2016-06-30
From "Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 Teachings" by Pema Chödrön. c 2002 Pema Chödrön. Excerpted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications.

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Inspired by the Buddhist tradition of the 108-day retreat, Pema Chodron's latest book is a collection of teachings, each of which is meant for individual reflection. The following five passages are a sampling of those teachings.


The Root of Suffering

What keeps us unhappy and stuck in a limited view of reality is our tendency to seek pleasure and avoid groundlessness, to seek comfort and avoid discomfort. This is how we keep ourselves enclosed in a cocoon. Out there are all the planets and all the galaxies and vast space, but we're stuck here in this cocoon. Moment after moment, we're deciding that we would rather stay in that cocoon than step out into that big space. Life in our cocoon is cozy and secure. We've gotten it all together. It's safe, it's predictable, it's convenient, and it's trustworthy. If we feel ill at ease, we just fill in those gaps.

Our mind is always seeking zones of safety. We're in this zone of safety and that's what we consider life, getting it all together, security -- that's what makes us anxious. We fear being confused and not knowing which way to turn. We want to know what's happening. The mind is always seeking zones of safety, and these zones of safety are continually falling apart. Then we scramble to get another zone of safety, which are always falling apart. That's the essence of samsara -- the cycle of suffering that comes from continuing to seek happiness in all the wrong places.

The Wisdom of No Escape

The central question of a [spiritual] warrior's training is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort. How do we practice with difficulty, with our emotions, with the unpredictable encounters of an ordinary day? For those of us with a hunger to know the truth, painful emotions are like flags going up to say, "You're stuck!" We regard disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, jealousy, and fear as moments that show us where we're holding back, how we're shutting down. Such uncomfortable feelings are messages that tell us to perk up and lean into a situation when we'd rather cave in and back away.

When the flag goes up, we have an opportunity: we can stay with our painful emotion instead of spinning out. Staying is how we get the hang of gently catching ourselves when we're about to let resentment harden into blame, righteousness, or alienation. It's also how we keep from smoothing things over by talking ourselves into a sense of relief or inspiration. This is easier said than done.

Ordinarily we are swept away by habitual momentum. We don't interrupt our patterns even slightly. With practice, however, we learn to stay with a broken heart, with a nameless fear, with the desire for revenge. Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears. We can bring ourselves back to the spiritual path countless times every day simply by exercising our willingness to rest in the uncertainty of the present moment -- over and over again.

Recognize Suffering

Disappointment, embarrassment, and all the places where we cannot feel good are a sort of death. We've just lost our ground completely; we are unable to hold it together and feel that we're on top of things. Rather than realizing that it takes death for there to be birth, we just fight against the fear of death.

Reaching our limit is not some kind of punishment. It's actually a sign of health that when we meet the place where we are about to die, we feel fear and trembling. But usually we don't take it as a message that it's time to stop struggling and look directly at what's threatening us. Things like disappointment and anxiety are messages telling us that we're about to go into unknown territory.

When we get what we don't want, when we don't get what we do want, when we become ill, when we're getting old, when we're dying -- when we see any of these things in our lives -- we can recognize suffering as suffering. Then we can be curious, notice, and be mindful of our reactions. Our suffering is so grounded in our fear of impermanence. Our pain is so rooted in our lopsided view of reality. Who ever got the idea that we could have pleasure without pain? It's promoted rather widely in this world, and we buy it. But pain and pleasure go together; they are inseparable. They can be celebrated. They are ordinary. Birth is painful and delightful. Death is painful and delightful. Everything that ends is also the beginning of something else. Pain is not punishment; pleasure is not a reward.

The Three Poisons

In the Buddhist teachings, the messy emotional stuff is called klesha, which means poison. There are three main poisons: passion, aggression, and ignorance. We could talk about these in different ways -- for example, we could also call them craving, aversion, and couldn't care less. Addictions of all kinds come under the category of craving, which is wanting, wanting, wanting -- feeling that we have to have some kind of resolution. Aversion encompasses violence, rage, hatred, and negativity of all kinds, as well as garden-variety irritation. And ignorance? Nowadays, it's usually called denial.

The three poisons are always trapping you in one way or another, imprisoning you and making your world really small. When you feel craving, you could be sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon, but all you can see is this piece of chocolate cake that you're craving. With aversion, you're sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and all you can hear is the angry words you said to someone ten years ago. With ignorance, you're sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon with a paper bag over your head. Each of the three poisons has the power to capture you so completely that you don't even perceive what's in front of you.

The pith instruction is, whatever you do, don't try to make the poisons go away. When you're trying to make them go away, you're losing your wealth along with your neurosis. The irony is that what we most want to avoid in our lives is crucial to awakening bodhichitta. These juicy emotional spots are where a warrior gains wisdom and compassion. Of course, we'll want to get out of those spots far more often than we'll want to stay. That's why self-compassion and courage are vital. Without lovingkindness, staying with pain is just warfare.

Slogan: "Abandon any hope of fruition"

"Fruition" implies that at some future time you will feel good. One of the most powerful Buddhist teachings is that as long as you are wishing for things to change, they never will. As long as you're wanting yourself to get better, you won't. As long as you are oriented toward the future, you can never just relax into what you already have or already are.

One of the deepest habitual patterns that we have is the feeling that the present moment is not good enough. We frequently think back to the past, which maybe was better than now, or perhaps worse. We also think ahead quite a bit to the future, always holding out hope that it will be a little bit better than now. Even if things are going really well now, we usually don't give ourselves full credit for who we are in the present.

For example, it's easy to hope that things will improve as a result of meditation: we won't have such a bad temper anymore or we won't be afraid anymore or people will like us more than they do now. Or perhaps we will fully connect with that awake, brilliant, sacred world that we hope to find. We use our practice to reinforce the implication that if we just did the right things, we'd begin to connect with a bigger world, a vaster world, a world different from the one we're in now.

Instead of looking for fruition, we could just try to stay with our open heart and open mind. This is very much oriented to the present. By entering into this kind of unconditional relationship with ourselves, we can begin to connect with the awake quality that we already have.

Right now, can you make an unconditional relationship with yourself? Just at the height you are, the weight you are, with the intelligence that you have, and your current burden of pain? Can you enter into an unconditional relationship with that?


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