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Pema Chödrön and Jack Kornfield talk “The Wondrous Path of Difficulties”

A conversation with Pema Chödrön and Jack Kornfield, moderated by Michael Krasny, about the everyday difficulties that provoke us, reveal our habitual patterns, and ultimately transform us.

By Lion’s Roar

Photo by Christine Alicino.

Call it luck, good luck. A sellout crowd of over 3,000 people arrives at the Nob Hill Masonic Center in San Francisco to listen to a discussion with two of America’s most respected and beloved Buddhist teachers: Pema Chödrön and Jack Kornfield. Then, suddenly, the center’s computer system goes down, causing mass confusion at the ticket counters. But what might have seemed like a big problem on the surface, explain Chödrön and Kornfield, was in fact a great opportunity to practice the Buddhist teachings. Here is a portion of their conversation, moderated by KQED Public Radio host Michael Krasny.

Michael Krasny: We haven’t had an easy time getting this event off the ground. I suppose we could look at all this as a good opportunity to find transformation within.

Pema Chödrön: Yes, I think so. Difficulties are inevitable—and helpful. Once I was teaching a workshop at Omega Institute and everything went wrong. The organizers were tearing their hair out, and, after all was said and done, they couldn’t understand why it turned out to be such a harmonious weekend. Then, one of the main organizers looked at the title of one of my books, When Things Fall Apart, and she realized that the teaching related to our immediate experience. Doesn’t some problem like the one we’ve had tonight happen every day of your life in major and minor ways? Yet, for some reason, we keep thinking something has gone wrong.

The Buddhist teachings are fabulous at simply working with what’s happening as your path of awakening, rather than treating your life experiences as some kind of deviation from what is supposed to be happening. The more difficulties you have, in fact, the greater opportunity there is to let them transform you. The difficult things provoke all your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface. And that becomes the moment of truth. You have the choice to launch into the lousy habitual patterns you already have, or to stay with the rawness and discomfort of the situation and let it transform you, on the spot.

So, whoever had anything to do with whatever went awry tonight, thank you for providing us with this great opportunity to practice before we even started the event itself.

Jack Kornfield: In the monastery where I trained, my teacher would gather us together and then he’d be waylaid for some reason or another. Without fail, disruptions would always occur that we would have to deal with in the interim. I learned later that he was deliberately setting this up. Then he would come in and peer around the room to see how we were doing in working with the disruptions.

Difficulties and frustrations, such as we experienced in getting started tonight, allow you to remember where you really are. You can find a kind of freedom from getting hung up on difficulties that can serve you well in your marriage, your family, and your community, where you will find lots of difficulties and frustrations. It’s the kind of freedom that can serve you better than almost anything else.

Pema Chödrön: We get misled by the ads in magazines where people are looking blissful in their matching outfits, which also match their meditation cushions. We can get to thinking that meditation and the spiritual path is about transcending the difficulties of your life and finding this just-swell place. But that doesn’t help you very much because that sets you up for being constantly disappointed with what happens every day at breakfast, lunch, and dinner—all day long.

Jack Kornfield: Yes, we have these great ideals about how we’re supposed to be. But when we are standing in a long line that isn’t moving and we find ourselves saying, “This place hosts events all the time, how come they can’t get it together?” we don’t have to pretend that our irritability is not there or compare it unfavorably with our ideal version of ourselves. We could simply take a breath and say, “This is how I am—this is anger, this is fear, this is great irritation.”

There’s another kind of gesture that you can also practice, which I think of as a kind of inward bow. You say, “Here’s anger, here’s irritation, here is being really pissed off, and not only that, I had a hard day and I came here and I thought they were going to help me and instead they make it worse!” [Laughter] We bow to that and acknowledge that.

In that regard, I would like to read to you my new favorite little piece: “If you can sit quietly after difficult news, if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm, if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy, if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate and fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill, if you can always find contentment just where you are, you are probably a dog.” [Laughter]

There’s a certain sense of humor that is absolutely necessary for our human condition. When we have that sense of humor, things become workable. It’s the part that we put on top of our ordinary human experience—and we all put something on top of it when we started our spiritual search—that creates the problem. You then not only have your own suffering, you have all these ideals and images that you hold up for yourself. That puts a layer of spiritual suffering on top of the basic suffering.

Michael Krasny: Some of the most joyous people I’ve met have been Buddhist teachers. They laugh and giggle and are filled with a wondrous sort of humor. Yet, it seems that to understand what’s at the heart of the Buddhist teachings, you need to understand suffering. How do the suffering and the joy go together?

