The beloved Buddhist teacher and famed singer joined Sounds True founder Tami Simon for a lively and insightful conversation about meditation, learning from hard times, and what it means to get “gapacious.” The evening was a benefit for the Pema Chödrön Foundation and Tools for Peace.
Tami Simon: Pema, you’re turning seventy-nine in July. I’d love to hear about the things you’ve learned that have made the most difference in your life.
Pema Chödrön: The first is compassion, by which I mean the empathetic ability to stand in someone else’s shoes. One of the things about compassion is that the difficult things that happen in our own lives teach us the most about what other people go through. So I value all the really lousy times in my life. It has been the lowest times in my life that have helped me the most to understand other people.
During the breakup of my marriage, a friend told me two things. First, he said, “Whatever you’re experiencing, don’t try to make it go away.” That was a mind-stopper, but I knew it was true. Then he said, “Whatever you learn from this, that’s what you’ll have to pass on to other people.”
That’s been so important to me. Working with adverse circumstances, not avoiding them or trying to distract myself from them, has helped me to wake up more in my life, to be more there for other people, and—this is always a big seller—to be happier. [Laughter]
When I’m talking about tough times, I don’t mean just outer circumstances. I’m talking about what they bring up in your heart and mind. Not running away from the pain, learning to accept it as part of the human condition, has taught me everything.
I’m at an age when people drop dead left and right. But death won’t seem like a tragedy to me, because I feel like I’ve learned so much from my life and it’s brought me such deep happiness. I don’t feel I got cheated or anything like that. Many people think they’re getting a bum deal in life, but that’s the very material of the path. This is very much a Buddhist tenet. I’ve learned a lot from my teachers and all the study and meditation I have done, but the painful aspects of life, the really hard times, have been my main teachers.
Tami Simon: It’s one thing to accept adverse circumstances that happen in your life, but what about when you encounter something inside yourself you can’t stand, like pettiness or mean-spiritedness or jealousy?
Pema Chödrön: That’s the stuff you work with. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. It may seem like the outer circumstances are the problem, but the challenge is actually what they bring up in you—the inner experiences of anguish or sorrow or suffering that they provoke or trigger in you.
I don’t feel self-loathing and those kinds of intense emotions anymore, but I sure remember what they feel like. I know that the single most important thing for people today is the extent to which they feel really bad about themselves. I have a passion for finding a way of talking about this that can help people make friends with themselves. That requires a deep acceptance of yourself and learning how to accept things inside you that are considered unacceptable.
Usually we spend our whole lives trying to avoid the feeling that “there’s something fundamentally wrong with me.” The view I’m coming from is that we’re actually complete and whole, and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with us. In fact, we are fundamentally good, and we can connect with that goodness. We can move closer to accepting and honoring all parts of ourselves, while knowing that almost everybody shares those bad feelings about themselves. This is just what it’s like to be human.
Tami Simon: You talked about being able to stand in someone else’s shoes. How do we actually do that?
Pema Chödrön: Well, to stand in someone else’s shoes, you have to stand in your own shoes first. It’s all tied in with what I’ve been saying about not running away from difficult experiences. If you don’t run away from the experiences of sickness or physical pain or emotional suffering, then when someone else shows up with physical pain or depression or anger, you automatically stand in their shoes. You’ve been there. You understand. It’s not something you have to drum up.
There are also practices you can do to help you develop more empathy and compassion. One is called Just Like Me, which helps you see that you and others are the same. Say you’re in a traffic jam. You look around at all the other drivers and think, just like me they don’t like to be in this traffic jam. Just like me they’re fuming and fussing. Or you’re walking along the street and there’s someone sitting on a sidewalk who is very distressed. You think, just like me they want to be happy. Just like me, they want to have some comfort in their life. You see your sameness.
For me, the main thing is experiencing what you experience fully and completely—not running away, not trying to avoid it. Let’s use the example of feeling ashamed of yourself. Just in little bites, so it’s not too traumatizing, experience the horribleness of feeling there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. Then when you see somebody else doing something they’re ashamed of, you can really empathize with them because you’ve been there.
When things are happy and comfortable in your own life, think of others and wish for them to have the same positive experiences. And when things are painful or sorrowful for you, also think of others and wish for them to be free of those negative things. Let everything that happens to you connect you with other people. With both joy and difficulty, we usually tend to go inward. This is the opposite—we go out.
Tami Simon: Historically the vast majority of Buddhist teachers have been men. In your experience, are the teachings different when they’re expressed by women?
Pema Chödrön: Oh, for sure they are.
Tami Simon: In what way?
Pema Chödrön: When I first connected with my root teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, I was living in San Francisco and I was a nun already. We had some wonderful people who came to teach, but they were all men. They were really smart, and I don’t want to say they taught the dharma intellectually—because it was experiential, too—but it was definitely smart, you know. And it never occurred to me that I could teach because I felt intimidated by them, even though they were very helpful to me.
