DT-Pema Chödrön-Experiencing Now
Tonight, I’ll continue a series of dharma talks based on Pema Chödrön’s book Welcoming the Unwelcome. The 14th chapter is titled “Experiencing Nowness” and starts with an exercise that we can try now to open us up to this very moment:
Inhale and raise your hands above your head. Now exhale fully and let your arms fall so that your hands slap down on your thighs. After the slap, relax your mind as much as possible…. Whatever arises is fine. You may experience a gap of wide-open space—a brief period that’s free from concepts and judgments.
Notice feelings of irritation or confusion. When we don’t understand what’s happening, we have an opportunity to let go of expectations and to be aware of what’s actually arising in the moment.
To cultivate that awareness, Pema recommends pausing in the midst of daily activities. Each time we slow down and stop what we are doing, we interrupt the stream of mental chatter that accompanies our experience. We touch the timelessness of the present moment or what Trungpa Rinpoche called “nowness.”
The next time you’re waiting in a line, note any impatience or boredom, relax, and tune into the “nowness.” That way, instead of being lost in thoughts, you can see and hear what is actually unfolding around you. In Pema’s words, “It’s as if the doors of perception have been cleansed.”
One day, while waiting to pay for groceries at our local supermarket, I stopped fantasizing about where I’d rather be and returned to the reality of the present moment. At that instant, I overheard a man inviting an elderly lady behind him to take his place at the front of the line. As she expressed gratitude, he asked if she needed help with her groceries. His kindness to her made my own wait seem shorter. Standing in line was no longer a gap between more important events.
Meditation teacher Dipa Ma used to teach that it is possible to practice in the gaps of even very busy lives. Her first student was a widow who was homebound and raising six young children by herself. Dipa Ma taught her to be completely mindful of the sucking sensation of the infant at her breast for the duration of each nursing period. By practicing this way for hours each day, the widow reached deep levels of concentration.
As Pema says, “Whenever we are between here and there, whenever one thing has ended and we’re waiting for the next thing to begin, whenever we’re tempted to distract ourselves or look for an escape route, we can instead let ourselves be open, curious, tentative, vulnerable.”
At times of uncertainty and indecisiveness, we can feel especially vulnerable and groundless. We may not know what to do or what the effects of our actions will be. In such moments, if we pay attention and stay present, we can connect with the open-ended, unpredictable quality of life as it is—what Pema calls “the wisdom of nowness.”
She tells an amusing story about attending a dharma talk by the abbot of Gampo monastery. When he stopped speaking, a monk struck a gong to indicate the end of the teaching. The abbot thought the gong was signaling the start of a meditation period. For the next hour and a half, he sat on his cushion, totally relaxed. Because nobody in the sangha wanted to depart before the teacher, everyone continued sitting with him, in a state of not knowing. While some people were frustrated and restless, others were inspired to witness how at ease the abbot was during the seemingly endless nowness of meditating.
To connect with a sense of immediacy, Trungpa Rinpoche taught a simple practice of taking mental snapshots. Let’s try it now:
*Close your eyes and turn your head in any direction—up, down, sideways, diagonally, etc. At intervals, from different angles and perspectives, abruptly open your eyes and see what’s there. In a relaxed and open way, take a mental snapshot of that instant. Try to observe the moment of freshness before you revert to labeling what you see and deciding whether you like it or not.
You can also experiment with auditory snapshots. Suddenly become aware of sounds in your environment and try to note the moment before you react or identify their source.
These exercises let us glimpse the greater truth that underlies our habitual labeling. They train the nervous system to tolerate uncertainty, ambiguity, and the birth and death of each moment.
Pema’s teacher, Anam Thubten Rinpoche, reflected his awareness about the impermanence of all things in the way that he spoke about his daily activities:
This morning I was with my friend…. Now that memory is like a past lifetime. It’s over forever and will never happen like that again. It came into being, lasted a while, and then was finished, never to return. And now I’m here [talking] with you…. Then this experience will be over. It’ll be another memory. It will pass away and never be the same again. And you and I both will be in another lifetime. This morning was like a past lifetime, our conversation now will soon be another past lifetime, and then there’ll be another lifetime after that. Things are continuously being born and ceasing. And it will keep going like that in a continuous flow for all of eternity.
Every event in our lives has a beginning—a birth, a middle and an ending—a death. When we really connect with this truth, death becomes familiar enough that it no longer feels threatening.
*Let’s take a moment to practice Pema’s exercise for recognizing birth and death in every moment.
Close your eyes and recall an event from yesterday or earlier today.
Contemplate how it is gone forever, like a past lifetime.
Notice any reactivity that arises and let it pass away.
Recall another recent event and contemplate how it too has passed away forever, never to be recreated in exactly the same way.
Note any feelings as they arise and pass away.
Then slowly open your eyes.
With ongoing practice, we experience directly how nothing exists in a solid or fixed way. In Pema’s words, we “step into the flow of impermanence” and appreciate the freshness and uniqueness of each moment.
*Notice right now subtle changing sensations of heat, coolness, tightness, relaxation in different parts of the body. Be aware of shifting qualities of light and air around you.
Just as these experiences are constantly arising and passing away, the self that appears to experience them keeps changing. As Pema says, “The main character in one scene goes away, to be replaced by the main character of the next scene.” Thoughts, feelings, end even the body’s cells are continuously being born and dying.
One advantage of becoming familiar with birth and death in every moment is that there are ongoing opportunities to start anew. If one lifetime begins and another one ends in every moment, we always have another chance.
I’ll give an example. In May, a Mexican friend and colleague named Mirna invited me to help celebrate the 30th anniversary of her psychotherapy institute by giving an hour-long Zoom presentation in Spanish. Although I accepted her invitation,
I had a habitual reaction and noticed doubts filling my mind: “I feel insecure. My Spanish is too rusty to give a public lecture. I wish I hadn’t agreed to participate. I’m too insecure to do it.” In a daily meditation sit, I sensed tension in my jaw and shoulders. As I breathed into the tightness, my body softened. I connected with how much I wanted to support Mirna in this event that was such a professional milestone for her.
I let go of identifying with doubts and insecurities and had a chance to begin again. It was a relief to admit that I needed assistance. A friend who is fluent in Spanish reviewed a draft of my presentation, and we had a fun exchange. While his suggestions improved my grammar, his encouragement bolstered my confidence. The lecture was well-received, and Mirna was deeply appreciative.
As Pema says, “You can do the same habitual thing umpteen times, you can even blow it completely, but there’s no end to the number of fresh starts you get. There’s no fixed ‘you’ doomed to stay in the same rut forever. In this way, the death that happens in every moment is a great blessing.”
To realize that nothing that happens within or around us is fixed and solid, Trungpa Rinpoche advised, “See everything as a passing memory.” If we practice recognizing birth and death in each moment, we can loosen our grip and enjoy what life offers here and now.