Pema Chödrön: You have to know suffering in order to have the joy, and that has to do with not resisting what’s happening to you. It’s true that if you could do all those things on the list that Jack read, you’d be a dog. On the other hand, the teachings point out that you haven’t simply been dealt a bad hand and that’s the end of it.

Instead of being resigned to your fate, you could get curious about what’s going on. You could take an interest in the irritation that’s rising up in you, and you could be curious about how other people are reacting. We tend to be so stupid about what actually makes things worse and what actually makes things better, because we don’t explore our experience carefully enough.

This evening, the computer goes down and suddenly the people behind the ticket windows are under a lot of pressure and freaking out. When everyone is getting mad, and then getting even madder as they all start talking to each other about it, we can look at this and ask, “How is this happening? This simply doesn’t add up to any kind of happiness for anyone. In fact, it adds up to everybody getting ulcers. Why are we doing this?”

One of the main things I work with personally is saying to myself essentially what Jack was saying: “This is how I am right now. I have a very short fuse and I’m losing it.” Then I ask myself, “Do I want to strengthen this habit so that a year from now my fuse is even shorter?” By sticking with and reinforcing our habit, we could get really professional at making our fuse shorter and shorter. Ten years from now we could have the world’s shortest fuse.

As I started to get older, I figured I ought to get smarter. I noticed that I had the habit of easily getting irritated and angry. I asked myself honestly, “Do I want that? Does it feel good?” And the smart answer was, “No, it doesn’t feel so great.” So I was left with a choice: Did I want to strengthen it or find a way to shake it up, weaken it, and infiltrate it in some kind of way?

Michael Krasny: Wisdom is supposed to come with age. Jack, you have talked about how people in other cultures have a veneration for wisdom, in contrast to the love of youth so prevalent in Western culture. Despite what we might think about the wisdom of age, many people’s fuse becomes shorter as they get older. It becomes more difficult for them to do what you’re talking about because of helplessness and atrophy.

Jack Kornfield: That’s one of the reasons it’s recommended to have some form of practice, and to take the opportunity to practice when it presents itself. This enables you to work with whatever circumstances arise. When people come on retreats, their knee is hurting or their whole body is hurting, so, why, they ask, can they not just get up and move and make it easier?

I’ll often say in response, “Well, you could get up and that would be fine, but at some point in your life there’s going to be a time when you are in great pain—or maybe you’ll be sitting at the bedside of someone you love who’s in a lot of pain—and if you haven’t learned to find some graciousness and capacity to be with what’s difficult, things are simply going to get worse and worse. One of the great blessings I see in people who have committed themselves to a Buddhist practice is that their capacity for both joy and for dealing with the sorrows and the pain of life grows. Practice opens the door for both.

Pema Chödrön: When I was in my late thirties, I was reading a book about Confucius and it said something like, “If you have been training up until the age of fifty to not resist what happens in your life, to open to it, then by the time you reach fifty, life will support you and make it easier. Conversely, if you’ve been training to shut down and try to get away from difficulties, then when you reach fifty, you’re going to become more and more cranky.” I remember vowing right then to choose the path of not resisting.

I am a little more optimistic now and think that a person can start at fifty, if that’s when they notice the need to change. As I get close to seventy, I can see the kind of challenges that physical deterioration can bring. I can see how in one’s eighties one could definitely become very irritable and impatient. So, I feel more committed than ever to avoid any kind of cozy nest. I’m anti-nest, because it feeds the propensity to resist being open.

If you live alone—and I am often alone in a retreat cabin or a similar setting—you have everything just the way you want it. So it’s really good to have people come in and mess things up. Otherwise, you think the meaning of life is just to get everything working the way you want it. But lo and behold, life becomes increasingly irritating as soon as you add even one more thing into your life.

Michael Krasny: Let’s take this conversation to a bigger sphere. If you had the most powerful man on the planet, George W. Bush, on a retreat with you, and he was willing not only to listen to what you had to say but also be mindful of what you had to say, what would you say to him about what compassion really means?

Jack Kornfield: First, I would look at him and say, “You know, it must be very difficult feeling that you have so much responsibility for the world.” I would want to start there. If I were to look at him and try to imagine myself in his place, I think I would see that he is just like all of us. He’s trying to do what he thinks is right and to lead his life the way he thinks he should. I would want to respect that and acknowledge how very hard it must be to have the responsibility he has. I would need to be able to really listen to him, and have a dialogue with him, before I could give any advice. Most people, including my teenage daughter, for example, are not so interested in my advice. But maybe they want to be listened to, so that’s where I would start. Maybe out of that conversation, some questions might arise about the effects of his actions on both himself and other people. That would be a good beginning.

