Buddhism has been described as a religion, philosophy, ideology and a way of life. Pema Chödrön, one of the first Western women to become fully ordained as a Buddhist monastic and author of When Things Fall Apart, talks to Oprah about learning from pain and what it means to be a Buddhist.
Oprah: How did you end up following this path, taking this path? Were you always a Buddhist?
Pema: No, no, I was not always a Buddhist. I got involved in this path in a way that's very appealing to a lot of people, because of the fact that their lives fall apart. And that's what happened to me. I was about, oh, 34 years old, something like that, not a Buddhist. And my second marriage broke up. And it broke up in a way that for some reason just floored me, pulled the rug out. I was in what I would say now is quite a severe depression.
Oprah: Um hm.
Pema: But I had some kind of fundamental sanity that kept saying to myself, "There's something in this that's trying—that will teach you something. Something very profound that will bring you to a much deeper level." And so I started looking. I looked at every therapy. I looked at, you know, anything you can imagine in that time, the '70s, that was available. And then I came across an article by the man that became my teacher, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master named Chögyam Trumpa. And I knew nothing about Buddhism or about him. But the article was called "Working with Negativity." And its first line was, there's nothing wrong basically with what you feel, like the negativity in this case; the problem is that you don't stay with the underlying emotion. You don't stay with the feeling, you spin off and try to escape it in some kind of way. And in that way, all the, you know, suffering for yourself and for other people comes from the spin-off. But if you could stay present, then you'd really learn something. And I don't know, it just—everything else who kind of looked toward the higher good or something like this, and—
Pema: —this just said,"Sstay with your experience," very direct. And that's how I got into the whole—
Oprah: And that's—
Pema: —that's how I started looking for a teacher. And that's how it started.
Oprah: And that's what you advise we do when things fall apart
Pema: Get in touch with the basic feeling.
Pema: Yeah, I mean the problem is, I think for people is that we have so little tolerance for uncomfortable feelings. I'm not even talking about unpleasant outer circumstances but for that feeling in your stomach that—or heart—that, "I don't want this to be happening."
Pema: And if somehow you could touch the rawness of the experience, touch the heart of the rawness of the experience—
Oprah: Meaning don't run from it. Don't run from it.
Pema: Don't run from it, yeah.
Oprah: What should you be saying to yourself, when you say, "Touch the rawness and feel?" Feel what? I'm already feeling, I'm sure people are thinking, "I'm feeling pain, I'm feeling discomfort, I'm feeling I don't want to have to deal with this."
Pema: Well, let me give you what I think is—for—seems to be for people the most accessible thing is that if you can—for instance, just go to your body at that point—
Oprah: Um hm.
Pema: —̬and connect with the sensation.
Oprah: And the sensation—
Pema: Of what it feels like, which is always—feels really bad, and it's usually in the throat or the heart or the solar plexus. And it feels like a tightening. If you can stay with that feeling and breathe very deeply in and very deeply out, and say to yourself, "Millions of people all over the world share this kind of fear, discomfort what—I don't even have to call it anything—they share this not wanting things to be this way." And it's my link with humanity. And why—and it gives birth to a chain reaction which causes people to strike out and hurt other people or self-destruct. In other words, not staying with the feeling cuts you off from your compassion for others, your empathy for others, and also from the largeness of your own heart and mind. So somehow it seems to me with the people that I've been working with, if they can connect with the idea that this moment in time is shared by—it's sort of a shared experience all over the world. And not staying with it gives birth to a lot of pain and a lot of destruction that we see in the world today. And so then what do you do? How do you stay with it? And I think the most straightforward way is to breathe in very deeply, try to connect with the feeling. And then just relax on the out breath. And breathe in very deeply and connect with the feeling, and breathe out on the out breath. And I call it compassionate abiding. Because it's staying with yourself when for your whole lifetime you've always run away at that point.
Oprah: Well, yes, it's like you say in When Things Fall Apart, that every moment is the perfect teacher.