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Pema Chödrön: One of the things I’ve learned from both you and Trungpa Rinpoche is that when we feel pain, it is a moment of truth. Instead of saying something’s wrong, that something bad has happened, we can say, “Oh! I am seeing and feeling very old karmic seeds ripening. Right now is the moment when I could do something different.” At that moment of truth, we could choose to do the habitual thing or we could choose not to sow those same old seeds again. At that very point, we can notice our opportunity to practice, rather than being preoccupied with feeling that we just messed up again.

Dzigar Kongtrül: That’s quite right. Your attitude in the moment will determine whether you use the experience to manifest positive qualities or enhance your negativity.

To have positive attitudes under negative circumstances undercuts the power of the negative circumstances. Rather than falling down and then trying to get up again out of desperation, only to slip on the same thing, except harder, you can take a positive attitude toward your suffering and pain. The problem is that when you are hit with pain, it is so easy to act automatically. So, you need to go through a little bit of a withdrawal process, to learn to simply be with the experience rather than react or try to fix it. Once you get some strength to just be with the experience, then the experience of the pain will begin to lose some of its solidity and power, which gives you a chance to reorganize your whole mind. In the end, you might actually come to appreciate the pain.

Elizabeth Namgyel: Is that because the pain is not personalized at that point, no longer my pain?

Dzigar Kongtrul: Yes, pain is only my pain in the confused state. When one goes beyond the confusion, neither the pain nor the confusion is yours. You could work with the confusion, and the pain that comes with it, as a universal thing that you need to work with to get beyond it. With that kind of attitude, you may discover sudden strength coming out of the pain that allows you to work with your mind in a much clearer way. That would not have come about if you had not been tested by your own pain, so an appreciation develops for the pain, and for the confusion too.

Pema Chödrön: In one very long section of the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva talks about looking differently at pain as a result of not responding automatically and habitually. I called that reframing the way you regard the pain. When you have intense emotional pain, you can treat it like a bell going off. When the bell goes off, that’s the signal that you could shift the pattern. We can burn up lifetimes and lifetimes of karma that way, instead of just digging the hole deeper by doing the same old thing. The self-reflection you have been talking about, Rinpoche, enables you to familiarize yourself with your patterns, so that you can let go of them when the opportunity presents itself.

In self-reflecting, after a while, you come to see that there are not so many story lines. In the Vipassana tradition, they say that you have the “top ten,” but you begin to see that there’s a set of even fewer patterns that you replay over and over. You don’t have to be a brilliant person to figure out what your habitual response to pain is going to be. Nor do you need to be a brilliant person to know that the habitual response never brings you the happiness you seek. But without the self-reflection, you will never catch the habitual response. You will never realize that you’ve done it countless times, and that it’s going to be painful and not bring you what you want anyway. Without self-reflection, you will go on doing it and thinking it is something new.

Dzigar Kongtrül: Self-reflection is not an end in itself. It is the key that opens the door to your innermost qualities, to buddhanature. It also shows you the strength and confidence you have as a result of those innate qualities and that allow you to live with a sense of richness.

Elizabeth Namgyel: But these qualities of richness or wisdom are also not yours, are they, in the same way that the neurosis is not yours either?

Dzigar Kongtrül: That’s right. There’s no clinging to the richness, but it prevails in your mind.

Pema Chödrön: One of the strongest qualities of ego, or self-importance, is ignorance about where happiness really lies. It is as if there is a quality in us that is committed to keeping us unhappy.

Dzigar Kongtrül: Somebody asked me yesterday where our overwhelming self-absorption comes from. I told them that universal self-absorption comes from universal confusion. The confusion is like a blanket of fog. When the confusion is not there, the self-absorption is not there. One sees one’s enlightened nature directly, and one can also see that mind can both know something and know itself. It’s magic, really.

Pema Chödrön: By “confusion” do you mean our inability to understand the chain reaction of our habitual patterns, how it starts and how it leads to suffering?

Dzigar Kongtrül: Yes, that is the confusion. But the confusion is also a feeling of being overwhelmed and bewildered. You don’t know where to look for the causes and conditions of your pain, and even if you are vaguely able to identify what the causes and conditions are, you don’t know what to do about it.

Pema Chödrön: What would you say, in a nutshell, that we should do about the confusion?

Dzigar Kongtrul: Listen to the teachings, study them, and contemplate them. Then, allow the teachings to illuminate your experience, rather than trying to bring your experience in line with the teachings. It’s important first to have the teachings illuminate your experience, so you can see what’s happening clearly before you actually try to put them into practice.

Elizabeth Namgyel: Pema, tell us how you came to be a student of Dzigar Kongtrül.

Pema Chödrön: About ten years ago I was invited to a Buddhist teachers’ conference in San Francisco, and I arrived a day early to rest. I’d been resting all day and decided to go out for a walk. As I emerged from my door, Rinpoche walked out of his door at the same time. We recognized each other, so I asked whether he would like to have a cup of tea. We went into my room and had a very nice cup of tea, and I was so inspired by what he was talking about that I began to feel stronger physically than I had for some time. I felt a powerful connection, and when I had an interview with him later, it reminded me very strongly of how I felt when I used to talk with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, my root teacher.

About a year later, we had another meeting and I asked to receive a certain set of Dzogchen teachings. Rinpoche refused. That was a bit of a shock, so I asked him to explain why. He cited several obstacles he felt I needed to take care of first. Later, when I had dealt with those and told him I felt confident that I could genuinely study these teachings with him, he agreed.

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