Interviewing Pema Chodron is a lot like spending time with an awesome, grounded teacher who can surf East and West like a bunny munching carrots.
My intro might run a little long, grab a seat.
Why Pema, why now? I recently re-met Pema by picking up one of her books from the shelf. Time has shown me that these books are only marginally beneficial when left unread.
There is a genuine comfort in reading “The Wisdom of No Escape.” If you have any tendency at all toward self-destruction, and I know you do if you are me, then this nun is the balm. Pema’s wisdom recipe is generous, delicious and lovingly served in bite-sized portions. Edible, digestible, and seriously nutritious.
Who is Pema? Look this one over.
“When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it’s bottomless, that it doesn’t have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space.”
Well, yeah! I want that! You don’t have to have an incriminatingly small heart to desire growth and eventual fruition along the ever-shifting gentleness and vastness frontiers.
Who doesn’t want to open themselves up and, discovering tragic and beautiful vulnerability, journey through it
to find untold strength and compassion? Most everybody doesn’t. That’s kinda why we’re sideways. But Pema makes me want it, or at least, want to want it.
Pema is nobody’s fool. Her Wikipedia bio in uber-brief:
Chödrön became a Buddhist nun in 1974 while studying with Lama Chime Rinpoche in London. She is fully ordained in a combination of the Mulasarvastivadin and Dharmaguptaka lineages of vinaya, having received full ordination in Hong Kong in 1981 at the behest of the sixteenth Karmapa. She has written more than 10 books and articles, and leads and takes retreats constantly.
She definitely did not just fall off the ice cream truck, nor is she a guy in a deli. In fact, if you ever find yourself at the police station, looking over a lineup of spiritual thugs because you were just brutally enlightened, Pema will probably be there, smiling beatifically as the Cheshire Cat just after winning a nonexistent bet.
How’s this one for a roundhouse left to the cerebellum?
“What’s encouraging about meditation is that even if we shut down, we can no longer shut down in ignorance. We see very clearly that we’re closing off. That in itself begins to illuminate the darkness of ignorance.”
You see what she did there, ace? This woman just put all your glimpses of that pathetically long line of inane, leaky and threadbare yet ridiculously believable excuses into a life-affirming context. She made your temporary vision of what a doofus you are into, well, a holy act.
This nun on wheels made your laziness, your reservations and your all-around ineptitude as sacred as a cup of the Ganges drawn by a hunchbacked, one-eyed midget on a full moon with an ancient leaky tin bucket.
She forgave you everything before you even had your first coffee.
How does Pema transform stepping off the path into steps on the path? She’s a closet ninja wizard priestess, is how. Or at least, that’s my explanation, and her storm-force power grows from her perspective of making friends with yourself as an act of service.
“The message is to be with oneself without embarrassment or harshness. This is how to love oneself and one’s world.”
It is loving you, as is. Less complicated than those things you have to stare at for five minutes and then an image appears. If that’s the picture I want to draw. Less complicated than trigonometric functions, certainly. But that’s a tangent.
Pema lets us know that acceptance and appreciation will do it. But not just acceptance of bunnies unicorns and rainbows: it’s gotta be drinking in the whole twisted picture like the rare honeyed wine that it is.
So meditate, she serenely states, and in meditating, make friends with yourself. Do it as an act of service. The chance to create a different version of you is fair enough, and the drive to improve our lives is why we would read Pema, nothing wrong with it.
The pitfall comes when we try to create anew by denying the parts we don’t care for. No dice slugger, that approach is vacuous as, um, a vacuum.
Start where you are, they say, and here’s the challenge which is also a solution:
love where you are.
Pole-vaulting over the love-as-is part with your denial stick is grasping.
You remember Pandit Tigunait in ”Touched By Fire” as he draws it all to it’s climactic close around Swami Rama’s death, don’t you? Remember when he said “Greed is the mother of all misery!” Pandit was speaking Pema-talk, I swear. They should hang out. Check her take on that:
“One of the major obstacles to what is traditionally called enlightenment is resentment, feeling cheated, holding a grudge about who you are, what you are, where you are.”
