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Pema Chödrön: No Time to Lose

PEMA CHÖDRÖN offers her unique perspective on The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva’s classic description of the Mahayana path. Here she addresses one of the most important of all spiritual questions—how to free ourselves from the powerful spell of the emotional afflictions.
Rousing the bodhi heart means connecting with our longing for enlightenment, with the clear desire to alleviate the escalating suffering we see in the world today. Most people do not give much thought to enlightenment. But most of us do long for a better world situation, and we long to be free of neurotic habits and mental anguish. This is the ideal state of mind for awakening bodhicitta, the aspiration to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. We know we want to be part of making things better, and that we need to get saner to do this effectively. It’s the perfect place to start.

If we can commit to pursuing this goal, we’re on the same page as Shantideva. Like us, he had to work with a wild mind, overpowering emotions, and entrenched habitual patterns. Like us, he was able to use his life, just as it was, to work intelligently with his reactivity. The yearning to do this is “aspiration bodhicitta.” Although we may not always be able to stop ourselves from bringing pain to others, our intention to sort out our confusion and be of service remains unwavering.

In chapters 1–3 of The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva shares his aspiration to make waking up and benefiting others his top priority. In the following three chapters, he provides methods for insuring that this bodhicitta passion doesn’t decline.

This is a very important topic. When we’re young, we have a natural curiosity about the world around us. There’s a natural spark that energizes us and motivates us to learn, as well as a fear of becoming like some of the older people we see: stuck in their ways, with closed minds and no spirit of adventure.

It’s true that as some people get older, they begin spending more time in pursuit of comfort and security. But Shantideva is passionately determined to keep his youthful curiosity alive. He aspires to continually stretch his heart beyond its current preconceptions and biases. Instead of staying stuck in his cocoon, he wants to grow in flexibility and enthusiasm.

The bodhisattva path is not about being a “good” person or accepting the status quo. It requires courage and a willingness to keep growing.

In chapter 4 of The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva addresses two topics essential to keeping one’s passion alive. The first is attentiveness; the second is working skillfully with emotions. The title of this chapter in Tibetan is pag-yü, which has been translated many different ways. Here it is translated as “awareness”; elsewhere it is called “conscientiousness,” “ heedfulness,” and “carefulness.” I feel the most descriptive translation is “attentiveness”: paying attention with intelligent awareness of what’s happening. A traditional analogy is walking along the edge of a deep crevasse: we’re attentive and keenly aware of the consequences of carelessness.

Attentiveness is a significant component of self-reflection. By paying attention when we feel the tug of shenpa, we get smarter about not getting hooked. Shenpa is the Tibetan word for attachment. Dzigar Kongtrül describes it as the “charge” behind emotions: the charge behind “I like and don’t like,” the charge behind self-importance itself. Shenpa is the feeling of getting “hooked,” a nonverbal tightening or shutting down. Suppose you are talking to someone and suddenly you see her jaw clench; she stiffens or her eyes glaze over. What you’re seeing is shenpa: the outer manifestation of an inner tug, the subtlest form of aversion or attraction. We can see this in each other; more importantly we can feel this charge in ourselves.

In chapter 4, Shantideva gives five examples of when to apply attentiveness: when bodhicitta arises; before we make a commitment; after we’ve made a commitment; when relating with the cause and effect of karma, or consequences of our actions; and finally, when we are seduced by our kleshas.

The Sanskrit word klesha refers to a strong emotion that reliably leads to suffering. It’s sometimes translated as “neurosis” and, in this text, as “afflictions” and “defiled emotions.” In essence, kleshas are dynamic, ineffable energy, yet it’s energy that easily enslaves us and causes us to act and speak in unintelligent ways.

Kleshas arise with the subtle tension inherent in dualistic perception. If we don’t catch this tension, it sets off a chain reaction of “for” or “against.” These reactions quickly escalate, resulting in fullblown aggression, craving, ignorance, jealousy, envy, and pride—in other words, full-blown misery for ourselves and others. Kleshas survive on ignorance—ignorance of their insubstantial nature and the way we reinforce them—and they are fueled by thoughts. That their power can be diffused by attentiveness is the main theme of chapter 4.


For it’s as if by chance that I have gained
This state so hard to find, wherein to help myself.
And now, when freedom—power of choice—is mine,
If once again I’m led away to hell,


I am as if benumbed by sorcery,
My mind reduced to total impotence
With no perception of the madness overwhelming me.
O what is it that has me in its grip?

From moment to moment, we can choose how we relate to our emotions. This power of choice gives us freedom, and it would be crazy not to take advantage of it.

On the other hand, when habitual reactions are strong and long-standing, it’s difficult to choose intelligently. We don’t intentionally choose pain; we just do what’s familiar, which isn’t always the best idea. I think we can all relate with feeling benumbed by sorcery, reduced to total impotence, or overwhelmed by madness. But what actually has us in its grip? The answer is our kleshas: limbless and devoid of faculties—with, in essence, no substance or solidity at all!


Anger, lust—these enemies of mine—
Are limbless and devoid of faculties.
They have no bravery, no cleverness;
How then have they reduced me to such slavery?

This is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. How can this powerful but completely ungraspable, ineffable energy do us so much harm? In the following verses Shantideva begins to answer this question by presenting the five faults of the kleshas, the five problematic aspects of our confused emotions.

The first fault, presented in verse 28, is that we become enslaved by the kleshas. This insight alone would undercut their power, if we were attentive to it. But as Shantideva says, it’s as if we’re under a spell.

Emotional reactivity starts as a slight tightening. There’s the familiar tug of shenpa and before we know it, we’re pulled along. In just a few seconds, we go from being slightly miffed to completely out of control.

Nevertheless, we have the inherent wisdom and ability to halt this chain reaction early on. To the degree that we’re attentive, we can nip the addictive urge while it’s still manageable. Just as we’re about to step into the trap, we can at least pause and take some deep breaths before proceeding.

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