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Turning Toward Pain

Pema Chödrön discusses her discovery of Buddhism and explains how pain can be a great spiritual teacher.

Continued from page 1

The truth is I didn't know it was Buddhism that I was attracted to initially. In 1972, I read an article by Chögyam Trungpa, who would become my principal teacher. The article made terrific sense to me, but I had no idea that he was describing Buddhism. I was living a countercultural life in northern New Mexico. There were a lot of communes around, and I explored them all. One week there'd be a Hindu swami in the neighborhood, the next a Zen roshi, the next a Native American teacher, and the next a Sufi master. I really didn't distinguish between them, and no one encouraged me to do so.



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Then my marriage ended and-I've realized since then that this is fairly common-it was one of those crises where everything fell apart. I couldn't feel any ground under my feet. It was devastating.



The word

depression

was not used much back then, but I think I went into a major depression. At the time, however, I had no words for it. All I knew was that the pain was intense, and there was nothing I could do to get out of it. Any of the usual strategies for entertaining myself or finding comfort only exaggerated the pain. Going to a movie, eating, smoking dope-it all somehow made the pain worse.



I started looking for ways to deal with my anger, which seemed unfamiliar and out of control. The groundlessness I felt had a fearsome and panicky quality to it. I was offered plenty of advice, but it all seemed to boil down to a similar message: "Turn toward the light" or "Chant yourself into a higher consciousness." It was useless to me. If I could have simply turned toward the light, I would've done so happily.



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I had two children and was teaching school at the time, and one day I came out of work and got into a friend's pickup truck. On the front seat was a magazine that Chögyam Trungpa had published in the 1970s. It lay open to an article titled "Working with Negativity." The first line was something like: "There's nothing wrong with negativity." I took this to mean: "There's nothing wrong with what you're going through. It's very real, and it brings you closer to the truth." The article explained that when you find yourself caught in extreme discomfort or negativity, the negativity itself is not the problem. If you can have a direct experience of that pain, it will be a great teacher for you. The problem is what Chögyam Trungpa called "negative negativity," or reacting against negativity and trying to escape it. It was the first sane advice I had heard for someone in my situation. As I read, I kept nodding and saying to myself:

This is true.
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Interview by James Kullander
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