Aka greed, wouldn’t you say? Our ever-thwarted demands on life. I know this. Grasping little greediness is the water I swim in. It is so hard not to be greedy! My driven nature is on cruise control even on this road toward a more generous heart. I embody a craving for kindheartedness which borders on, well, greed.
So if Pema is right when she says: “Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how precious things are,” then my drive for contentment is its own self- sustaining roadblock. And that, apparently, is perfect.
So having said that, let’s begin this interview.
(Pema didn’t make it to the café. She is in retreat and didn’t know it was taking place. So, I cut and pasted her responses from “Wisdom of No Escape,” her awesome book. I left tons of quotes on the cutting floor, too. The thing is riddled with wisdom, seriously).
Karl: Why is it perfect, Pema?”
Pema: You have a certain life, and whatever life you’re in is a vehicle for waking up.
Karl: So, my struggle to find enlightenment, or at least less darkenment, is by itself a cosmic alarm clock? Given that level of unalterable perfection, where do I stand in terms of choosing right action?
Pema: Mindfulness is loving all the details of our lives, and awareness is the natural thing that happens: life begins to open up, and you realize that you’re always standing in the middle of sacred space.”
Karl: Whoa, that blows my mind because I just finished “Seymour, An Introduction” in a recent Salinger binge. I swear in the last paragraph Seymour is quoted as having said something like “All we do all our lives is move from one piece of Holy Ground to the next.” I feel like my brain gets this but I rarely live it. Know what I’m sayin’?
Pema: Whatever is happening with you, if you feel at home in your world, it’s contagious, it could give other people a break.
Karl: Pema, I wish I could give them a break. Like the neck or the jaw, maybe. How do I see the sacred in the
whale hunters, the jerks who are prostituting gorillas, (that really happens) the factory farm lobbyists or the breeders who sell beagle puppies to labs? I can’t seem to release my anger, girl.
Pema: Hold the sadness and pain of samsara in your heart and at the same time the power and the vision of the Great Eastern Sun. Then the warrior can make a proper cup of tea.
Karl: Are you saying this tea is no good? Wait, have you been talking to Waylon? He just quoted you on Facebook, saying that exact thing.
Pema: It has been said, quite accurately, that a psychotic person is drowning in the very same things that a mystic swims in.
Karl: Hahaha! That’s awesome. Wait, I’m the mystic, right?
Pema: If we don’t protect ourselves from the trueness and the immediacy and the lack of confirmation of simply being a part of life, then we are not this separate being who has to have things turn our way.
Karl: Hmm, that feels evasive, P. I’ll try to work out a way where that is a compliment to me later. Meanwhile, do I need to put a robe on and take a year off to catch a clue here? Your book had the annoying side effect of making me want to be you.
Pema: In meditation, what’s being nurtured is our confidence in our own wisdom, our own health, and our own courage, our own good-heartedness.
Karl: Is there a wisdom confidence nurturing upgrade available? I think my meditator might be on the slow side. I’m waaaaaaaaaiiiiiting.
Pema: When things are properly understood, one’s whole life is like a ritual or a ceremony. Then all the gestures of life are mudra, and all the sounds of life are mantra. Sacredness is everywhere.
Karl: So, that taxi in the street is a chariot worthy of that lady in heels. The loud music from the club to my left (Caymen, 24 street, Playa Del Carmen, Mexico) is a prayer, giving God a high five. These pseudo-cobblestone streets are runways for gorgeous souls floating in fleshplanes. I could wear that. When does donning that mindset bring about the old proverbial peace?
Pema: Now is the only time. How we relate to it creates the future. In other words, if we’re going to be more cheerful in the future, it’s because of our aspiration and exertion to be cheerful in the present. What we do accumulates; the future is the result of what we do right now.
Karl: So feeling good will make me feel good?
Pema: In short, we begin to stop causing harm.
Karl: Girl, you are all of that. Nice shoes, by the way.
Pema: This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.
Karl: Pema thanks for your time. You rock the house, and I’ll be seeing you in Nova Scotia if Lady Fortune smiles on me that way. Anything you want elephant readers to accept into their hearts instantly like magic?
Pema: When we practice, we find that we have a bigger perspective on our lives.
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Editor: Kate Bartolotta