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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.”

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.


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

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