Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön and novelist Alice Walker on how tonglen meditation practice opens our heart, expands our vision, and plants the seeds of love in our lives. From an evening of discussion at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theater.
Alice Walker: About four years ago I was having a very difficult time. I had lost someone I loved deeply and nothing seemed to help. Then a friend sent me a tape set by Pema Chödrön called “Awakening Compassion.” I stayed in the country and I listened to you, Pema, every night for the next year. I studied lojong mind training and I practiced tonglen. It was tonglen, the practice of taking in people’s pain and sending out whatever you have that is positive, that helped me through this difficult passage. I want to thank you so much, and to ask you a question. In my experience suffering is perennial; there is always suffering. But does suffering really have a use? I used to think there was no use to it, but now I think that there is.
Pema Chödrön: Is there any use in suffering? I think the reason I am so taken by these teachings is that they are based on using suffering as good medicine, like the Buddhist metaphor of using poison as medicine. It’s as if there’s a moment of suffering that occurs over and over and over again in every human life. What usually happens in that moment is that it hardens us; it hardens the heart because we don’t want any more pain. But the lojong teachings say we can take that very moment and flip it. The very thing that causes us to harden and our suffering to intensify can soften us and make us more decent and kinder people.
That takes a lot of courage. This is a teaching for people who are willing to cultivate their courage. What’s wonderful about it is that you have plenty of material to work with. If you’re waiting for only the high points to work with, you might give up, but there’s an endless succession of suffering.
One of the main teachings of the Buddha was the truth of dukha, which is usually translated as “suffering.” But a better translation might be “dissatisfaction.” Dissatisfaction is inherent in being human; it’s not some mistake that you or I have made as individuals. Therefore, if we can learn to catch that moment, to relax with it, dissatisfaction doesn’t need to keep escalating. In fact it becomes the seed of compassion, the seed of loving kindness.
Alice Walker: I was surprised how the heart literally responds to this practice. You can feel it responding physically. As you breathe in what is difficult to bear, there is initial resistance, which is the fear, the constriction. That’s the time when you really have to be brave. But if you keep going and doing the practice, the heart actually relaxes. That is quite amazing to feel.
Pema Chödrön: When we start out on a spiritual path we often have ideals we think we’re supposed to live up to. We feel we’re supposed to be better than we are in some way. But with this practice you take yourself completely as you are. Then ironically, taking in pain—breathing it in for yourself and all others in the same boat as you are—heightens your awareness of exactly where you’re stuck. Instead of feeling you need some magic makeover so you can suddenly become some great person, there’s much more emotional honesty about where you’re stuck.
Alice Walker: Exactly. You see that the work is right ahead of you all the time.
Pema Chödrön: There is a kind of unstuckness that starts to happen. You develop lovingkindness and compassion for this self that is stuck, which is called maitri. And since you have a sense of all the other sentient beings stuck just like you, it also awakens compassion.
Alice Walker: I remember the day I really got it that we’re not connected as human beings because of our perfection, but because of our flaws. That was such a relief.
Pema Chödrön: Rumi wrote a poem called “Night Travelers,” It’s about how all the darkness of human beings is a shared thing from the beginning of time, and how understanding that opens up your heart and opens up your world. You begin to think bigger. Rather than depressing you, it makes you feel part of the whole.
Alice Walker: I like what you say about understanding that the darkness represents our wealth, because that’s true, There’s so much fixation on the light, as if the darkness can be dispensed with, but of course it cannot. After all, there is night, there is earth; so this is a wonderful acknowledgment of richness.
I think the Jamaicans are right when they call each other “fellow sufferer,” because that’s how it feels. We aren’t angels, we aren’t saints, we’re all down here doing the best we can. We’re trying to be good people, but we do get really mad. You talk in your tapes about when you discovered that your former husband was seeing someone else, and you threw a rock at him. This was very helpful (laughter). It was really good to have a humorous, earthy, real person as a teacher. This was great.
