Saturday, October 29, 2011

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times

Book  Review: When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times by Pema Chodron (Shambhala Classics 1997)

This book is eminently practical and insightful as are all books and talks by Pema Chodron that I have encountered. These are teachings to convince one to look honestly at oneself. This self-honesty can be an invaluable aid to one’s quest for psychological and spiritual transformation. She suggests that we become intimate with our disturbing emotions – particularly with fear. Our tendencies are to avoid and to seek escape. Although one doesn’t typically think of something like meditation requiring courage Pema Chodron explains that indeed it does require it.

“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”

We have to develop the courage to let go of expectations and ideals. We cling to many habits simply due to fear. Letting go is letting go of our reactions to fear. Fear can be an opportunity to live in the present moment.

When we are faced with new and changed situations sometimes we cannot fall back on old ways and habits and things tend to fall apart. We are forced to adapt to new conditions. We can’t run away so we are compelled to let go of the habit of running away.

In Chapter 3 – This Very Moment is the Perfect Teacher – she states that:

“But for practitioners or spiritual warriors – people who have a certain hunger to know what is true – feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back.”

In discussing meditation she notes that it is more about opening up and relaxing into a difficult situation. The technique of meditation confines one into specific behavior. Reaction to stimuli is minimized as observing stimuli and potential response is the preferred method.

“Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limit and to not get carried away by hope and fear.”

In the formal meditation technique one practices not indulging thoughts and emotions but also not repressing them. The struggle of constantly returning to the technique after being distracted by thoughts and emotions is the point. Pema describes the meditation technique of shamatha/vipasyana that she learned from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and how he taught and refined it over the years. She mentions the importance of developing a non-judgmental attitude and equates this attitude with the Sanskrit word maitri, loving-kindness, or unconditional friendliness.

“... meditation is about opening and relaxing with whatever arises, without picking and choosing.”

As a teacher, she describes hearing from people with problems, often of hopelessness and feelings of inadequacy. Here she says that developing maitri (for oneself) is essential.

Cultivating mindfulness in all aspects of our life helps us to notice what happens when we are challenged. When we can do this we can develop the ability to refrain.

“Mindfulness is the ground, refraining is the path.”

She describes the practice of refraining as an important dharmic path:

“It’s the quality of not grabbing for entertainment the minute we feel a slight edge of boredom coming on. It’s the practice of not immediately filling up space just because there’s a gap.”

She describes a practice she was given once to notice what she did physically when she felt uncomfortable. She mentions such things as pulling on her ear, scratching nose or head when there was no itch, or straightening her collar. These various fidgety actions are what we do to try to avoid the groundlessness, the uncertainty of being.

She describes hopelessness, or giving up hope, as an essential beginning. Hope is often intertwined with preconceived notions. It narrows our mind so that we have a distorted perspective. Traditionally giving up things is the practice of renunciation. This renunciation opens up possibilities. Giving up hope, desire, and all the things we habitually cling to, is really giving up our grasping at self, or at our misconception of self.
She also describes that clinging to hope is often a feature of theism where supplicating an external deity is akin to hope and conviction in an external authority and that:

“Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.”

She suggests that we are addicted to hope and that theism is also very often an addiction. So when renouncing things that are addictive, like sex and alcohol, as in monastic rules, what is really being renounced is the hope that we place in them for solving our immediate problems. If our spiritual practice is constantly infused with hope we are not being mindful for we are distracted by grasping at potential future conditions. Abandoning hope is akin to letting go of an addiction.

She discusses what are called the – Eight Worldly Dharmas – pleasure and pain, loss and gain, infamy and fame, and praise and blame. So there are four we typical like and four we typically don’t like. These are sources for our attachment and aversion. Again it is suggested that one observe and become familiar with these situations in our own life so that we can understand how we get caught up in them and so that we can eventually transcend beyond their influence. How we feel often is a result of how we interpret things that happen. Our states of mind are often subject to emotional triggers. So in a very real sense we very often create these eight illusory dharmas ourselves. We often perceive blame (or praise) when none is given and the same goes for the others. If we observe mindfully we can come to know how our own confusion works.

“Knowing our own confusion, we’re more willing and able to get our hands dirty and try to alleviate the confusion of others.”

