On the occasion of Pema Chödrön’s birthday, Lion’s Roar‘s deputy editor Andrea Miller shares the important lessons Pema has taught her.
Have you ever walked down the street lost in thought, just present enough not to fall into a manhole but not enough to see anything a block ahead? When I did a retreat with Pema Chödrön, she looked around at the one thousand retreatants in the room and said she would guess that probably every single one of us had had that experience.
To further illustrate her point, Pema offered an anecdote from her own life. She said that when she goes for a walk, she usually doesn’t pay much attention to the birdlife. So, if someone asked her what birds she saw, she might say, “Well, I saw ravens — they were cawing. And I saw swallows — at least I think they were swallows.” But then, she told us, she’d recently gone walking with some “mega-birders” and saw thirty-five avian species! Her birder friends would say something like, “Look, there’s a Colorado bluebird.” Pema would look over and see nothing — at first. Then, suddenly, a creature would fly into view.
Pema teaches that if we just open ourselves up to the world — leave a gap in our storyline, take a pause from our thoughts — we can see more, hear more, taste and feel more. Of course, as she explained in a conversation with k.d. lang and Tami Simon, the reason why we stay cocooned in our head, the reason why we aren’t open, is because we’re trying to protect ourselves from pain.
“Once you open, you’re open to the whole thing — both the sorrow and the beauty,” she said. “This does require courage — to allow yourself to feel what you feel and be with yourself. But it connects you with humanity; you realize your interconnectedness with other people. It’s a whole different experience of being alive.”
I remember when I was expecting my first child. For months, everyone was constantly telling me what to expect: more pain in labor than I’d ever felt in my entire life, then sleep deprivation, hormonal upheaval, loss of freedom, and loss of self, but also unimaginably powerful love and limitless joy.
Some of what my doctors, friends, and family had to say was helpful, but more helpful were Pema’s teachings — her reminder not to get clogged up with expectations. Moment by moment, the best thing we can ever do is to live our experience — whatever it is, whether it’s giving birth to a perfect baby girl, facing a bitter disappointment, or simply having a first glimpse of cedar waxwings or ruby-crowned kinglets.
Here are three of my favorite Pema teachings from our archives.
—Andrea Miller, deputy editor, Lion’s Roar
Throughout your day you can pause, take a break from your usual thoughts, and wake up to the magic and vastness of the world around you. Pema Chödrön says this easy and spacious type of mindfulness practice is the most important thing we can do with our lives.
You get so caught up in the content of your life, the minutiae that make up a day, so self-absorbed in the big project you have to do, that the blessings, the magic, the stillness, and the vastness escape you. You never emerge from your cocoon, except for when there’s a noise that’s so loud you can’t help but notice it, or something shocks you, or captures your eye. Then for a moment you stick your head out and realize, Wow! Look at that sky! Look at that squirrel! Look at that person!
To be without a reference point is the ultimate loneliness. It is also called enlightenment.
Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.
Pema Chödrön describes the process of looking compassionately and honestly at our own minds. In the end, she says, freeing ourselves from anger and hostility comes down to choosing which wolf we want to feed.
Many of us feel deeply concerned about the state of the world. I know how sincerely people wish for things to change and for beings everywhere to be free of suffering. But if we’re honest with ourselves, do we have any idea how to put this aspiration into practice when it comes to our own lives? Do we have any clarity about how our own words and actions may be causing suffering? And even if we do recognize that we’re making a mess of things, do we have a clue about how to stop? These have always been important questions, but they are especially so today. This is a time when disentangling ourselves is about more than our personal happiness. Working on ourselves and becoming more conscious about our own minds and emotions may be the only way for us to find solutions that address the welfare of all beings and the survival of the earth itself.