Pema Chödrön: When that marriage broke up, I don’t know why it devastated me so much but it was really a kind of annihilation. It was the beginning of my spiritual path, definitely, because I was looking for answers. I was in the lowest point in my life and I read this article by Trungpa Rinpoche called “Working With Negativity.” I was scared by my anger and looking for answers to it. I kept having all these fantasies of destroying my ex-husband and they were hard to shake. There was an enormous feeling of groundlessness and fear that came from not being able to entertain myself out of the pain. The usual exits, the usual ways of distracting myself—nothing was working.
Alice Walker: Nothing worked.
Pema Chödrön: And Trungpa Rinpoche basically said that there’s nothing wrong with negativity per se. He said there’s a lot you can learn from it, that it’s a very strong creative energy. He said the real problem is what he called negative negativity, which is when you don’t just stay with negativity but spin off into all the endless cycle of things you can say to yourself about it.
Alice Walker: What gets us is the spinoff. If you could just sit with the basic feeling then you could free yourself, but it’s almost impossible if you’re caught up in one mental drama after another. That’s what happens.
Pema Chödrön: This is an essential understanding of vajrayana, or tantric, Buddhism. In vajrayana Buddhism they talk about how what we call negative energies—such as anger, lust, envy, jealousy, these powerful energies—are all actually wisdoms in disguise. But to experience that you have to not spin off; you have to be able to relax with the energy.
So tonglen, which is considered more of a mahayana practice, was my entry into being able to sit with that kind of energy. And it gave me a way to include all the other people, to recognize that so many people were in the same boat as I was.
Alice Walker: You do recognize that everybody is in that boat sooner or later, in one form or other. It’s good to feel that you’re not alone.
Pema Chödrön: I want to ask you about joy. It’s all very well to talk about poison as medicine and breathing in the suffering and sending out relief and so forth, but did you find any joy coming out of this?
Alice Walker: Oh Yes!. Even just not being so miserable.
Part of the joyousness was knowing we have help. It was great to know that this wisdom is so old. That means people have had this pain for a long time, they’ve been dealing with it, and they had the foresight to leave these practices for us to use. I’m always supported by spirits and ancestors and people in my tribe, whoever they’ve been and however long ago they lived. So it was like having another tribe of people, of ancestors, come to the rescue with this wisdom that came through you and your way of teaching.
Pema Chödrön: I think the times are ripe for this kind of teaching.
Alice Walker: Oh, I think it’s just the right medicine for today. You know, the other really joyous thing is that I feel more open, I feel more openness toward people in my world.
It’s what you have said about feeling more at home in your world. I think this is the result of going the distance in your own heart—really being disciplined about opening your heart as much as you can. The thing I find, Pema, is that it closes up again. You know?
Pema Chödrön: Oh no! (laughter) One year of listening to me and your heart still closes up?
Alice Walker: Yeah. It’s like what you have said about how the ego is like a closed room and our whole life’s work is to open the door. You may open the door and then discover that you’re not up to keeping it open for long. The work is to keep opening it. You have an epiphany, you understand something, you feel slightly enlightened about something, but then you lose it. That’s the reality. So it’s not a bad thing.
Pema Chödrön: No
Alice Walker: But it’s frustrating at times, because you think to yourself, I’ve worked on this, why is it still snagging in the same spot?
Pema Chödrön: That’s how life keeps us honest. The inspiration that comes from feeling the openness seems so important, but on the other hand, I’m sure it would eventually turn into some kind of spiritual pride or arrogance. So life has this miraculous ability to smack you in the face with a real humdinger just when you’re going over the edge in terms of thinking you’ve accomplished something. That humbles you; it’s some kind of natural balancing that keeps you human. At the same time the sense of joy does get stronger and stronger.
Alice Walker: Because otherwise you feel you’re just going to be smacked endlessly, and what’s the point? (laughter)
Pema Chödrön: It’s about relaxing with the moment, whether it’s painful or pleasurable. I teach about that a lot because that’s personally how I experience it. The openness brings the smile on my face, the sense of gladness just to be here. And when it gets painful, it’s not like there’s been some big mistake or something. It just comes and goes.
Alice Walker: That brings me to something else I’ve discovered in my practice, because I’ve been doing meditation for many years—not tonglen, but TM and metta practice. There are times when I meditate, really meditate, very on the dot, for a year or so, and then I’ll stop. So what happens? Does that ever happen to you?