Then, a woman came to teach and it was completely different. It was very soft-edged and completely experiential. Her teaching was based on personal experience and how the teachings mix with your everyday life, rather than anything scholastic. Afterward, I thought, hey, maybe I could also teach. Before, I had felt there was no way could I ever do that, but now I felt like I could.
Perhaps that doesn’t completely answer your question, but teaching by women is very, very different and it reaches people in a different way. So you really need both. You definitely need both.
We’re actually complete and whole. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with us.
Tami Simon: The Pema Chödrön Foundation is very interested in ensuring that Buddhist nuns have the same access to study and practice as monks.
Pema Chödrön: This is particularly an issue for Tibetan nuns, because culturally they were always held back. Now there’s more opportunity for them and we’re really supporting that. But for Western Buddhist women, my experience is that we’re not held back at all. I don’t think so. That’s my experience.
Tami Simon: Well, let’s drink to that being true. [Clink water glasses, applause, laughter]
Now I want to read a quote from one of your teachings, in which you ask this rhetorical question: “What’s the most important thing to do with each day, with each morning, each afternoon, each evening?” And you answer: “The most important thing is to leave a gap.” What do you mean by that?
Pema Chödrön: Well, it means… to leave a gap. [Laughter] We’re all so caught up in our habitual patterns that we’re not there for the world we’re immersed in. When they experience a gap, people often say, wow, it’s such a big world and I was so tunnel-visioned that I didn’t even realize the sky was there, and there were birds on the telephone wires.
Tami Simon: So you’re recommending we get gappy, if you will.
Pema Chödrön: Get gappy. Well, yes, that’s what I’m recommending. [Laughter] I highly recommend it, in fact. It will change your life, because it is very painful to be caught up in the tunnel vision of your habitual patterns. It’s very painful and it limits the potential of your short human life. You’re inside your head all the time and you miss so much.
Of course, the reason why we get caught up is so we can miss the sorrow of life, but then we miss the beauty as well. Once you open, you’re open to the whole thing—both the sorrow and the beauty. 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. Rather than just trying to get through the day, with a heavy heart and shame and depression and all those things, it feels really alive.
You can create gaps purposely, through practices like taking three conscious breaths. But another way to do it is to just let life stop your mind. Say there’s a sudden sound, like a backfire of a car, or a crow cawing—anything that sort of stops your mind. When that happens, you catch it and let that moment expand for two or three more seconds. You see the way your mind has stopped and you’re not caught up anymore.
In the more profound Buddhist teachings, the gap becomes even more important, as a way to rest your mind in its natural state. It allows you to see clearly the natural openness and freshness of your mind when it is not caught up in habitual patterns.
Tami Simon: Can you point us in the right direction in terms of relating to the pain of the world, events like the recent shooting in the African-American church in Charlottesville or the devastating earthquake in Nepal? It’s very challenging for me, and I think for many people, to know how to relate to that suffering in an openhearted way, without shutting down because it feels like too much to bear.
Pema Chödrön: I think it’s the same practice, whether it’s on a big scale, like the heartbreak and injustice of the shooting, or you’re doing it at the domestic level, in your workplace or your family. I think it’s epitomized by the expression “open mind and open heart.”
For me, the most significant training to keep the heart and mind open is tonglen practice, taking and sending. Suppose I turn on the television and it is filled with news about the shooting in South Carolina, as it was today. The idea of tonglen practice is that instead of closing your heart, you take in all the suffering. By taking in suffering, I mean you’re willing not to close your heart to it. You literally breathe in with the idea that you could move toward the suffering. Breathing it in is the same thing as leaning in toward it. Then when you breathe out, you send some kind of spaciousness or well-being or healing to everyone. It’s quite personal.
So whether it’s domestic or more global, you train in leaning into or breathing in the suffering. You’re breathing in a feeling of being willing to be there for all those people. You’re there for them. And on the out-breath you send out whatever you feel would help heal the situation. You might send out the idea of a country in which the gun laws were changed. It could be very political.
Tami Simon: Thank you, Pema. Now we welcome k.d. lang to join us onstage. [Applause]
k.d. lang: Hi.
Tami Simon: k.d., your Buddhist teacher was Lama Chödak Gyatso Nubpa, who died in 2009. Could you tell us how you met him?
k.d. lang: Actually, he was married to my product manager at Warner Brothers Records. One day I was griping to her about the fact that my record sales had plummeted. I said, there seem to be obstacles in my path to success, and she went, “Obstacles? You need to meet my husband!”
So she took me to meet Lama Gyatso and that was it. The first thing he said to me was, “What’s your motivation?” I’m still thinking about what that means, but I think it’s about being in service. Being in service to others in everything that you do.
