Tag Archives: Pema Chodron

Letting go

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So much of our pain is caused by holding on – to feelings, possessions, people (who we often treat as if they are possessions).  If we could learn to let go more easily, accepting that everything changes and evolves over time, perhaps even making room for a new and equally exciting phase of our lives, we would have an easier time emotionally. And when the pain does feel too much to bear, we allow ourselves to truly feel the intensity of that pain so that it can, in its own time, lessen its grip on our heart. 

Pema Chodron talks of the way in which pain wakes us up, cracking us open with the ‘sheer force of whatever energy arises’ (‘When Things Fall Apart’ p23) and allowing us to recognise the oneness between us all, fostering our growing sense of compassion – maitri, or loving-kindness.

I have just finished reading a short story by Rachel Joyce, ‘A Faraway Smell of Lemon’, which beautifully evokes the way in which we need to open ourselves to the pain of changes we might never have chosen, to accept the fundamental impermanence of everything in our lives. I don’t want to spoil the story, but would love to include a quote from the end of the story, where the protagonist is reflecting that:

No matter how much she rails,  some things are gone forever….. So why, then, do we behave as if everything we have blessed with our loving should be ours for keeps? It is enough to have tiptoed to that space beyond the skin, beyond the nerve endings,  and to have glimpsed things that beforehand we only half knew.

This is a very short story but one which it is worth taking time over. There are great insights too into the way mindfulness of our everyday activities can help us by providing an anchor in times of difficulty, soothing a troubled and pained mind.

Feeling the fear

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It’s been many years since I read the classic book by Susan Jeffers, ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’.  Over a decade.  But in all that time I have tried to remember to face my fears and so move life on rather than getting stuck in an all-too-comfortable rut.

Fear is a basic human emotion, one which underlies so many of our other feelings.  It is also a physiological response to dangers, which may be both very real and also can be imagined and magnified out of all proportion.  When we are presented with a very real danger, then our bodies initiate the ‘fight or flight’ response, conditioning us to deal with the danger by fighting or running away.  We experience familiar symptoms including sweaty palms, a pounding heart, accelerated breathing.  Our muscles get ready to take action. Our digestion slows down as blood and energy is diverted to our vital organs.  A very useful response if we actually need to run away or fight an enemy.  But if we are stuck in traffic and worried about being late, or worried about a situation which we cannot actually influence in any material way, then these same responses can be counterproductive, leading to all the many symptoms of fear in the chronic, persistent condition of stress.

So fear can be helpful, or unhelpful, depending on what is inducing the fear.  But fear never diminishes unless we face it head on, and really look at it.  We can then try to decide if the fear is helpful, if it’s rational and serves a purpose.  Or if our minds have blown the actual danger out of all proportion.

There is a story Pema Chodron tells in “When Things Fall Apart” about a man whose meditation teacher sent him to meditate overnight in a tiny hut.  He thought he saw a venomous snake in the hut with him, and once his candles had burnt out he spent the night in terror. He – and we – will never know whether the snake was real or imaginary. All we know is that it was not there when the dawn came.  When the cave was illuminated, and the man saw there was no snake, the fear was gone. But the night he had spent had given him a much deeper knowledge of himself.

We may like to run away from our fears, and pretend we are brave whilst staying firmly in our comfort zone.  We can cement our aversions around ourselves like a fortress against having to really look at those fears.  We can prevent ourselves ever having to experience the sensations of fear.

Or we can try to stretch ourselves, to knock down the fortress of our fears, and face our challenges head on.  We might be terrified the first time we do something, but we may come to know ourselves more truly by ‘doing it anyway’.  We may discover qualities and gifts we would never have known we had, and grow into more rounded individuals. As Pema Chodron writes in “The Places That Scare You”:

Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but from getting to know them well”

Of course, fear can also be a healthy response to real dangers. It may be sensible not to do something which is well beyond our current capabilities, but to  learn more slowly.  We all have our intuition which can help us if we tune into it.   We can spend a lifetime discovering the difference between the fears that protect us, and those that hold us back.  And then we can keep pushing our boundaries just a little bit each day, so that we can look back at our lives and see just how far we have come.

Exchanging ourselves for another

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Everyone has heard, at some point in their lives, the advice that they should  ‘think of someone worse off than themselves’.  It’s not always welcome, and it’s not always that easy to do.  Our own pain, whether physical or emotional, can be so overwhelming that it can be hard to imagine anything worse.  Unintentionally, we are frequently rendered more selfish, more self-absorbed, by our own suffering.

But if we can, for one moment, put that pain aside, we will be able to see that, yes, indeed, there are many others who are in worse pain, who are suffering more than we are.  So we have a choice. We can allow our own suffering to shut us off from others, or we can use it to connect more deeply with the trials of those around us.  To acknowledge our common humanity.  To realise that even those who we feel ‘have it all’, will be struggling with their own private demons.