Pema Chödrön: Yes. (laughter)
Alice Walker: Good!
Pema Chödrön: And I just don’t worry about it.
Alice Walker: Good! (laughter)
Pema Chödrön: One of the things I’ve discovered as the years go on is that there can’t be any “shoulds.” Even meditation practice can become something you feel you should do, and then it becomes another thing you worry about.
So I just let it ebb and flow, because I feel it’s always with you in some way, whether you’re formally practicing or not. My hunger for meditation ebbs but the hunger always comes back, and not necessarily because things are going badly. It’s like a natural opening and closing, or a natural relaxation and then getting involved in something else, going back and forth.
Alice Walker: I was surprised to discover how easy it was for me to begin meditating many years ago. What I liked was how familiar that state was. The place that I most love is when I disappear. You know, there’s a point where you just disappear. That is so wonderful, because I’m sure that’s how it will be after we die, that you’re just not here, but it’s fine.
Pema Chödrön: What do you mean exactly, you disappear?
Alice Walker: Well, you reach that point where it’s just like space, and you don’t feel yourself. You’re not thinking about what you’re going to cook, and you’re not thinking about what you’re going to wear, and you’re not really aware of your body. I like that because as a writer I spend a lot of time in spaces that I’ve created myself and it’s a relief to have another place that is basically empty.
Pema Chödrön: I don’t think I have the same experience. It’s more like being here—fully and completely here. It’s true that mediation practice is liberating and timeless and that, definitely, there is no caught-up-ness. But is is also profoundly simple and immediate. In contrast, everything else feels like fantasy, like it is completely made up by mind.
Alice Walker: Well, I feel like I live a lot of my life in a different realm anyway, especially when I’m out in nature. So meditation takes me to that place when I’m not in nature. It is a place of really feeling the oneness, that you’re not kept from it by the fact that you’re wearing a suit. You’re just in it; that’s one of the really good things about meditation for me.
Judy Lief: I assume, Alice, that as an activist your job is to take on situations of extreme suffering and try to alleviate them to some degree. How has this practice affected your approach to activism?
Alice Walker: Well, my activism really is for myself, because I see places in the world where I really feel I should be. If there is something really bad, really evil, happening somewhere, then that is where I should be. I need, for myself, to feel that I have stood there. It feels a lot better than just watching it on television.
Judy Lief: This is where you bring together your private practice and your public action.
Alice Walker: Yes. Before I was sort of feeling my way. I went to places like Mississippi and stood with the people and realized the suffering they were experiencing. I shared the danger they put themselves in by demanding their rights, I felt this incredible opening, a feeling of finally being at home in my world, which was what I needed. I needed to feel I could be at home there, and the only way was to actually go and connect with the people.
Pema Chödrön: And the other extreme is when our primary motivation is avoidance of pain. Then the world becomes scarier and scarier.
Alice Walker: Exactly.
Pema Chödrön: That’s the really sad thing—the world becomes more and more frightening, and you don’t want to go out your door. Sure there’s a lot of danger out there, but the tonglen approach makes you more open to the fear it evokes in you, and your world gets bigger.
Judy Lief: When you are practicing tonglen, taking on pain of others, what causes that to flip into something positive, as opposed to being stuck in a negative space or seeing yourself as a martyr?
Alice Walker: I think it’s knowing that you’re not the only one suffering. That’s just what happens on earth. There may be other places in the galaxy where people don’t suffer, where beings are just fine, where they never get parking tickets even. But what seems to be happening here is just really heavy duty suffering.
I remember years ago, when I was asking myself what was the use of all this suffering. I was reading the Gnostic Gospels, in which Jesus says something that really struck me. He says basically, learn how to suffer and you will not suffer. That dovetails with this teaching, which is a kind of an acceptance that suffering is the human condition.
Pema Chödrön: It is true people fear tonglen practice. Particularly if people have a lot of depression, they fear it is going to be tough to relate with the suffering so directly.
