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Some people find the teachings I offer helpful because I encourage them to be kind to themselves, but this does not mean pampering our neurosis. The kindness that I learned from my teachers, and that I wish so much to convey to other people, is kindness toward all qualities of our being. The qualities that are the toughest to be kind to are the painful parts, where we feel ashamed, as if we don’t belong, as if we’ve just blown it, when things are falling apart for us. Maitri means sticking with ourselves when we don’t have anything, when we feel like a loser. And it becomes the basis for extending the same unconditional friendliness to others.

If there are whole parts of yourself that you are always running from, that you even feel justified in running from, then you’re going to run from anything that brings you into contact with your feelings of insecurity.

And have you noticed how often these parts of ourselves get touched? The closer you get to a situation or a person, the more these feelings arise. Often when you’re in a relationship it starts off great, but when it gets intimate and begins to bring out your neurosis, you just want to get out of there.

So I’m here to tell you that the path to peace is right there, when you want to get away. You can cruise through life not letting anything touch you, but if you really want to live fully, if you want to enter into life, enter into genuine relationships with other people, with animals, with the world situation, you’re definitely going to have the experience of feeling provoked, of getting hooked, of shenpa. You’re not just going to feel bliss. The message is that when those feelings emerge, this is not a failure. This is the chance to cultivate maitri, unconditional friendliness toward your perfect and imperfect self.

Relative bodhichitta also includes awakening compassion. One of the meanings of compassion is “suffering with,” being willing to suffer with other people. This means that to the degree you can work with the wholeness of your being—your prejudices, your feelings of failure, your self-pity, your depression, your rage, your addictions—the more you will connect with other people out of that wholeness. And it will be a relationship between equals. You’ll be able to feel the pain of other people as your own pain. And you’ll be able to feel your own pain and know that it’s shared by millions.

Absolute bodhichitta, also known as shunyata, is the open dimension of our being, the completely wide-open heart and mind. Without labels of “you” and “me,” “enemy” and “friend,” absolute bodhichitta is always here. Cultivating absolute bodhichitta means having a relationship with the world that is nonconceptual, that is unprejudiced, having a direct, unedited relationship with reality.
That’s the value of sitting meditation practice. You train in coming back to the unadorned present moment again and again. Whatever thoughts arise in your mind, you regard them with equanimity and you learn to let them dissolve. There is no rejection of the thoughts and emotions that come up; rather, we begin to realize that thoughts and emotions are not as solid as we always take them to be.

It takes bravery to train in unconditional friendliness, it takes bravery to train in “suffering with,” it takes bravery to stay with pain when it arises and not run or erect barriers. It takes bravery to not bite the hook and get swept away. But as we do, the absolute bodhichitta realization, the experience of how open and unfettered our minds really are, begins to dawn on us. As a result of becoming more comfortable with the ups and the downs of our ordinary human life, this realization grows stronger.

We start with taking a close look at our predictable tendency to get hooked, to separate ourselves, to withdraw into ourselves and put up walls. As we become intimate with these tendencies, they gradually become more transparent, and we see that there’s actually space, there is unlimited, accommodating space. This does not mean that then you live in lasting happiness and comfort. That spaciousness includes pain.

We may still get betrayed, may still be hated. We may still feel confused and sad. What we won’t do is bite the hook. Pleasant happens. Unpleasant happens. Neutral happens. What we gradually learn is to not move away from being fully present. We need to train at this very basic level because of the widespread suffering in the world. If we aren’t training inch by inch, one moment at a time, in overcoming our fear of pain, then we’ll be very limited in how much we can help. We’ll be limited in helping ourselves, and limited in helping anybody else. So let’s start with ourselves, just as we are, here and now.


Excerpted from Practicing Peace in Times of War, by Pema Chödrön. © 2006 Pema Chödrön. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications.

Pema Chödrön is an American Buddhist nun in the lineage of the renowned meditation master Chögyam Trungpa and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery in North America established for Westerners. Her many popular books include When Things Fall Apart and The Places That Scare You. This teaching is from Practicing Peace in Times of War, from Shambhala Publications.

Turn Your Thinking Upside Down, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, May 2007.

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