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.
Oprah: One of the things I've learned to ask, especially in difficult situations, and the bigger the crises or difficulty, the question I immediately ask always is, "What is this here to teach me?"
Pema: Yeah. Yeah, that's a very helpful thing. What is this here to teach me? That's a very powerful way to look at it. I think people—my feeling is that when people's lives do fall apart and they're in a tough situation, their ears are really open for looking for good medicine, you know. And spirituality often is really heard and used like medicine when someone's hurting rather than just the latest thing to do, you know. And so then people start coming up with their own ways of expressing it, like you just did there, you know—
Oprah: Um hm.
Pema: —"What is this situation trying to teach me?" All the religions point to the fact that if you're fully present, it's the only place that you can wake up. You don't wake up, you know, by zoning out or somehow leaving. You wake up in the present moment. And so you have to find your own simple grounded language about how to say that to yourself. And that's a beautiful way to say it. "What is this moment?" Or, "What is this situation or this person got to teach me," you know? Another thing I love, which I've learned from someone over the years, was, you know, "This is a unique moment. This encounter, as unpleasant as I'm finding it, is unique. It's never going to happen again in exactly this way. And maybe I'm glad of that, but I don't want to waste this moment because it's never going to happen again, just like this. You know, this is—this is the only time I'm ever going to experience this. So let's taste it, smell it."
Oprah: Why do Buddhists always seem so peaceful?
Pema: I don't know that they're always so peaceful, you know. It's so funny, you know, like, does it seem to you that Buddhists are always so peaceful?
Oprah: Yes, it does. I've never met a Buddhist—well, all of my encounters, you know, I define myself as Christian, and I've met a lot of Christians who weren't so peaceful. But I've never met a Buddhist who, you know, introduced themselves to me as a Buddhist or I happened to know is Buddhist and they didn't, you know, weren't actively seeking peace.
Oprah: And I'm sure not all practicing Buddhists are as good as maybe some of the Buddhists that I know. But it seems that there's something very calming about the practice or—I don't know, do you call—is it—it's a religion, it's a philosophy, it's a way of life—
Pema: Yeah, you—when you did your introduction, you talked about it as philosophy and way of life. I think that's, you know, a very helpful way to think of it. And if there is a reason for the calmness, I think it has to do with because you're keeping your mind open, you're training and keeping your mind and heart open rather than closed. So it's like—in my own experience, my 71 years, you know, or I haven't been practicing for 71 years, but whatever amount of years it is that I've been practicing, when you train in actually being curious and open and receptive to whatever is occurring, obviously less and less things throw you for a loop and provoke you. And when they do, then you're just curious about that. You see what I'm saying?
Oprah: Yes. And what does it mean to be a Buddhist?
Pema: What does it mean to be a Buddhist?
Pema: Well, a lot of people might say different things about that, but in my opinion, the essence of it is trusting that the nature of your mind and heart is limitless, boundless, openness, free of prejudice, free of bias, and you could stay in that space and open your eyes and your ears and all your sense perceptions to what's happening without narrowing down into a prejudice or a bias or a view, a kind of solid view that says, no, no, it can't be like that, it has to be like this. So somehow that seems to lead to seeing the humanity of even the worst people and seeing—
Oprah: That's why Buddhists are always so calm.
Pema: Maybe so.
Pema: But on the other hand, how many Buddhist people who actually call themselves Buddhists really practice this, you know. You don't really have to be a Buddhist to practice this.
Pema: That's something I know for sure. Buddhism sort of gives a lot of time to this particular idea, you know. But definitely, if you look at all the really wise people throughout history, it seems to me this is what they've practiced is the unprejudiced, unbiased mind, the ability to stand in someone else's shoes. Or like Martin Luther King, talking about the beloved community and until we're all healed nobody is healed.
Pema: That's—and caring more about everybody being healed … than getting it to work out a certain way.
Oprah: Sounds like a beautiful way to live.