I have found that it’s less overwhelming if you start with your own experience of suffering and then generalize to all the other people who are feeling what you do. That gives you a way to work with your pain: instead of feeling like you’re increasing your suffering, you’re making it meaningful. If you’re taught that you should do tonglen only for other people, that’s too big a leap for most people. But if you start with yourself as the reference point and extend out from that, you find that your compassion becomes much more spontaneous and real. You have less fear of the suffering you perceive in the world—yours and other peoples’. It’s a lot about overcoming the fear of suffering.
My experience of working with this practice is that it has brought me a moment by moment sense of wellbeing. That’s encouraging to people who are afraid to start the practice—to know that relating directly with your suffering is a doorway to wellbeing for yourself and others, rather than some kind of masochism.
Alice Walker: I would say that is also true for me in going to stand where I feel I need to stand. I feel I get to that same place.
I also appreciate the teaching on driving all blame into yourself. We need a teaching on how fruitless it is to always blame the other person. In my life I can see places where I have not wanted to take my part of the blame. That’s a losing proposition. There’s no gain in it because you never learn very much about yourself. You don’t own all your parts. There are places in each of us that are quite scary, but you have to make friends with them. You have to really get to know them, to say, hello, there you are again. It’s very helpful to do that.
Pema Chödrön: One of the things the Buddha pointed out in his early teaching was that everybody wants happiness or freedom from pain, but the methods human beings habitually use are not in sync with the wish. The methods always end up escalating the pain. For example, someone yells at you and then you yell back and then they yell back and it gets worse and worse. You think the reason not to yell back is because, you know, good people don’t yell back. But the truth is that by not yelling back you’re just getting smart about what’s really going to bring you some happiness.
Judy Lief: The lojong slogan says “Drive all blames into one,” that is, yourself. But there are definitely situations where from the conventional viewpoint there are bad guys and good guys, oppressors and oppressed. How do you combine taking the blame yourself with combating oppression or evil that you encounter?
Alice Walker: Maybe it doesn’t work there. (laughter) Pema why don’t you take that one. (laughter)
Pema Chödrön: Well, here would be my question: does it help to have a sense of enemy in trying to end oppression?
Alice Walker: No.
Pema Chödrön: So maybe that’s it.
Alice Walker: I think it’s probably about seeing. As Bob Marley said so beautifully, the biggest bully you ever did see was once a tiny baby. That’s true. I mean, I’ve tried that on Ronald Reagan. I even tried that on Richard Nixon, but it didn’t really work that well.
But really, when you’re standing face to face with someone who just told you to go to the back of the bus, or someone who has said that women aren’t allowed here, or whatever, what do you do? I don’t know what you do, Pema, but at that moment I always see that they’re really miserable people and they need help. Now, of course, I think I would love to send them a copy of “Awakening Compassion.” (laughter)
Pema Chödrön: It’s seeing that the cause of someone’s aggression is their suffering. And you could also realize that your aggression is not going to help anything.
So you’re standing there, you are being provoked, you are feeling aggression, and what do you do? That’s when tonglen becomes very helpful. You breathe in and connect with your own aggression with a lot of honesty. You have such a strong recognition in that moment of all the oppressed people who are provoked and feeling like you do. If you just keep doing that, something different might come out of your mouth.
Alice Walker: And war will not be what comes out.
Judy Lief: It seems to me that Dr. Martin Luther King had the quality of a tonglen practitioner. Yet he didn’t ask us not to take stands.
Alice Walker: He was from a long line of Baptist preachers, someone who could really get to that place of centeredness through prayer and through love. I think the person who has a great capacity to love, which often flowers when you can see and feel the suffering of other people, can also strategize. I think he was a great strategist. I think he often got very angry and upset, but at the same time he knew what he was up against. Sometimes he was the only really lucid person in a situation, so he knew how much of the load he was carrying and how much depended on him.
As activists, it is really important to have some kind of practice, so that when we go out into the world to confront horrible situations we can do it knowing we’re in the right place ourselves. Knowing we’re not bringing more fuel to the fire, more anger, more despair. It’s difficult but that should not be a deterrent. The more difficult something seems, the more it’s possibile to give up hope. You approach the situation with the feeling of having already given up hope, but that doesn’t stop you. You said we should put that slogan about abandoning hope on our refrigerators.
