“Overcoming Polarization” and “The Art of Failure”

Tonight, we will continue with a series of dharma talks based on Pema Chödrön’s most recent book Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World. Chapter three, titled “Overcoming Polarization,” addresses our tendency, consciously or unconsciously, to divide people, things, and ideas into contrasting categories. We often use terms such as “us” and “them,” “right” and “wrong,” or “worthy” and “unworthy” to justify choosing one category over another. Our judgments leave little room for a middle way. During post-election contentiousness, we sense how much suffering polarization causes.

When groups or nations adopt polarizing concepts, there is danger of discrimination, oppression, and war. National and global discord is rooted in habitual conditioning of individual minds. Most of us experience some degree of opposition inside and outside of ourselves. We are dissatisfied with ourselves just as we are, with other people as they are, and with the world as it is. Whenever we feel an aversion to our experiences or a desire to change them to our liking, we are inclining towards polarization. It’s at that point that dharma practice can help us choose between skillful and unskillful responses.

Mindfulness gives us opportunities to notice the dualistic quality of our thoughts, words and actions. We can also appreciate moments when we are not resisting our experiences and when we feel at ease with life just as it is. During the day, it helps to reflect, “Am I increasing my sense of separateness from others?” or “Am I decreasing the distance between myself and the world around me?”

To illustrate how to be conscious about polarization amidst daily activities, Pema describes turning on a faucet to bathe and then discovering a spider in the bathtub. She has a choice to keep the water running—a polarizing action because aversion or indifference to the spider blinds her to their commonalities as living beings. When she considers that neither of them wants to suffer, she opts to turn off the water and to save the spider’s life. As one of her teachers said, “It may be a small event for you, but it’s a major event for the spider.” Each small event that nourishes our awakening heart matters and connects us to the world.

Despite our best efforts, we can easily slip into polarizing, especially with words. I’ll give a simple example. One morning, Mark was distracted while making oatmeal for our breakfast, and the pot overflowed. When I reacted impatiently and reproached him for making a mess, he responded defensively, and our dog Amanda looked worriedly from my face to his. In an instant, our harmonious morning routine was disrupted. I realized that I had a choice to stop polarizing. I apologized for my critical remark and expressed gratitude for Mark’s efforts to cook us both a meal. We ended up enjoying our breakfast, and Amanda relaxed, lying down on the floor between us.

Sometimes, after I speak or act in an aggressive or divisive manner, I feel guilty. Pema cautions that hiding out in a state of guilt does not help us to overcome feelings of separateness or contribute to waking up. She suggests using the unpleasant situation to become more conscious. A first step is to acknowledge that we have added aggression to our planet, where every day so many people act in cruel and thoughtless ways. As we grow more aware of our harmful actions and of how widespread those types of acts are, we understand the human condition more fully, seeing how vulnerable we all are. Compassionate insight about our shared vulnerability can motivate us to work with habitual reactions and to stay present with our emotions instead of reacting with hurtful words or actions.

The most subtle level of polarization occurs in our minds. Unchecked judgmental thoughts about others and ourselves create grooves in the brain that develop into beliefs and attitudes. Habitual judgments tend to separate us from others. Divisive thinking leads to prejudice and to dehumanizing people who disagree with us or whom we consider different from us. Polarizing thoughts often result in criticizing someone else’s habits, preferences or opinions.

One of my dear friends differs with me politically. At one point, she sent me a speech by a politician whose views I find offensive. I wrote, reminding her of the common values that have sustained our long friendship and proposing that we agree to disagree about politics. She responded immediately, apologizing for trying to convert me to her point of view. We both decided that our relationship was more important than our divergent political stances.

Pema suggests that we commit to be aware of our propensity for polarization and to remember that all human beings share our wish to be happy. A practice called “just like me” helps develop this awareness. We can start by focusing on someone neutral and repeating to ourselves phrases such as, “Just like me, this person wants to be at ease. Just like me, this person wishes to be liked and respected.”

Even though we do not know exactly what others are feeling and thinking, we do know that all human beings want others to care about them. At the most fundamental level, none of us wishes to suffer. With ongoing practice, we may find it possible to apply the principle of “Just like me” even to perpetrators of violence and murder. Pema reminds us that the mother of James Foley, a journalist who was kidnapped and beheaded by an ISIS terrorist, was able to view her son’s assassin with compassion. She said, “We need to forgive [the executioner] for not having a clue about what he was doing.” This grieving mother sensed the extreme desperation and the complex circumstances underlying such a violent act. We can question ourselves: if we were as ungrounded, miserable, hopeless, and schooled in hatred as a terrorist, how might we act? Of course, despite having a compassionate understanding about the roots of violence, it is important to speak up when we have been hurt or when we know that others are being hurt.

