We’ve all got the potential to awaken and help others in meaningful ways, big and small. Pema Chödron shows us how we can let go of self-centered worries and become a bodhisattva-warrior. It’s the greatest happiness of all.
Compassion is threatening to the ego. We might think of it as something warm and soothing, but actually it’s very raw. When we set out to support other beings, when we go so far as to stand in their shoes, when we aspire to never close down to anyone, we quickly find ourselves in the uncomfortable territory of “life not on my terms.” The commitment traditionally known as the bodhisattva vow, or warrior vow, challenges us to dive into these noncozy waters and swim out beyond our comfort zone. We vow to move consciously into the pain of the world in order to help alleviate it. It is, in essence, a vow to take care of one another, even if it sometimes means not liking how that feels.
This commitment is connected deeply and unshakably with bodhichitta, traditionally defined as a longing to awaken so that we can help others do the same, a longing to go beyond the limits of conventional happiness, beyond enslavement to success and failure, praise and blame.
Bodhichitta is also a trust in our innate ability to go beyond bias, beyond prejudice and fixed opinions, and open our hearts to everyone: those we like, those we don’t like, those we don’t even notice, those we may never meet. Bodhichitta counteracts our tendency to stay stuck in very narrow thinking. It counteracts our resistance to change.
This degree of openness arises from the trust that we all have basic goodness and that we can interact with one another in ways that bring that out. Instead of reacting aggressively when we’re provoked, endlessly perpetuating the cycle of pain, we trust that we can engage with others from a place of curiosity and caring and in that way contact their innate decency and wisdom.
Someone sent me a poem that seems to capture the essence of the warrior commitment. Called “Birdfoot’s Grampa,” the poem is about a boy and his grandfather who are driving on a country road in a rainstorm. the grandfather keeps stopping the car and getting out to scoop up handfuls of toads that are all over the road and then deposit them safely at the roadside. After the 24th time he’s done this, the boy loses patience and tells his grandfather, “You can’t save them all / accept it, get back in / we’ve got places to go.” And the grandfather, knee deep in wet grass, his hands full of toads, just smiles at his grandson and says, “they have places to go to / too.”
What a clear illustration of how the commitment to care for all beings everywhere works. The grandfather didn’t mind stopping for the twenty-fourth time, didn’t mind getting wet to save the toads. He also didn’t mind the impatience of his grandson, because he was very clear in his mind that the frogs had as much desire to live as he did.
The aspiration of this commitment is huge. But whether we’re making it for the very first time or we’re renewing it for the umpteenth time, we start exactly where we are now. We’re either closer to the grandson or closer to the grandfather, but wherever we are, that’s where we start.
It’s said that when we make this commitment, it sows a seed deep in our unconscious, deep in our mind and heart, that never goes away. This seed is a catalyst that jump-starts our inherent capacity for love and compassion, for empathy, for seeing the sameness of us all. So we make the commitment, we sow the seed, then do our best never to harden our heart or close our mind to anyone.
It’s not easy to keep this vow, of course. But every time we break it, what’s important is that we recognize that we’ve closed someone out, that we’ve distanced ourselves from someone, that we’ve turned someone into the other, the one on the opposite side of the fence. Often we’re so full of righteous indignation, so charged up, that we don’t even see that we’ve been triggered. but if we’re fortunate, we realize what’s happened—or it’s pointed out to us—and we acknowledge to ourselves what we’ve done. Then we simply renew our commitment to stay open to others, aspiring to start fresh.
Some people like to read or recite an inspiring verse as part of renewing their commitment. One we could use is the verse from Shantideva’s classic work, The Way of the Bodhisattva, that is traditionally repeated to reaffirm the intention to benefit others:
Just as the awakened ones of the past
Aroused an awakened mind
And progressively established themselves
In the practices of the bodhisattva,
So I too for the benefit of beings
Shall arouse an awakened mind
And progressively train myself in those practices.
We repeat these words or something similar to renew our commitment; then it’s a new moment and we go forward. We will stumble again and start again over and over, but as long as the seed is planted, we will always be moving in the direction of being more and more open to others, more and more compassionate and caring.