Pema Chödrön: Give up all hope of fruition.
Alice Walker: Right. Just do it because you’re doing it and it feels like the right thing to do, but without feeling it’s necessarily going to change anything.
Pema Chödrön: Something that I heard Trungpa Rinpoche say has been a big help to me. He said to live your life as an experiment, so that you’re always experimenting. You could experiment with yelling back and see what that happens. You could experiment with tonglen and see how that works. You could see what actually allows some kind of communication to happen. You learn pretty fast what closes down communication, and that’s the strong sense of enemy. If the other person feels your hatred, then everyone closes down.
Alice Walker: I feel that fear is what closes people down more than anything, just being afraid. The times when I have really been afraid to go forward, with a relationship or a problem, is because there is fear. I think practice of being with your feelings, letting them come up and not trying to push them away, is incredibly helpful.
Question from the audience: Thank you both for being here and bringing so much pleasure to so many people tonight. I’m asking a question for a friend who couldn’t come tonight. She was at Pema’s three day seminar and she left on Saturday feeling badly because she had got in touch with her anger and couldn’t stay. Now she feels she’s a bad Buddhist, a bad practitioner. I’ve been trying to tell her it’s okay but I think she needs to hear your words.
Pema Chödrön: Well, tell her we’re used to using everything that we hear against ourselves, so it’s really common to just the dharma teachings and use them against yourself. But the fact is we don’t have to do that anymore. We don’t have to do that. It’s just like Alice saying that the heart opens and then it closes, so she has to realize that’s how it is forever and ever, She’ll get in touch and then she’ll lose touch and get in touch and lose touch. So she has to keep on going with herself and not give up on herself.
Question from the audience: This is really hard on her because you two are her favorite people in the entire world.
Alice Walker: And she didn’t come?
Question from the audience: She’s so broken-hearted.
Pema Chödrön: She didn’t come because she was so ashamed of herself for not being able to stay with it…that’s not true, is it?
Question from the audience: Yes, it is.
Pema Chödrön: Really. Wow. You should tell her that she’s just an ordinary human being. (laughter) What’s a little unusual about her is that she was willing to get in touch with it for even a little bit.
Question from the audience: My name is Margaret, and I have practiced Tibetan Buddhism for a number of years. About eighteen months ago, right around the time that for the first time in my life I fell in love with a woman, the Dalai Lama made a number of comments pointing out where the Tibetan tradition did not regard homosexuality as a positive thing, in fact an obstacle to spiritual growth. It reached the point that I left the sangha I was connected with and found a different part of the spiritual path that’s working for me now. I have gay and bisexual friends who are interested in Buddhism but some of them have been stopped by what the Dalai Lama had to say and by the lack of coherent answers from other people. I think it would be a big service if you could address that.
Pema Chödrön: Well, listen. I have so much respect for the Dalai Lama and I think that’s where people get stuck. I didn’t actually hear those comments, and I heard there were also favorable comments. But aside from all that, as Buddhism comes to the West, Western Buddhist teachers simply don’t buy that. It’s as if Asian teachers said that women were inferior or something. I mean, it’s absurd. That’s all there is to it. (applause) It’s just ridiculous.
Question from the audience: Let me ask you to say that often and loud.
Pema Chödrön: Sure! I go on record. And I’m not alone, it’s not something unique with me. Western teachers, coming from this culture, we see things pretty differently on certain issues and this is one, for sure.
But the Dalai Lama is a wonderful man, and I have a feeling that if he were sitting here he’d have something else to say on the subject.
Alice Walker: You know, when he was here at the peace conference he was confronted by gay men and lesbian women and he readily admitted that he really didn’t know. He didn’t seem rigid on it.
But also, when there is wisdom about, we should have it! Wisdom belongs to the people. We must never be kept from wisdom by anybody telling us you can’t have it because you’re this that or the other.
