DT- Pema Chödrön-Welcoming the Unwelcome-ch 1 & 2

Tonight, I will begin a dharma talk series based on Pema Chödrön’s recently published book, Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World. This title encapsulates challenges that so many of us are facing amidst the ongoing pandemic, divisive politics, economic stress, injustice, racism, and environmental destruction. Emotions of fear, anger and uncertainty are affecting us, our family and friends, our society, and our planet.

An American-born Buddhist nun, now in her 80s, Pema offers spiritual insights and pragmatic tools for finding peace and even joy by turning towards suffering. Her primary teacher was the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who introduced her to Tibetan Buddhism. Since 1984, she has served as resident teacher at Gampo Abbey Monastery in Nova Scotia.

The first chapter, titled “Begin with a Broken Heart,” starts with the aspiration of her Mahayana Buddhist tradition: “Our aim is to fully awaken our heart and mind, not just for our own greater wellbeing but also to bring benefit, solace, and wisdom to other living beings.” This noble intention entails arousing bodhicitta. In Sanskrit, bodhi means “awake,” and citta means both “heart” and “mind,” which are considered connected.

Bodhicitta involves a commitment to free ourselves from unconscious habits that prevent us from being fully there for others. In order to learn who we really are, each of us must investigate our own heart and mind. Enlightened people like the Dalai Lama are awake to their true nature and so open-hearted and open-minded that they uplift all those around them.

Pema reminds us of the Buddha’s teaching that we are all innately good-hearted, but our confusion and habitual tendencies impede us from caring for ourselves and others. In order to awaken from our trance, we must learn to let go of impediments that block us from being of service in the world. The less reactive, fearful and stuck in old patterns we are, the more present we can be with those who need our support. By recognizing and accepting our own neurotic tendencies, we can show up for others who have similar tendencies. Even if we are still undergoing strong emotions inside, we can respond compassionately to someone in need.

When we feel anxious, unconfident and self-concerned, bodhicitta may seem inaccessible. Trungpa Rinpoche taught Pema a method for transforming the mind when it is contracted and doubtful. His suggestion was to “begin with a broken heart.” Let’s try it now:

*Bring to mind a poignant image or story that naturally warms your heart or connects you with the human predicament. You might be touched by a friend who is seriously ill or who is grieving. Perhaps you know someone who has been laid off from work or who is facing hunger and homelessness. Notice how your heart is affected by visualizing or having a felt sense of being with this person.

As Pema says, “Protecting ourselves from pain—our own and that of others—has never worked. Everybody wants to be free from their suffering, but the majority of us go about it in ways that [worsen our pain]. Shielding ourselves from the vulnerability of all living beings—[including our own]—cuts us off from the full experience of life. Our world shrinks. When our main goals are to gain comfort and avoid discomfort, we begin to feel disconnected from, and even threatened by, others. We enclose ourselves in a mesh of fear. And when many people and countries engage in this kind of approach, the result is a messy global situation with lots of pain and conflict.”

Even when we realize that it is counterproductive to try to protect our hearts from pain, it’s a hard habit to break. When we let ourselves experience our raw emotions without becoming lost in thoughts and stories about them, we can touch bodhicitta. For example, when I feel sad, rather than judging myself or fantasizing about someone cheering me up, I can simply stay with that sadness, exploring how it feels in my body, heart and mind. Finding bodhicitta in my own vulnerability, I sense that my sadness is no different from the sadness that every human being experiences. My heart opens with compassion for all who share that kind of heartache.

Trungpa Rinpoche attributed his strong desire to alleviate suffering to an incident that occurred when he was about eight years old. From a monastery roof, he watched helplessly as a group of boys in the street below stoned a terrified puppy to death. For the rest of his life, the memory of that innocent dog’s pain motivated Trungpa to be present with suffering.

Instead of viewing the boys’ cruel behavior as alien, can we search for its roots within ourselves and recognize aggressive impulses in our own hearts? If we can acknowledge our common human tendencies, we are better equipped to communicate with people who are acting aggressively.

