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by Pema Chodron
Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D. on Nov 26th 2013
Those many devoted readers who for decades have been enjoying and following the gentle, practical teachings of Anacharya Pema Chödrön, American Buddhist nun and head instructor of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada, may be tempted to think that, after all the books (a dozen and counting), the audio CDs (also almost a dozen), and the hundreds of lectures and retreats around the globe, “Ani Pema” may have nothing new to say to us, no new teachings to offer to call us to a life of greater courage, hope, and peace. Those readers would be very much mistaken. This latest little book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, took by surprise this seasoned enthusiast.
Living Beautifully gives us a new simple set of practices little highlighted in earlier lectures and books, except in the passing vague counsel that personal vows or aspirations, undertaken as part of one’s daily rituals, can keep one’s practice on track and set a healthy orientation for meeting the challenges that arise across one’s day. Here, we are given an explicit set of vows for embracing the chaos, riding the turbulent waves of everyday life, and finding joy even in the midst of the messy, unstable situations that compose the human condition. Rafts on the turbulent sea of becoming, three vows can help us along the path to accepting and even celebrating the world--just as it is.
First, Ani Pema describes the human predicament, the first “Noble Truth” of her tradition; the account is familiar to us all: we rarely get what we want and we get plenty of what we do not want. Life is fraught with unsatisfactoriness--in Sanskrit, dukkha. This unsatisfactoriness causes suffering--fundamental anxiety. But what if, she asks, instead of being disheartened by the ambiguity and uncertainty of life, we accept its churning turbulence, “relaxed into” the flux, “leaned into” the chaos? What if we sat back, as our fragile little rafts are tossed on the open sea of becoming, and, like the old philosopher Nietzsche, said “Yes! and Amen!” to existence--just as it is?
Chödrön offers us a story that allows us a stunning insight to build our courage for this shift of attitude. When her son was twelve, they found themselves on the tiny platform on the prow of a great ship, much like the famous scene in Titanic, when the lovers stand above the roaring waters, silhouetted against the sky (p. 11). In this dizzying place, then, her son pulling her forward, her fear pulling her back, Pema began to explain to her son her long-held dread of heights, recounting the symptoms, the physical sensations, the legs turning to mush. Her son was shocked to hear the indications; “Mom, that’s exactly what I feel!” She had an aversion attitude to the same feelings her son experienced as thrilling! The lesson is clear: like fearless white-water rafters or zip-line flyers, we can learn to accept the churning in our stomachs and the dizzying swirl in our heads as indicators that we are alive and living life to the fullest!
Pema now introduces us to the three vows, three practices for working with the eerie feelings that accompany the sense of groundlessness that strikes when we turn to face the flux of becoming, rather than turn away, hide, or run to favorite addictions to soothe our fears. The First Commitment, the Pratimoksha Vow, turns our attention to our own behaviors. It asserts the desire and intention to protect life; to respect the property of others; to refrain from sexual harmdoing; to practice right speech; and to avoid intoxicants. What is striking in Pema’s tradition, descending from Chogyam Trungpa (notorious in his time for his questionable interactions with young women devotees) is the refreshing lack of moralizing or guilt-tripping attached to the moral code. Indeed the code is more of a loose set of guidelines than a “code” at all, whose rules must always be submitted to the larger law of ahimsa (Do no harm). That is, if lying causes more good than truth, or if hiding a beaten dog from its owner is stealing, then we readily break the rule, as long as the harm is avoided.
The second commitment is then added to the daily ritual; the Bodhisattva Vow asserts a commitment to embrace every being with compassion, keeping our hearts and minds open and nurturing the desire to ease the suffering of the world. Having focused on self in the first vow (cultivating right action), and focused on the others in the second vow of compassionate caregiving, we then turn our attention toward reality and take the final pledge, the Samaya Vow, that commits us to seeing reality just as it is and refraining from adding the running commentary that passes judgments on everything we experience: this is good; this is terrible; life will never be the same after this; those people always do those terrible things! Sometimes maintaining calm, nonjudgmental equanimity, compassion for hurtful people, and a tight leash on our own good conduct, while others are attacking us, will prove a monumental challenge. But if we miss the goal one day, the beautiful thing about Pema’s tradition is that we always start just where we are: tomorrow we start all over again, vowing to do better this time.
One of the things I most appreciate about our favorite Anacharya is the wealth of literature from which she draws her insights. This is no strict, rigid religious dogmatism; anywhere wisdom is found, there Pema will go--science, novels, Time magazine, letters from devotees, news stories. I was especially struck in this new book by a reference made early on in the description of groundless being and our fearful and angry reactions to it. Citing neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor, from her book, My Stroke of Insight, which Taylor wrote about her recovery from a massive stroke, Pema recounts Taylor’s explanation that the strongest emotions have a lifespan of a mere minute and a half. This message was revolutionary for me: it means that no matter what horrid thing happens, if I simply wait 90 seconds, the feeling will pass and I can get on with happier things. That married fool who hits on me in the hall, that neighborhood dog that just pooped once again at my front step--I can get over the worst insult if I just wait 90 seconds! The lesson is clear: we have to choose to continue to suffer, repeating over and over those 90 seconds of hell, renewing the resentment with each fresh cycle, fueling it with new story lines. Strong emotions can last for some people hours and weeks and sometimes their entire lifetimes! But if, on Pema’s counsel, we just watch the emotion fulfill its life cycle, with a sense of curiosity and kindness for ourselves, drop the stories and the blaming and the horrific predictions, in 90 seconds it will be behind us and we can get on with our day!
This little book is unfortunately an afternoon’s read; I say “unfortunately,” because it is one of those books you want to last for weeks. But every reader will be the better off for taking that afternoon to cuddle up by the fire with Pema and consider how life might be lived more sanely! And just remember--90 mere seconds, if you so choose!
© 2013 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D., Professor, North Carolina A&T State University.