She describes the –Six Kinds of Loneliness (or healthy adaptations to loneliness) – 1) less desire – refers to loneliness without resolution where we don’t react to it in order to eliminate it; 2) contentment – refers to cultivating contentment with loneliness rather than trying to escape it; 3) avoiding unnecessary activities – refers to avoiding escapism into habits that we use to flee loneliness; 4) complete discipline – refers to cultivating the technique of mindful presence regardless of our loneliness; 5) not wandering in the world of desire – refers to not scanning around for ways to escape loneliness, or not looking for antidotes, recognizing that loneliness is not a disease that requires antidotes; 6) not seeking security from one’s discursive thoughts – refers to not seeking refuge in the mental chatter of our own thoughts.

Next she examines the traditional Buddhist teaching about – the Three Marks of Existence - these are impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. She suggests that these conditions are not catastrophic but that our fundamental situation toward them can be joyful if we keep them in mind and respect them as a part of nature.

“Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality. Many cultures celebrate this connectedness. There are ceremonies marking all the transitions of life from birth to death, as well as meetings and partings,....”

Regarding suffering she notes the inseparability of pleasure and pain and that the end of one thing is the beginning of another. She also notes the inseparability and complementary natures of inspiration and wretchedness.

She equates egolessness with our ‘basic goodness’ and our ‘Buddha Nature’ (potential for awakening). Egolessness is unconditional. Ego covers up this basic state with conditions and schemes. As for how to celebrate these three marks in our lives she suggests that we do so by recognizing situations as manifestations impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. We should first recognize these manifestations without judgment so as to be able to better accept them and further notice our reactions to them and better be able to dissolve our delusions.

She discusses the Buddhist teaching about the Four Maras – or four demons encountered by the Buddha before his enlightenment. These are the main obstacles to being free of delusion. They are how we become ensnared in our habitual confusion. The first is the devaputra mara  - the child of the gods – this is the demon of always seeking pleasure. This is the source of our addictions as we seek pleasure to avoid pain. Second is the skandha mara – the demon of the ego self-perpetuated – this refers to recreating our familiar self as something to fall back on when we are faced with deep change. I have heard it said that this was the source of all the maras – the fixation on the self. Next is the klesha mara – demon of the afflicting emotions – this is the tendency of letting our emotions get out of hand whether desire, greed, fear, anger, pride, or jealousy. When we are motivated by such forces we fail to connect with our basic wisdom mind. The last of the Maras is yama mara – Yama is the demon of death – she notes that she considers all the maras to arise from this one – and certainly all fears arise from the fear of death. She describes this demon in terms of the fallacy of seeking a perfect life:

“Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later, we’re going to have an experience we can’t control.”

Basically, the advice for dealing with these demons is that we should keep an overall non-aggressive approach to them.

She mentions clarity, honesty, and kindness as keys to spiritual growth and that they work together. Other useful qualities are courage and confidence. These are particularly helpful to developing discipline. Working with others is how we bring up our own confusion. These conflicts with others show us what we need to work on.

The importance and challenges of practicing compassionate action are emphasized. Such action requires relating with others. Difficulties and unresolved issues arise when we relate with others. Most of us prefer to be compassionate on our own terms but often this is not possible and we must overcome obstacles through struggle and effort. She suggests abandoning the absolutes of right and wrong and fixed attitudes in general so that we can better relate to whatever situation appears.

In discussing Bodhicitta – the noble awakened heart she describes it thus:

“We awaken this bodhicitta, this tenderness for life, when we can no longer shield ourselves from the vulnerability of our condition, from the basic fragility of existence. In the words of the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, “You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion.”

She goes on to give the practice of tonglen – taking and receiving – which is designed to awaken bodhicitta. Here one uses the breath and the imagination to breathe in the suffering of all beings with the wish that they be free of it and to breathe out joy to them with the wish that they experience it. This is compassion training for oneself and serves to support the habit of thinking of others and holding the wish for all to be free of suffering. There are many ways one can do this and many situations where it can be applicable. Bodhicitta is always available. She gives some detailed instructions and for practicing tonglen as a formal practice but notes that it can be done in brief and on the spot at any time.

“Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness.”