And so the first step is to not run away from our pain, but to look straight at it. To really see it for what it is.  To truly feel our emotions and to stay with them.  If we are sad, to really be sad, not to shut it away and numb ourselves with something else.  If we are angry, to experience how that anger makes us feel, without acting it out – yes, it’s hard!

And then we can start to think of others who are feeling the same thing – in their own way, and their own circumstances, yes, but just to acknowledge that there are others who we know, as well as millions who we don’t know, who are suffering  the same despair, fear, anger – whatever it is.  Millions of people experiencing their own pain.

And this is not just a logical, mental acknowledgement, it is an emotional process.  We feel our own pain, and we feel that of everyone else.  And, ironically, this can help to strengthen us in our own time of need.  We are not alone in our suffering any longer.  We no longer feel so helpless.  We are more able to extend ourselves to help others.

Because strength isn’t all about solidity, it’s about softness.  In Dru yoga, we soften the joints, even in ‘strong’ postures, so that we don’t block energy from flowing freely around the body.  Whilst we move from a strong core, we maintain a fluidity of movement through the body, learning where to soften and let go.  True strength comes from flowing through our lives with courage and determination, not from standing still and building up the walls between ourselves and those around us. Knowing when to accept help from others, and when to offer it. It can be wonderful to feel the effects of a beautiful yoga posture or sequence – but even more wonderful to send those benefits to someone who is in need of them –  whether or  not they are capable of accessing them for themselves.  When I teach Energy Block Release 3 in my class, a profound heart-opening sequence, we always pause at the end, hands in Namaste, to experience the peace generated by the movements, and each of us is then able to ‘send out’ that peace to anyone who comes to mind in that moment.

The Buddhist practice of tonglen is the exchange of ourselves for another. It reverses our natural tendency to run away from what we perceive as bad (suffering) and instead encourages us to embrace it.  It turns our natural tendency to shield ourselves from hurt on its head.  It gives us courage and strength, by allowing us to truly experience our weakness.  As Pema Chodron writes,

‘It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our hearts’

~ Pema Chodron,’When Things Fall Apart’

We start by identifying our pain, and we breathe it in. On our outbreath, we breathe out softness, relief, and send it out.  This is a very powerful practice – instead of saying ‘no’ to what we see as ‘bad’, we say ‘yes, OK, this is how things are’.  We are accepting what is. Then we can think of someone else who is in similar pain – physical or emotional – and we breathe in their pain, too. We allow all this pain to open us, to free us, and we breathe out, softening and sending out this softness to them as well.  We can then move on to everyone who is sad,  angry, has a headache – whatever it may be – and  on our outbreath, send out that relief to them all.

When we have had a disagreement with someone, instead of isolating ourselves and allowing ourselves to make ourselves right and them wrong, we can instead try to breathe in their anger, opening ourselves to their viewpoint, and breathe out the softness, the spaciousness that we find. When we are anxious and troubled about someone, we identify with their pain, making it bigger than our own feelings about them.  We breathe in their pain and send out relief on our outbreath. There really are no limitations to this practise.  Whenever we feel good, we send it out.  Whenever we feel bad, we breathe it in. We can use it in formal meditation practice, or on the spot, whenever we remember.

If you have experience of working with tonglen, I’d love to hear about it.  If you haven’t and decide to give it a try, let me know how you get on.

Opening the heart

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heart-1213481_1280Many times in my previous posts, I’ve written about the need for us to stay with our difficult emotions, rather than to run away and hide from them.  When we run away, or try to ignore our more challenging feelings, we make them even bigger than they really are.  If we take respite in our usual mental processes, making ourselves right and the whole world wrong, the effort of holding on so tightly to our own beliefs can be literally exhausting.  If we run away and pretend  everything is fine, those same feelings will usually surface again the next time we feel pushed and squeezed by the circumstances of our lives.

Sometimes our feelings are just so huge that they cannot be ignored, and we cannot run away.  At these times, we find that very shaky, insecure being we actually are behind the solid walls we like to create –  the persona we like to present to the world.  We become more truly ourselves.  It takes real courage to face this part of ourselves head on.  But if you imagine that all your dammed-up emotions are like a fortress, then a crisis can be quite liberating – although it certainly won’t feel like it at the time.

When everything feels wrong, when we cannot feel good about ourselves, it’s time to allow what seems like a disaster to open us up, to soften us and to chip away at those fortress walls.  As Pema Chodron writes, in ‘When Things Fall  Apart’,

“It’ s a kind of testing, the kind of testing that spiritual warriors need in order to awaken their hearts.”

We find the softness deep in our hearts.  We start to dissolve the barriers we have built up over the years. We learn to truly experience our own suffering, both large and small, and so develop more empathy for the trials of others.  We begin to tune in to the true quality of our heart chakra, Anahata.  We find compassion for others as well as for ourselves.  We develop maitri, or loving-kindness. We welcome the opportunities we encounter to grow – embracing our disappointments, our sadness, our anger.  The good news is we don’t need to go out of our way to find these opportunities – we will all find that plenty come our way!