wish to help this person if you can.

Actually, a lunatic is far less crazy than a sane person who harms you, for so-called sane people have the potential to realize that they are sowing seeds of their own misery, their own confusion, their own dissatisfaction. Their present aggression is producing further and more intense patterns of aggression. The life of one who is always angry is painful and generally very lonely. The one who harms you is under the influence of patterns that could continue to produce suffering forever.

So this is the second method: remember that the one who harms you does not need to be provoked further and neither do you. You can connect with your heart and recognize that, in this very moment, millions are burning with the fire of aggression—just as you two are. Sit still with the restlessness and pain of the anger, neither acting it out nor repressing it, and let the searing quality of the energy tame you and strengthen you and make you kinder.

Third is the instruction on seeing difficulties as teachers. If there is no teacher around to give you direct personal guidance on how to stop causing harm, never fear! Life itself will provide the opportunities for learning how to hold your seat. The troublemaker, for instance, who so disturbs you—without this person how could you ever get the chance to practice patience? How could you ever get the chance to know the energy of anger so intimately that it loses its power?

There is a saying that the teacher is always with us. The teacher is always showing us precisely where we are at and encouraging us to relax and open our hearts and minds, encouraging us to not speak and act in the same old stuck ways, encouraging us also not to repress or dissociate. So with this one who is scaring you or insulting you, do you retaliate as you have one hundred thousand times before, or do you start to get smart and do something different?

Right at the point when you are about to blow your top, remember this: you are a disciple being taught how to sit still with the edginess and discomfort of the energy. You are a disciple being challenged to hold your seat and open to the situation with as much courage and as much kindness as you possibly can.

Of course, like countless students before you, you may often feel, "I'm not ready for this." So sometimes you will run away, and sometimes you will kick and scream, and sometimes you will hold your seat. Somehow, gradually, all of this becomes part of your ability not to cause harm and part of your ability to understand the pain and confusion of others and to help them.

The problem with these or any instructions is that we have a tendency to get serious and rigid about them. We get tense and uptight about trying to relax and be patient. This is where the fourth instruction comes in: it is helpful to contemplate that the one who is angry, the anger itself, and the recipient of that anger are all happening as if in a dream.

You can regard your life as a movie in which you are temporarily the leading player. You can reflect on the essencelessness of your current situation rather than putting such big importance on everything. This big-deal struggle, this big-deal problematic (or self-righteous) me, and this big-deal person who opposes you, could all be lightened up considerably.

When you awaken from sleep you know that the enemies in your dreams are an illusion. That realization does a lot to cut through the drama. In the same way, instead of acting out of impulse, you could slow down and ask yourself, "Who is this monolithic me that has been so offended? And who is this other person that they can trigger me like this? What is this praise and blame that it can hook me like a fish, that it can burn me like a flame burns a moth? What is going on here that outer things have the power to propel me from hope to fear, from happy to miserable, like a ping-pong ball?"

Contemplate that these outer things, as well as these emotions, as well as this huge sense of me, are passing and essenceless, like a memory, like a movie, like a dream.

When you find yourself captured by aggression, remember this: there is no basis for striking out or for repressing. There is no basis for hatred or for shame. Whether awake or asleep, we are simply moving from one dreamlike state to another.

Recalling this instruction, you just might find it helps you to loosen your grip and open your mind.

These four methods for turning around anger and for learning a little patience come to us from the Kadampa masters of eleventh-century Tibet. These instructions have provided encouragement for practitioners in the past and they are just as useful in the present. These same Kadampa masters advised that we not procrastinate. They urged us to use these instructions immediately—on this very day—and not say to ourselves, "I will do it in the future when the days are longer."

Pema Chödrön is the director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.

Holding Your Seat When The Going Gets Rough, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, July 1998.

Click here for more articles by Pema Chödrön


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