The six transcendent actions – generosity, patience, discipline, perseverance, meditation, and discriminating wisdom (or prajna) are all based on and dependent on prajna. Prajna refers to a way of seeing which is not based on conceptions and fixed attitudes. These six perfections are not rules or moral teachings but methods of unveiling that transcendent wisdom on which they are based. Generosity is simply learning how to give, without conditions. Discipline is simply following a routine in order to reduce distraction so that one can better connect to the present and develop that discipline as a baseline habit. “Not too tight and not too loose” is a good rule for discipline. Patience is the antidote to anger and irritation. Being quiet, listening, and tonglen are given is good ways to practice patience as is the more dangerous yet more potentially powerful way of subjecting oneself to potential conflicting situations with others. Our ability to practice perseverance (aka diligence, exertion) is often variable and often we rely on inspiration, or what she calls “connect(ing) with energetic joy.” Another way of expressing it is that we develop the ability to stick with long-term goals over short-term goals. When we meditate we connect (however much we are able) with the unconditional state of mind without grasping and rejecting. We practice remaining open yet we also focus on a technique.
The focus is perhaps a temporary way to anchor us to one point rather than following everything around with our senses followed by thought as we typically do. Prajna is non-conceptual wisdom. It is akin to groundlessness. These six trainings are the trainings of bodhisattvas.

Next is given a practice to simply notice our opinions when they come up. We can notice how certain things affect us and how we form opinions about them – perhaps even see those opinions forming. She notes that we should hold onto our opinions with non-aggression, so not too tightly. Aggressive opinions are at the root of many human problems. We can also mistake truth for opinion and need to examine closely to distinguish.

When we have a load on our system (usually emotionally triggered) it is hard to stick to our lofty aspirations. She calls this feeling ‘squeezed.’ These are the most important times for self-honesty comes to the forefront. The groundlessness of transcendent wisdom is just as available in these situations but typically harder to find as we seem to be overwhelmed. Presence of mind and ‘nowness’ is always available though we tend to forget when pressured by circumstances.

Next she gives three methods for working with chaos. Here she talks about working with our sense of burden:

“We practice to liberate ourselves from a burden – the burden of a narrow perspective caused by craving, aggression, ignorance, and fear. We’re burdened by the people with whom we live, by ongoing daily situations, and most of all by our own personalities.”

The first method of working with chaos is – no more struggle – here rather than struggling with our situations we take the time to observe without judgment and reaction. This is simply using the meditation technique. The second method is – using poison as medicine – here one does not immediately attempt to rid oneself of difficulty but to note it and utilize it. Tonglen comes to mind here. One might have anger or despair and aspire that their anger or despair takes the place of the anger or despair of others, noting that many others are faced with similar difficulties and a big part of the problem is simply selfishness. If one can consider the difficulties of others then our own difficulty diminishes and we can turn difficulty into a healing practice. The key notion that Pema Chodron and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche often emphasize here is that every situation we find ourselves in, no matter how bad or hopeless, is still workable. The third method is to – regard whatever arises as the manifestation of awakened energy – this is basically the Tantric method. The traditional image of this idea in India and Tibet is the charnel ground – where stinking dead bodies were strewn about. This is an acknowledgment of the illusory division of pure and impure. The wisdom mind, or awakened energy, makes no such distinctions, otherwise how could it be available in every situation and in every moment?

She refers to the Vajrayana samaya bond (samaya means commitment) as a commitment to sanity. She calls it a “trick of choicelessness” in that we are already bound to reality even though we make a commitment or oath in tantric practice to keep this bond with teacher and practice. She refers to our sense of choice as ego in that we think we are choosing different relationships to reality when really we are always bound to it in the same way though we have yet to discover that.

“Samaya is like a marriage with reality, a marriage with the phenomenal world.”

“In the case of samaya, when we talk about commitment, its total commitment: total commitment to sanity, total commitment to our experience, an unconditional relationship to reality.”

She mentions that dharma practice alone is insufficient for some people and that therapy is also a possibility. Both have a similar goal of reversing neurosis. Both involve changing habits, particularly mental habits. She calls it reversing the wheel of samsara. This involves first stopping then reversing habitual momentum which as we all know is no easy task and one that is good to have help in the form of teachers, friends, therapists, whoever.

“Every act counts, Every thought and emotion counts too. This is all the path we have.”

Finally, there is the reminder that the path is the goal. This she finds cheerful in the sense that whatever situations arise immediately become our path, our challenge. This means that our access to wisdom is always determined by what is happening to us at any time.

This is another very practical book with much to contemplate and consider. In many ways dharma is more of a spiritual psychology than anything else, as dogma is usually kept to a minimum – or has more of a subsidiary function.

Read this book!


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