Learning to Stay
by Pema Chödrön – Part Two
When we learn to meditate, we are instructed to sit in a certain position on a cushion or chair. We’re instructed to just be in the present moment, aware of our breath as it goes out. We’re instructed that when our mind has wandered off, without any harshness or judgmental quality, we should acknowledge that as "thinking" and return to the outbreath. We train in coming back to this moment of being here. In the process of doing this, our fogginess, our bewilderment, our ignorance begin to transform into clear seeing. "Thinking" becomes a code word for seeing "just what is"—both our clarity and our confusion. We are not trying to get rid of thoughts. Rather we are clearly seeing our defense mechanisms, our negative beliefs about ourselves, our desires and our expectations. We also see our kindness, our bravery, our wisdom.
Through the process of practicing the mindfulness-awareness technique on a regular basis, we can no longer hide from ourselves. We clearly see the barriers we set up to shield us from naked experience. Although we still associate the walls we’ve erected with safety and comfort, we also begin to feel them as a restriction. This claustrophobic situation is important for a warrior. It marks the beginning of longing for an alternative to our small, familiar world. We begin to look for ventilation. We want to dissolve the barriers between ourselves and others.
Experiencing our emotional distress. Many people, including long-time practitioners, use meditation as a means of escaping difficult emotions. It is possible to misuse the label "thinking" as a way of pushing negativity away. No matter how many times we’ve been instructed to stay open to whatever arises, we still can use meditation as repression. Transformation occurs only when we remember, breath by breath, year after year, to move toward our emotional distress without condemning or justifying our experience.
Trungpa Rinpoche describes emotion as a combination of self-existing energy and thoughts. Emotion can’t proliferate without our internal conversations. If we’re angry when we sit to meditate, we are instructed to label the thoughts "thinking" and let them go. Yet below the thoughts something remains—a vital, pulsating energy. There is nothing wrong, nothing harmful about that underlying energy. Our practice is to stay with it, to experience it, to leave it as it is, without proliferating.
There are certain advanced techniques in which you intentionally churn up emotions by thinking of people or situations that make you angry or lustful or afraid. The practice is to let the thoughts go and connect directly with the energy, asking yourself, "Who am I without these thoughts?" What we do with mindfulness-awareness practice is simpler than that, but I consider it equally daring. When emotional distress arises uninvited, we let the story line go and abide with the energy of that moment. This is a felt experience, not a verbal commentary on what is happening. We can feel the energy in our bodies. If we can stay with it, neither acting it out nor repressing it, it wakes us up. People often say, "I fall asleep all the time in meditation. What shall I do?" There are lots of antidotes to drowsiness but my favorite is, "Get angry!"
Not abiding with our energy is a predictable human habit. Acting out and repressing are tactics we use to get away from our emotional pain. For instance most of us when we’re angry scream or act it out. We alternate expressions of rage with feeling ashamed of ourselves and wallowing in it. We become so stuck in repetitive behavior that we become experts at getting all worked up. In this way we continue to strengthen our conflicting emotions.
One night years ago I came upon my boyfriend passionately embracing another woman. We were in the house of a millionaire who had a priceless collection of pottery. I was furious and looking for something to throw. Everything I picked up I had to put back down because it was worth at least $10,000. I was completely enraged and I couldn’t find an outlet! There were no exits from experiencing my own energy. The absurdity of the situation totally cut through my rage. I went outside and looked at the sky and laughed until I cried.
In Vajrayana Buddhism it is said that wisdom is inherent in emotions. When we struggle against our own energy we are rejecting the source of wisdom. Anger without the fixation is none other than mirrorlike wisdom. Pride and envy without fixation is experienced as equanimity. The energy of passion when it’s free of grasping is discriminating awareness wisdom.
In bodhichitta training we also welcome the living energy of emotions. When our emotions intensify what we usually feel is fear. This fear is always lurking in our lives. In sitting meditation we practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotional distress.
Attention to the present moment. Another factor we cultivate in the transformative process of meditation is attention to this very moment. We make the choice, moment by moment, to be fully here. Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward other, and toward the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love.
Coming back to the present moment takes some effort but the effort is very light. The instruction is to "touch and go." We touch thoughts by acknowledging them as thinking and then we let them go. It’s a way of relaxing our struggle, like touching a bubble with a feather. It’s a nonaggressive approach to being here.
Sometimes we find that we like our thoughts so much that we don’t want to let them go. Watching our personal video is a lot more entertaining than bringing our mind back home. There’s no doubt that our fantasy world can be very juicy and seductive. So we train in using a "soft" effort, in interrupting our habitual patterns; we train in cultivating self-compassion.
We practice meditation to connect with maitri and unconditional openness. By not deliberately blocking anything, by directly touching our thoughts and then letting them go with an attitude of no big deal, we can discover that our fundamental energy is tender, wholesome, and fresh. We can start to train as a warrior, discovering for ourselves that it is bodhichitta, not confusion, that is basic.
Excerpted from The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, by Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Publications, Inc. 2001. Reprinted by permission.