Our motivations to help others are often mixed. Along with a genuine desire to be of service, we may try to impress others with our good works or stay busy to avoid feeling our own pain. Some helpers are driven by a need to control or a hope to be rewarded in this life or the next.

In 1985, Ram Dass co-authored How Can I Help? about skillful and unskillful ways to offer assistance. A little more than a decade afterwards, he had a major stroke and was forced to receive round-the-clock care from others. Once he adapted to using a wheel chair and to speaking haltingly, Ram Dass wrote, “What a gift the stroke has given me, to finally learn that I don’t have to renounce my humanity in order to be spiritual—that I can be both witness and participant, both eternal spirit and aging body.” Physical suffering deepened his capacity to be of service. Until his death last December, Ram Dass served as a spiritual mentor to many people, even officiating at the wedding of Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman.

Because it is based on understanding the origins of suffering, the motivation of bodhicitta leads to profound and durable results. Beneath any greed and aggression that harms others and ourselves lies ignorance about the basic goodness of our true nature and about our interconnection with all life.

The bodhisattva vow is to help every single living being awaken. Yet at any moment, countless people and animals are suffering, and we can neither prevent nor alleviate all of that pain. And what we can do to help is limited by circumstances beyond our control. Arousing bodhicitta is a long-term vision that requires ongoing effort and patience.

Pema concludes the first chapter with, “When we’re really in touch with the longing to help others, and when our lives are committed to that purpose, we can consider ourselves among the most fortunate people on this earth.”

My teachers, Koshin Paley Ellison and his husband Chodo Campbell, Zen monks and co-founders of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, are dedicated to service. They are clearly fulfilled by working as hospice chaplains, leading retreats for caregivers, and training students to bring caring presence to sick and dying patients. During the pandemic, Koshin and Chodo have been offering online classes to support people who are isolated or grieving. The steadiness of their dharma practice and the strength of their commitment to serve others inspires me. Their actions are deeply aligned with their bodhisattva vows.

In her second chapter, Pema argues that the way we act matters. Besides having external consequences, our actions affect our mind, sometimes making old habits more habitual and other times freeing us to experience life afresh. Whenever we catch ourselves on the verge of pursuing an unhealthy habit, we have a chance to interrupt the pattern and to establish new neural pathways in the brain. Pema quotes a familiar saying about karma: “If we want to learn about our past, we should look at our present circumstances for they are the result of our past actions. If we want to learn about our future, we should look at what we’re doing now.” With mindfulness, we can create a better future to share with others.

It does indeed matter what we do, say and think. In Pema’s words, “Everything counts [and] leaves an imprint in our minds. But at the same time, there’s plenty of room for us to relax and appreciate what life has to offer.” While sheltering at home, I developed a habit of dawdling over the daily newspaper. When I realized that getting lost in upsetting news stories was sapping my energy, I cut back. This change in routine gives me more time to devote to productive projects and to relationships that I want to nurture.

Wisdom and kindness can guide how we choose to act. When the Buddha taught about the basic ethical precepts, he aimed to help people awaken from mental confusion that causes suffering. Each time we refrain from causing harm to ourselves and others, we create the conditions for a peaceful heart and mind.

Trungpa Rinpoche taught, “Any experience can be made into a further blockage or can become a way of freeing ourselves.” He used the simple example of a fly landing on your leg. If you slap and kill it, you strengthen aggressive and insensitive tendencies. Instead, you can choose to treat the fly in a friendly manner, either letting it be or placing a hand gently nearby to encourage it to move away. It is possible to transform the fly’s visit from an irritating event into an opportunity to sow seeds of kindness and appreciation for all forms of life.

Pema uses the Tibetan term payu, translated as “discernment,” “heedfulness,” “awareness,” or “attentiveness.” When we understand that there are consequences for everything we do, say or think, we are motivated to maintain payu. In order to wake up, we must change habitual patterns.

Unwelcome events jolt us and give us opportunities for change. We always have a choice about how we respond. Each time we catch ourselves heading towards a habitual rut, we have a chance to interrupt the momentum and to find a liberating new direction. Despite our tendency to resist, we can benefit from welcoming the unwelcome.