Tami Simon: What are the parallels between the meditative process and the creative process?
k.d. lang: That’s some heavy stuff right there. [Laughter]
I think it’s exactly the same thing. It’s about getting rid of the chatter. It’s the gap. Not The Gap. Maybe we could get a sponsorship from The Gap now. [Laughter, applause]
It’s the gap, because I think real creativity comes from getting the heck out of the way. Creativity is not about creating big conceptions and stirring the pot so much that you just gotta throw up on the canvas or write, write, write, write. I think it’s about being so bored and being so empty and being so… gapacious.
Tami Simon: Gapacious, yeah!
k.d. lang: That’s where I think creativity comes from. I’m not a great meditator but I think that’s probably what meditation is about. It’s about getting out of the way of your true nature, which is stillness I think.
Pema Chödrön: All spiritual teachings come from that place of not being caught up in yourself. When you get out of the way, that is the gap experience, the pause experience, the stillness experience. It’s the experience of strong, direct communication with the world, and that’s when all real communication happens. Otherwise, it’s just you laying your trip on other people.
When you kind of get over yourself, even briefly, that’s when creativity happens. That includes being able to speak in a way that communicates to the heart and minds of people. Something changes because of the basic goodness of people connecting with each other. So whether it’s you singing, or someone teaching the dharma, anything that stops your mind connects you with the best of yourself. When a ballet dancer leaps beautifully through the air, or a singer hits a note—I bet you’ve had this experience, k.d.— everybody stands up and applauds because of this universal experience of something touching you so deeply that it’s inexpressible—because it’s… gapacious! [Laughter] May I use that?
k.d. lang: Yup. It’s my offering to you.
My teacher always talked about the expansive nature—pulling yourself out of yourself and always looking with the widest possible view. It gives you a completely different perspective.
Tami Simon: Authenticity seems to be “in” right now…
Pema Chödrön: I’m so out of it that I didn’t even know this was in. [Laughter]
Tami Simon: What are the obstacles to authenticity? How did you both get to be so authentic?
k.d. lang: I don’t know. I can’t tell you that I’m authentic, but I do know that my teacher constantly said that you should strive for uncontrived conduct. In my interpretation, that’s what Pema was talking about before—open heart, open mind. You’re not polluting the future with your conceived ideas of what should happen. Expectations are pollution of the future, essentially. So you try to stay completely present, because the next moment is going to present you with a whole new set of circumstances. The idea is to be as open and flexible and natural and curious as you can be.
That’s hard because the world is constantly telling us we should be something other than who we are. Always. It’s so hard to get in touch with who we are because we have so much noise coming at us all the time.
That’s why meditation practice has been an essential tool for me, because you have to sit with yourself. You have to sit with your own thoughts, how uncomfortable your legs are, and how the leaf blower outside is ruining your meditation. [Laughter] Some days meditation is easier and some days you suck at it. Then some days you actually do experience the gap, and hopefully the gap gets a little longer over the course of time.
Pema Chödrön: I’m learning from you here. You express all this really well.
k.d. lang: I had the most amazing teacher. And I’ve read your books, so I’m basically just regurgitating your teachings. [Laughter]
Tami Simon: You both seem tremendously devoted, by which I mean this heartfelt outpouring toward the teachers you’ve worked with and to the teachings. How would you explain the experience of devotion, especially to someone who’s never met a teacher and maybe doesn’t think that’s going to happen to them?
k.d. lang: It’s a common approach in Western society to gather pieces from all different religions. That’s not wrong, but there’s a beautiful image I’ve been taught that addresses this. There’s a river we need to cross in our spiritual lives and we need to get to the other side. We have a far better chance of getting across the river if we get in one boat, as opposed to straddling two or three.
For me, devotion was about meeting Lama Gyatso Rinpoche. I was in his life for eight or nine years, and he gave everyone who came into contact with him enough to do for this life and lives to come. He was a great teacher and gave us great instructions.
Pema Chödrön: I think that finding a teacher is so much like falling in love—you can’t pretend. Right? So you met your teacher and had that strong feeling immediately. For me, it was slower with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He was a really challenging man, in terms of his lifestyle and so forth. But when I came to him with my human neuroses and problems and obstacles, I never found anybody else who knew exactly what was going on and could address them in such a modern way. It was always breathtaking. From that point, my devotion grew more and more.
I realized over the years that he never gave up on anybody. He never gave up. Sometimes it was pretty radical and uncomfortable, but he would do whatever he could to help us let go of being caught up in the small world of me and robbing ourselves of the gapaciousness.
When you feel that you are caught in fixed ideas or prejudices, you want to find a way to expand when you feel contracted, to open when you feel closed. When I think of Chögyam Trungpa and other great teachers, I feel that sense of gap and expansiveness. I just think of his face and I feel it. Is it the same for you?
k.d. lang: Yeah.
Pema Chödrön: For me, that is the most important thing about devotion. Teachers connect you with the best part of yourself. Just thinking of their face, you connect with it.