Pema Chödrön: In previous years, if I were addressing a large audience like this and made a comment about President Bush, I would simply assume that everyone was of one view. Then I read a letter to the editor in Tricycle where somebody said that they were a practicing Buddhist and supported the government wholeheartedly. They found it painful that people who profess to be Buddhists and completely open-minded assumed that everyone in the audience had the same view. That stopped me in my tracks, and I began to realize that I don’t really want to foster aggression towards anybody by assuming what their correct political stance should be.

So, I agree with Jack’s way of approaching such an encounter. One of the tenets of the Buddhist teachings is that every living being has basic goodness, and we can communicate with each other from that place whether or not it would influence world politics or change someone’s religion. In fact, that can’t be the goal. The goal must be to talk to one another from the point of view of each other’s good heart. Up until this point I’ve never met anybody whose good heart you couldn’t contact. Trungpa Rinpoche once said that everybody knows how to love, even if it’s only tortillas. [Laughter]

Trungpa Rinpoche called that the “soft spot,” and he said that when you’re talking with someone, you want to find that spot. I often say that to people who are having really difficult relationships with their families. When people look for the soft spot, it can break the deadlock and they can begin to talk to each other again. Sure, they avoid the sticky subjects completely, but they find the place where they still love each other, which is always there waiting to be found.

I wouldn’t have any big expectations if I were talking with anyone such as the current president, who has completely different views from me, is archconservative and fundamentalist, and so forth. I wouldn’t hope for changing his religious views or political views, but I would have high hopes for our being able to talk from the heart.

Michael Krasny: Is being in the present with someone, then, the source of all compassion?

Pema Chödrön: What we need to do is drop the fixed ideas about the person we’re talking to. One way to do that is simply to start asking questions, and then we will see that a person’s soft spot is easy to find. I’m sure you find that happens in interviews all the time. You might have someone who’s a real hardass, but if you are able to get them on to certain topics, the mask comes off, and suddenly you’re talking human-to-human. That’s the now we’re talking about. It’s basically a now without preconceptions of who someone is, what they’re like, or what you have to prove to them. Now is dropping the agenda and just being completely curious about someone.

Michael Krasny: It’s what you call heart-to-heart.

Pema Chödrön: Yes.

Michael Krasny: Yet, we all seem to have a need to protect the heart, to keep it from being vulnerable.

Jack Kornfield: Yes, we do. Yet Rilke says, in a most beautiful line, that ultimately it is upon our vulnerability that we depend. That’s the way to the soft spot, to making a human connection. It is what we would want for the Israelis and the Palestinians, or the Northern Irish Catholics and the Protestants. There has to be a willingness to go to the place of vulnerability, and there are a couple of things we can say about how we avoid getting there and what we can do about that.

For one thing, we have difficulty making a human connection because we don’t trust our heart. We don’t trust that our heart has the capacity to open to the sorrows as well as the beauty of the world. We’ve been hurt many times, and along with that we’ve been taught that we can’t tolerate the world. One of the great Buddhist teachings—it’s a type of medicine, you might say—is to remind ourselves, and others, that we all have a great capacity of heart. We have within us buddhanature, the capacity to hold all the sorrows and joys of the world. An aspect of our great openness is our ability to tolerate suffering.

Everybody has their own burden. Everybody has their own measure of sorrow. Relatively speaking, some might carry an enormous burden, but everybody has a fair measure. It’s just part of the human condition. When you speak of the first noble truth, you acknowledge that this is how our human incarnation is. When you sit with someone, you can see that they too have their measure of sorrows, just as you do. If you can share with them how you’ve struggled with your own sorrows, and how you’ve worked with them, it softens the conversation and shares the vulnerability. It makes connection possible. It’s not a matter of being platitudinous or idealistic about this. The heart opens and closes, and there may be times, very sensibly, when you need to back off and protect yourself, as you say. You have to include yourself in compassion, not just everybody else. We get in trouble if the circle of compassion leaves out one person, “Moi!” as Miss Piggy would say. Once having included yourself in the compassion, the fundamental practice is to witness somebody else’s suffering.

