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bell hooks: The idea in your work I find so moving is the unconditional embrace of one's being, which allows you to embrace others at the same time. But if I unconditionally accept myself, then what's the motivation to practice further?

Pema Chödrön: That willingness to stick with yourself is just another way of saying that you stay awake. It seems what blocks seeing things truly is our tendency to self-denigrate, to disassociate continually, to edit continually. When you don't close down and shut off, then insight begins to come. This insight is the wisdom that completely cuts through the conventional way of seeing.

So when you see clearly, the motivation to practice becomes stronger and stronger because you begin to have insights that are totally refreshing and powerful. The motivation to practice becomes stronger because you are discovering your true nature and it's painful to block that in any way. It's painful to see yourself being totally neurotic, selfish, all these things, and you can't stand to do that to yourself. You don't want to cover over your openness anymore. Plus you can't bear to see the suffering it causes other people when they do the same thing.

On one level, our suffering is caused by bigotry and dogmatism and all these things, but ultimately we suffer because we don't understand how limitless we are. You could say that we live in a fantasy, that what we call reality is actually a dream. This is a an important truth—that this whole thing is a fantasy and we're totally completely caught up in it. We limit what is limitless. We condition what is unconditioned, and it makes us miserable. When you begin to understand that, you can't bear for other people to keep hurting themselves that way, and you can't bear to keep hurting yourself that way. Then you are really motivated to practice.

bell hooks: You have commented that we can't smooth out the rough edges, yet as I was listening to you I was thinking, isn't she describing a sense that the rough edges get smoothed out.

Pema Chödrön: No they don't, actually. What you realize is that there's enough space to accommodate all of it. There's enough space in your own being, enough space in the whole of creation, to accommodate all of it. All of it. It's because we pick and choose, because we have biases and prejudices, because we prefer smooth to rough and then react for and against, that we suffer.

bell hooks: Can you talk about the difference between blame and accountability? Because I feel, like you, that blame isn't very useful. But you have said, for instance in reference to men teachers who abuse their powers, that you feel the issue of accountability is real. How does one manoeuvre between giving up blame and being able to embrace the idea of accountability?

Pema Chödrön: This is the message of the first noble truth. You are willing to see suffering as suffering.

Obviously the less that you are caught in your own hope and fear, the more you can just see suffering very straightforwardly and without aggression. So accountability seems to mean you can be honest, incredibly honest. You see that harm is being done. You see someone harming a child, an animal, another human being. You see that clearly and your strongest wish is to de-escalate that suffering. Then the question is, how do you proceed so that the person you see as the problem becomes accountable, becomes willing to acknowledge what they're doing?

You realize how hard it is for you to acknowledge what you are doing in your own life. You see what it takes to become accountable yourself, and you begin to try to find the skillful means to communicate so that the barriers come down rather than get reinforced. It has everything to do with communication: how can you communicate so that someone can hear what you're saying and you can also hear what they are saying?

bell hooks: One of the issues that I've had with the students in my American literature classes is my sense that we're all accountable, that while I as teacher am a certain kind of center from which things radiate, everyone is accountable. They were very distressed last week because I said to them, you know, these papers are really boring. And they came back this week and they said, you were really mean, you were just so raw. And I said, excuse me, was I the only one thinking these papers were boring? Am I the only person who's accountable here?

Although I did not have the pleasure and pain of meeting Trungpa Rinpoche, I've always been moved by his teaching. I have always felt myself to be embodying in my own teaching and habits of being a certain wildness of spirit that's experimental, that's willing to push the boundaries. That's why my book on teaching is called Teaching to Transgress.

Pema Chödrön: Accountability, as you're talking about it, is my understanding of the spiritual path. With Trungpa Rinpoche, my feeling was that all he was doing was getting people to take responsibility for themselves, getting them to grow up. He was a master of not confirming. Talking to him was like talking to a huge space where everything bounced back, and you had to be accountable for yourself.

Personally I feel that the role of the teacher is to wean the students from dependency, and from taking the parent/child view of life altogether. That's what I think of as non-theism. Theism doesn't just have to do with God; it has to do with always feeling that you're incomplete and need something or someone outside to look to. It's like never growing up.

To me, theism is feeling that you can't find out for yourself what's true. You take the Buddhist teachings, or any teachings and you just try to fit yourself into them. But you're not really finding out. You're not grappling with it. You're not really digging into it and letting it transform your being. You are just trying to live up to some ideal. You are still looking for the security of having someone else to praise or blame.

So accountability is pretty groundless. There is no hand to hold. It's like the lojong slogan that says, "Of the two judges, trust the principal one." No matter what other people say, when it really comes down to it, you're the only one who can answer your own questions.

bell hooks: You have taken radically different paths at different moments of your life. I'm interested in how we can use mindfulness as a way of illuminating vocation, of knowing when we need to let one path go and move towards another. Do you still grapple with those questions?

Pema Chödrön: Oh, all the time. I mean, isn't that the way? The more you really get into it, the more you grapple. Life is such a stunner. It's always humbling you and showing you how little you know, how little you understand. It continues to inspire you to go forward, but wow, it's a pretty humbling experience. I don't know if that's really what you mean here.

bell hooks: It's a part of what I mean, but I was asking more concretely how we practice in a manner that illuminates our everyday life choices.

Pema Chödrön: What do you think, bell?

bell hooks: I was thinking about work in America and work as a place of suffering for lots of people. So many people spend their lives working in jobs where they feel miserable and I am certainly one of those who feels somewhat miserable in her own job.

Pema Chödrön: Well, there's always the simple answer of moving into a different field. There's nothing wrong with that. But just changing the outer situation doesn't get at the root of the discontent. This gets down to the truth of suffering again. As human beings, we need to look directly at suffering, at what causes it, at what makes it escalate, and at what allows it to dissolve. So the first thing is to acknowledge, with a lot of honesty and heart, that no matter where we go or what we do, there are always going to be both positive and negative feelings and that this is a fertile situation.

My own experience is that I've been a nun going on twenty-three years or so, and as the years go on my life gets in some ways simpler and clearer. But you know, bell, these feelings of worry, of not enough time, still come up. Then you realize how much of it is in our minds. Whether we're in a totally overwhelming work situation or a very simplified one, we still have to work with our minds.

That's why some teachings say that no matter what is happening in your life, it's always showing you the true nature of reality. No matter what movie you're in, no matter what the plot is of the current film you're starring in, it is the vehicle for showing you the true nature of your mind.  

So I feel the whole thing comes down to being very, very attuned to one's emotions—to seeing how one is attached to the pleasant and has an aversion to what is painful. You work again and again on trying to discover how to get unhooked, to open and soften rather than to tighten and close down. It comes down to realizing the wisdom and compassion that are contained in this life that we have, just as it is. No matter how simplified or complicated life gets, it can make us miserable or it can wake us up.

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