The commitment to take care of one another, the warrior commitment, is not about being perfect. It’s about continuing to put virtuous input into our unconscious, continuing to sow the seeds that predispose our heart to expand without limit, that predispose us to awaken. Every time we recognize that we’ve broken this commitment, rather than criticize ourselves, rather than sow seeds of self-judgment and self-denigration—or seeds of righteous indignation, rage, or whatever other frustrations we take out on other people—we can sow seeds of strength, seeds of confidence, seeds of love and compassion. We’re sowing seeds so that we will become more and more like that grandfather and the many other people we know—or have heard about—who seem to be happy to put their life on the line for the sake of others.
When you do feel bad about yourself for your rigid and unforgiving heart, you can take consolation from Shantideva. He says that when he took the vow to save all sentient beings, it was “clear insanity,” because even though he was unaware of it at the time, he was “subject to the same afflictions” as others—he was as confused as anyone else.
Our confusion is the confusion that everyone feels. So when you think that you’ve blown it in every possible way, that you’ve broken the commitment irredeemably, Shantideva suggests that instead of becoming mired in guilt, you view it as an incentive to spend the rest of your life recognizing your habitual tendencies and doing your best not to strengthen them.
Making the warrior commitment is like being on a sinking ship and vowing to help all the other passengers get off the boat before we do. A few years ago, I saw a perfect example of this when a US Airways plane went down in the Hudson River in New York City. Shortly after the plane took off from LaGuardia airport, birds knocked out the engines, and the pilot had no choice but to land the plane in the river. The landing was so skillful that all 155 people aboard the aircraft survived. I can still picture them standing on the wings until they were rescued by a flotilla of small boats that rushed to the scene. The story is that the pilot stayed on the plane until everyone was safely out, then searched it again twice to make sure that no one was left behind. That’s the kind of role model who embodies the warrior commitment.
On the other hand, I’ve also heard stories from people who were in similar situations but fled for safety without giving a thought to anyone else. They always talk about how bad that makes them feel in retrospect. One woman told me about being in a plane crash many years ago. The passengers were ordered to evacuate right away because the plane would probably blow up. The woman raced for the exit, not stopping to help anyone, not even an old man struggling to undo his seatbelt and unable to get free. Afterward, it weighed pretty heavily on her that she hadn’t stopped to help him, and it has inspired her to reach out to others as much as she can, whenever she has the chance.
Shantideva says that the only way to break this vow completely is to give up altogether on wanting to help others, not caring if we’re harming them because we only want to make sure that number one is safe and secure. We run into trouble only when we close down and couldn’t care less—when we’re too cynical or depressed or full of doubt even to bother.
At the heart of making this commitment is training in not fearing fundamental edginess, fundamental uneasiness, when it arises in us. Our challenge is to train in smiling at groundlessness, smiling at fear. I’ve had years of training in this because I get panic attacks. As anyone who has experienced a panic attack knows, that feeling of terror can arise out of nowhere. For me it often comes in the middle of the night, when I’m especially vulnerable. But over the years I’ve trained myself to relax into that heart-stopping, mind-stopping feeling. My first reaction is always to gasp with fright. But my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, used to gasp like that when he was describing how to recognize awakened mind. So now, whenever a panic attack comes and I gasp, I picture Chögyam Trungpa’s face and think of him gasping as he talked about awakened mind. then the energy of panic passes through me.
If you resist that kind of panicky energy, even at an involuntary, unconscious level, the fear can last a long time. The way to work with it is to drop the story line and not pull back or buy into the idea, “this isn’t okay,” but instead to smile at the panic, smile at this dreadful, bottomless, gaping hole that’s opening up in the pit of your stomach. When you can smile at fear, there’s a shift: what you usually try to escape from becomes a vehicle for awakening you to your fundamental, primordial goodness, for awakening you to clear-mindedness, to a caring that holds nothing back.
The image of the warrior is of a person who can go into the worst of hells and not waver from the direct experience of cruelty and unimaginable pain. So that’s our path: even in the most difficult situations, we do our best to smile at fear, to smile at our righteous indignation, our cowardliness, our avoidance of vulnerability.
Traditionally, there are three ways of entering the warrior path, three approaches to making the commitment to benefit others. The first is called entering like a monarch—like a king or a queen. This means getting our own kingdom together, then on the basis of that strength, taking care of our subjects. the analogy is, I work on myself and get my own life together so that I can benefit others. To the degree that I’m not triggered anymore, I can stay present and not close my mind and heart. Our motivation is to be there for other people more and more as the years go by.