In this era when old systems and ideas are being questioned and falling apart, we have an opportunity to stay open-minded and open-hearted instead of polarizing or developing rigid and fundamentalist attitudes. Each time we wake up and stop polarizing in thoughts, words or actions, we deepen our sense of interconnection with others. When we change our own internal patterns, we contribute to changing patterns in our culture.

One way to diminish polarization is to change how we view failure. Pema’s fourth chapter, titled “The Fine Art of Failure,” examines how our untrained ego “resists what is” and struggles against the natural flow of life. It is uncomfortable with vulnerability and ambiguity and tries to control impermanence. Seeking security, the ego strives to freeze what is fluid and to grasp what is in motion. As a result, we feel dissatisfied and threatened, hiding behind our fear of discomfort. Many people stay closed in a small, fearful world, avoiding what is unpleasant, painful, insecure and unpredictable.

As a remedy, Pema recommends learning how to fail gracefully. When things don’t work out the way we want them to, the ego often tries to escape from vulnerable feelings. One strategy is to blame the failure on something external. If a personal or professional relationship doesn’t work out, it’s easy to find fault with the other person. Another way to deal with failure is to turn the blame inward, labeling ourselves as “losers” and worrying that we are basically flawed.

A wholesome alternative is to train ourselves to respond to failure by feeling our true emotions. Pema calls this “holding the rawness of vulnerability in our heart.” When we are resisting or attempting to escape from hard reality, we can usually detect a tightening or contraction somewhere in the body. If we bring awareness to that sensation and explore it with curiosity, it is possible to stay with the raw feeling of discomfort long enough for the nervous system to start becoming accustomed to it. Gradually, at our own pace, we can increase the amount of time that we tolerate discomfort.

To the untrained mind, a difficult emotion like dread seems to be solid and durable. If we stay present with the feeling and experience it directly, however, “dread” shifts in intensity and morphs energetically, revealing itself as unsubstantial. We learn that nothing ever stays the same. Even our heaviest, most unpleasant emotions have no permanent substance. Over time, this practice of directly experiencing uncomfortable feelings allows the nervous system to relax with the truth of the impermanent, uncontrollable nature of life. Eventually, when we experience failure or discomfort, we can expand with acceptance rather than contracting and withdrawing. Instead of clinging to preferences, we can let go and welcome a full spectrum of reality, including what’s uncomfortable.  

When we’re able to hold raw vulnerability in our hearts, we can use that energy for creative expression. Pema mentions Beyoncé’s song, “Pretty Hurts” that conveys the singer’s own experience with the pain of perfectionism. In the process of unmasking our pain, we can transform our vulnerable feelings into music, poetry, dance, or art that communicates with other people and resonates with their own challenges.

Ironically, it is the raw, vulnerable place within us that allows us to feel our best qualities of bravery, kindness, and caring. When we train our nervous systems to be with the uncertain, open-ended reality of impermanence, we can experience more fully life’s richness and wonder.

Over the past year, as growing cataracts blur my vision, I’ve nervously postponed having surgery. Meanwhile, I’m learning lessons about vulnerability from a hospice patient I’ll call “José,” who recently became blind. During chaplain visits, I feel compassion for his condition and gratitude that I can still detect colors and forms that he no longer sees. Despite grieving about his blindness, José is pleased that his auditory sense has increased in sensitivity so that, from a distance, he can distinguish the sounds of different individual voices and footsteps. One day, he confided, “When I could see, I didn’t pay attention to sounds. Now I can hear the nurse cutting apple slices in the kitchen, and I know she’s coming soon with my favorite snack.” Even though he is confined to a hospice bed, José can take joy in the senses that still work and appreciate new levels of awareness.

Pema quotes Trungpa Rinpoche: “There are sounds that you’ve never heard, smells that you’ve never smelled, sights that you’ve never seen, thoughts that you’ve never thought. The world is astonishingly full of potential for further and further and further opening, [for] experiencing it wider and wider and wider.” By failing gracefully, we are less afraid of vulnerability and more open to life’s mysteries.