Question from the audience: I have a question about the connection between tonglen and joy, because I kind of understood the question of the moderator, anyway, Judy’s question when you breathe in so much suffering how do you avoid becoming so burdened or martyred by it, and what I’m understanding about tonglen is that there’s something kind of transformative about it, when you breathe in suffering and then you breathe out relief and healing. I keep thinking about that prayer of St. Francis of Assisi about being an instrument of peace, and where there is hatred, let me sow love, and where there is despair, let me sow hope. I’m wondering if joy has a place in the ability to make that transformation.
Alice Walker: I think the practice of tonglen is really revolutionary, because you’re taking in what you usually push away with everything you’ve got, and then you’re breathe out what you would rather keep. This is just amazing. I mean, it really shakes you up. I’m sure there are many people who can’t believe that you’re being asked to breathe in the dark, breathe in the heavy, breathe in the hard and the hot. They want to breathe in the white light. But the time has come for all of us to breathe in what is the most difficult, to own it, to get to know it, to feel it out. And then to really think about what the world needs, and to try to send that out. I think that’s the transformation.
Question from the audience: So it’s the courage to face the suffering and the darkness?
Alice Walker: To bring it into yourself. Think of all the people who don’t think that there is any darkness in them. There are millions of people who think they don’t have any darkness. But it’s something that we all have, and part of the problem is that we’ve been pushing all this stuff away and denying it, so of course it’s the biggest shadow you can imagine. That’s what’s clobbering us, everything we pushed away.
Pema Chödrön: My feeling is that it’s like taking off something that’s been covering your eyes and hindering your ability to see. It’s overcoming your fear of what’s painful, although actually you’re training in opening to both joy and suffering, You see if it’s just aimed at joy, then suffering always seems like then you blew it, like this poor woman who didn’t come tonight because she felt she wasn’t living up to the instructions. That’s very common. People want it all on the joy side or the success side or the victory side. Then when it’s just naturally is part of life just naturally flips, or the mood changes, or the energy changes, you feel that you’ve made some mistake or you’re a failure. So it has to include all of that.
One of the basic tonglen instructions, sort of like the tonglen outlook, is that when anything is delightful in your life, you wish that other people could have it. That heightens your awareness of even those fleeting moments of appreciate you usually don’t notice. You start catching the moments of delight and pleasure, just the smallest kinds of happiness and contentment.
The other part of the instruction is that when you feel suffering, you also think of all the other people who are suffering. It covers everything: you share what’s good and you also realize we’re in the same boat with the suffering. So it’s all bigger. Some kind of joy comes from that, strangely.
Judy Lief: Pema, how do you avoid the trap that has come up in these questions—wanting to be the perfect practitioner and feeling worse and worse because you can’t accomplish it?
Pema Chödrön: You could do tonglen with that feeling of failure and include all the other imperfect failure people. So there’s nothing that can happen to you that you can’t use. It takes a while to get the hang of that, but when you start to hear yourself saying “bad dog” or whatever, you stop right there and acknowledge what you’re feeling and the billions of other people feeling the same way. Somehow that shakes up our ways of getting stuck.
When I’m teaching, I’m so aware that most people are hearing with a filter of turning it against themselves. I try very hard, as do most Western teachers, to address that, but it still keeps happening. You just have to keep addressing it. You know, it takes practice. That’s why it’s called practice.
Alice Walker: It’s also important to accept and even embrace the fact of our imperfection. Our imperfection is probably our one perfection. Also I think it’s really good, when you have periods of happiness, to say , I am happy. I think that focuses you in the moment of being happy, and you really know that you’re happy. Otherwise, especially in this culture where you’re always being told to buy something or go somewhere or do something, you lose that moment of being happy because you’re projecting happiness as being somewhere or something else. So when you feel happiness, you just say it, even to yourself, maybe especially to yourself, but aloud, I think it helps to say it aloud, Just say, I’m happy.
Pema Chodron: I hadn’t thought of making it so simple, but that’s right, just say it. Then you could also say, could other people have this, too. Words are powerful in terms of brainwashing ourselves. (laughter)
Pema Chodron is director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.”
Alice Walker won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Color Purple.” She is the author of “By the Light of My Father’s Smile.”