Parents get good training in this. Most mothers and fathers aspire to give their children a good life—one free of aggression or meanness. But then there’s the reality of how infuriating children can be. There’s the reality of losing your temper and yelling, the reality of being irritable, unreasonable, immature. When we see the discrepancy between our good intentions and our actions, it motivates us to work with our minds, to work with our habitual reactions and our impatience. It motivates us to get better at knowing our triggers and refraining from acting out or repressing. We gladly work on ourselves in order to be more skillful and loving parents.
People in the caring professions also get plenty of training in entering like a monarch. Maybe you want to work with homeless teenagers because you were once one yourself. Your desire is to make a difference in even one person’s life, so they can feel that someone is there for them. Then before long, you find yourself so activated by the behavior of young people that you totally lose it and can’t be there for them anymore. At that point, you turn to meditation or to the first commitment to support you in being present and open to whatever presents itself, including feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, or shame.
The next way to approach the warrior commitment is with the attitude of the ferryman. We cross the river in the company of all sentient beings—we open to our true nature together. Here the analogy is, my pain will become the stepping-stone for understanding the pain of others. Rather than our own suffering making us more self-absorbed, it becomes the means by which we genuinely open to others’ suffering.
A number of cancer survivors have told me that this attitude is what gave them the strength to go through the physical and psychological misery of chemotherapy. They couldn’t eat or drink because everything hurt too much. They had sores in their mouths. They were dehydrated. They had tremendous nausea. Then they received instruction in tonglen. Their world got bigger and bigger as they opened to all the other people who were experiencing the same physical pain they were, as well as the loneliness, anger, and other emotional distress that goes along with it. Their pain became a stepping-stone to understanding the distress of others in the same boat.
I remember one woman telling me, “It couldn’t have gotten any worse, so I had no problem breathing in and saying, ‘Since the pain is here anyway, may I take it in fully and completely with the wish that nobody else will have to feel like this.’ And I had no problem sending out relief.” It’s not as if your nausea goes away, she said. It’s not as if you can suddenly eat and drink. But the practice gives meaning to your suffering. Your attitude shifts. The feeling of resistance to the pain, the feeling of utter helplessness, and the feeling of hopelessness disappear.
There’s no way to make a dreadful situation pretty. But we can use the pain of it to recognize our sameness with other people. Shantideva said that since all sentient beings suffer from strong, conflicting emotions, and all sentient beings get what they don’t want and can’t hold on to what they do want, and all sentient beings have physical distress, why am I making such a big deal about just me? Since we’re all in this together, why am I making such a big deal about myself? The attitude of the ferryman is that whatever usually drags us down and causes us to withdraw into ourselves is the stepping-stone for awakening our compassion and for contacting the vast, unbiased mind of the warrior.
The third attitude is that of the shepherd and shepherdess, whose flock always comes first. this is the grandfather with the frogs or the pilot of the sinking plane. it’s the story of firemen entering a burning building or a mother risking her life to save her child. the shepherd and shepherdess automatically put others before themselves.
Almost everyone assumes that putting others first is how we’re always supposed to approach the warrior commitment. And if we do anything less, we criticize ourselves. But one way of entry isn’t better than another. It could be said that we evolve toward the attitude of the shepherd and shepherdess, but it’s a natural evolution. The other two approaches are no less valid. The importance of this teaching is to point out that all three approaches are admirable, beautiful, to-be-applauded ways of making the warrior commitment.
In fact, most of us use all three approaches. There are probably many examples in your life of working on yourself with the aspiration to be present and useful to other people. and there are times when your sorrow has connected you with the sorrow of others, when your grief or physical pain has been a catalyst for appreciating what another person is going through. There are also times when you spontaneously put others first.
Coldheartedness and narrow-mindedness are not the kinds of habits we want to reinforce. They won’t predispose us to awakening; in fact, they will keep us stuck. So we make the warrior commitment—take the vow to care for one another—then do our best to never turn our backs on anyone. And when we falter, we renew our commitment and move on, knowing that even the awakened ones of the past understood what it felt like to relapse. Otherwise, how could they have any idea about what other beings go through? Otherwise, how could they have cultivated patience and forgiveness, loving-kindness, and compassion?
From “Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change” by Pema Chödrön, © 2012. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.