Michael Krasny: Pema, you’ve recounted in your books some of the suffering you’ve experienced—a difficult marriage breakup, chronic fatigue syndrome, and so forth. Was compassion toward yourself a key part of transforming those experiences into something you could work with?

Pema Chödrön: Compassion toward yourself is something worth exploring more. In teaching Buddhism in the West, one of the first things that all of us as Western dharma teachers realized very early on was that most people we were teaching were really hard on themselves. Without self-compassion or some kind of loving-kindness toward oneself, nothing is ever going to happen on the spiritual path. It will never get off the ground. You can find that out very fast at the beginning. In my own case, for some reason I seemed to have had a lot of self-compassion from the beginning.

I learned in teaching people that almost anything you say to them can get twisted into something they use against themselves: “Oh, I can’t do that. I’m not good enough to do that.” If you suggest to someone that if they were patient and could do all those wonderful things that Jack read earlier in the “you’d be a dog” story, they will simply feel worse and worse about themselves and stress how inadequate they are. When they look into themselves, they find impatience, bad temper, and lots of right and wrong. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, the teacher I am studying with right now, says that in order to progress along the spiritual path, you need to be able to self-reflect, to really look at yourself honestly. He says that’s where most Western people get stopped right away. They sit down, they start to meditate, then they begin to self-reflect and to see clearly their habitual patterns, thoughts, and emotions. Then everything is immediately twisted into self-loathing, self-disapproval, or self-denigration. Consequently, he teaches a lot about guiltlessness. He discusses the poison of guilt and how it never lets you grow. When you are guilty, you can never go any further. Somehow, for self-reflection to work, there has to be a lot of emphasis on loving-kindness and friendliness toward yourself. But that doesn’t mean self-indulgence.

Michael Krasny: It doesn’t mean self-pity.

Pema Chödrön: Exactly. The best analogy I’ve heard is to treat yourself as though you’re raising a child. Imagine you are a child that you are raising and that you love very dearly. You know you need to give the child a lot of love and nurturing, but the child also needs some boundaries. You’re not going to let yourself eat all the candy and run out into traffic. In your heart, you know what is going to help you grow. In the beginning, of course, you don’t really know that very well, but you will learn, including what helps you to become more patient, loving, and less aggressive. You find that out through self-reflection, but if it twists, and you use what you see against yourself, you will lose track and get angry at yourself without noticing it anymore: “How could I even consider myself a meditator or a Buddhist? I’ve been meditating now for fifteen years and look at me! I still have this bad temper and all the other stuff!” You need to be kind as you look at yourself and not let it turn into loathing.

Michael Krasny: Wasn’t the Dalai Lama quite interested to learn how much of an obstacle this kind of self-loathing is for Western students?

Jack Kornfield: Yes, Pema and I were at a conference for Western Buddhist teachers with His Holiness in Dharamsala, and Sharon Salzberg started talking about this phenomenon of self-hatred. And he kept asking the translator to clarify. He simply didn’t understand what Sharon was talking about. Then, he asked not only whether we knew what she was talking about but also if we ourselves experienced this self-hatred. And almost all the Buddhist teachers there, representing an entire generation, said yes.

It is definitely something I’ve wrestled with in my spiritual life. It’s so painful, and yet it is a place where a tremendous turning can happen. One of the instructions I’ve loved offering to people over the past decade or two is to suggest that they do a year of loving-kindness for themselves as a practice. All of a sudden, people find out how difficult it is to do that. People feel unworthy and that they shouldn’t be directing such kindness toward themselves. They cannot wish themselves happiness. So, initially, it’s very painful. But after a while it does start to change people, and it also starts to change their relationship to their lovers, their family, and their community. We do have this capacity to care for ourselves and we are worthy of it, and when we discover that, it immediately translates into generosity toward others.

Pema Chödrön: I found it quite interesting that all these teachers said it was the most prevalent thing they encountered teaching in the West, which led the Dalai Lama to conclude that there really is a basic difference between Tibetans and Western people. And now he continually says that there can’t really be compassion for other people without self-compassion.

We might hear that and say, “Great, but I can’t get there from here. How do I do that?” We need teachings on how to develop maitri, loving-kindness for oneself, which is what can bring out our strength and confidence in our wisdom. We need to let go of our story lines. The meditation practices that teach us to notice thoughts, touch them, and let them go, allow us to let go of the story lines. Then we can get in touch with the underlying raw feeling of guilt itself. That’s the nowness we were talking about earlier—being completely present with the discomfort that comes with the guilt and not simply feeding it with thoughts.

Michael Krasny: Isn’t is possible, though, that because you could feel guilty, you might act merciful and kind as a result? For example, someone who is quite wealthy and privileged might give alms to the poor because of guilt or regret.

Jack Kornfield: You can do things out of guilt that are good, but that doesn’t alleviate your own suffering. What we’re really asking ourselves here is how do we act in a way that both brings goodness and benefit to other people, but that also releases all the suffering we carry in our own hearts? To do that, you have to pay some attention to yourself.

Our motivation, I find, is always mixed. When I was young, I used to give a lot of gifts to people, because I wanted them to like me. Then I noticed how egotistical and yucky that was, and I felt I didn’t want to do that anymore. So I stopped giving anything to anyone, and then after a while that felt worse. I finally realized my motivations were going to be mixed. So, I decided to give things but also to pay attention, so that I would not simply be giving because I felt insecure and wanted somebody to like me. I could also become aware of the simple pleasure of giving something to someone else.

Pema Chödrön: And of course, after you apply mindfulness to that act for just a little while, you find out that most of the time the recipients aren’t thankful anyway, and they don’t like you better for it. You never got what you wanted in the first place. So your plan is working. [Laughter]

Jack Kornfield: And then you relax.

Pema Chödrön: You could get very resentful that you gave and gave and gave and then they didn’t thank you, or you could see the humor in the whole thing. That’s your choice.

Michael Krasny: The other day I was driving on the freeway and I cut someone off. He stopped his car, got out, and started coming toward me with a look of anger, like he wanted to hit me. I made a conciliatory gesture and mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.” It stopped him in his tracks and he just turned around and drove away. That was strange, because my initial reaction was, if this guy wants to fight me, bring it on! [Laughter]

Pema Chödrön: We are experts at escalation, adding more kerosene to the fire. To de-escalate the cycle of suffering takes courage, because the urge to do what you always do—scream, cry, hit, whatever—is like a magnet. It’s pulling you down like the undertow. To hold your ground and be nonaggressive takes courage. Doing that doesn’t have to be called Buddhism. This is also what Martin Luther King taught. We are talking about the ideal of a beloved community. Nobody is healed until everyone is healed.

Jack Kornfield: Even though we’re talking very personally about what we’re doing when we’re talking to someone in pain, or when we’re driving or standing in line at the ticket counter, there is a very important political dimension to our experience. We need to deal not only with the aggression we see all around us in the world, but also with fear. Particularly since 9/11, we see fear of the other so clearly.

When we see the other person stop the car and come toward us, underneath our aggression, there is a fear about whether we can tolerate their anger. It is necessary to make friends with fear. What is our response going to be to the fact that the world is uncertain, and that sometimes bad and painful things happen? Are we going to be aggressive in a collective way, or is there a kind of wisdom that we can bring to the world?

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how when the boats carrying Vietnamese refugees encountered storms or pirates, if everybody panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person could stay calm on the boat, that was enough. It showed the way for everybody else.

There’s a tremendous political task, a courage that’s asked of us in these times, like Martin Luther King would ask of us, a courage not to be reactive, both in the political sense and in the personal, although I’m not sure you ever separate them.

Michael Krasny: When King marched through Cicero, Illinois, he said he had never seen such hatred, unmasked and naked. How does one work with compassion and wisdom in the face of hatred like that or the hatred of suicide bombers?

Pema Chödrön: Well, what did Martin Luther King do?

Michael Krasny: Turned the other cheek.

Pema Chödrön: He did more than that. He resisted the hatred, went against it. He wanted everyone to be cured of the disease of hatred—the victims of the disease and those who had the disease. The whole idea was that you were going to get kicked in the head; you were going to be called names. You kept in mind that these things that were usually going to trigger and provoke you were a kind of illness, and the only way to cure the illness was not to retaliate.

Jack Kornfield: And yet it’s not passive. Gandhi said if he had to choose between passivity, which he equated with cowardice, and violence, he would choose violence. What he chose, what King chose—and what we’re called on to choose in this time, personally or collectively—was to be present with a lot of courage. King said to his adversaries, “We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, to face suffering, and still not stop, still march, still tell the truth, still do what’s necessary to make the change.” Not being reactive is not being passive. It’s not a kind of stupidity, holding back or being disinterested, removing oneself from the world. Real equanimity isn’t indifference. It’s the capacity to be present with your whole being and not add fuel to the fire.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.