DT-4 Keys to Wake Up—Pema Chödrön 

Tonight, I will talk about what Pema Chödrön calls four keys to waking up. Most of us come to the dharma path because we are suffering. When we’re authentic and admit our dissatisfaction and confusion, we become open to receiving the wisdom of dharma teachings.

Stabilize Your Mind

The first key to waking up is to stabilize your mind. Pema recalls her late teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche reminiscing about his childhood in Tibet. His venerable master teacher Kongtrul Rinpoche predicted that someday the boy would travel to the West and warned that many Westerners are “more interested in staying asleep than in waking up.”

Indeed, when he was teaching at Naropa in Colorado, Trungpa realized how often his students were tempted to distract themselves rather than to face uncomfortable sensations and emotions. He encouraged them to practice meditation as a means of strengthening their capacity to be present with their experiences, neither clinging to what’s pleasant nor avoiding or pushing away what’s unpleasant. As they learned to be less reactive, Trungpa’s students could flow more freely with the natural cycles of life. 

Dharma teacher Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel observes that the untamed mind is like a limbless, blind person trying to ride a wild horse. She says, “Don’t make meditation a project like everything else…. We appreciate nature because it is so uncontrived and unselfconscious. Bring that to mind and know that the body itself has its own intelligence.” Whenever we bring awareness to breathing and other body sensations, which occur only in the present moment, we stabilize the mind.

Of course, even when the body is grounded, relaxed, and settled, the mind will wander because it’s accustomed to seeking stimulation. Instead of judging ourselves for becoming distracted, we can rejoice each time we are awake enough to notice that we’re caught up in mental activity or that we’re resisting our experience. Eventually, the relief of returning to the reality of what’s here and now becomes more rewarding than seeking excitement elsewhere. 

Regardless of our outer circumstances, we can practice mindfulness of the present moment. One of Elizabeth’s friends was in solitary confinement for a year and a half. To prevent her thoughts from running wild, the prisoner did regular walking meditation in her cell, counting seven steps in each direction, until her mind was calm and steady. She emerged from prison with an attitude of caring about herself and the world around her. 

Her discipline reminds me of a month-long silent retreat that I attended at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. During most of the walking meditation periods, I paced slowly back and forth atop a 6-foot-long wooden platform in the forest. My practice was to pay close attention to sensations: bare feet touching the rough boards, hands vibrating with energy, hair ruffling in breezes, skin absorbing warm sunlight, and breath, breathing itself, in and out. I learned how to receive the unfamiliar pleasure of contentment, watching squirrels leap from tree to tree, listening to birdsongs, and perceiving rainbow glints of sunlight on countless cobwebs in the long dewy grass. I let each fleeting impression touch me, falling into the unknown of the present moment. 

Grounded in sensory experiences, I could watch emotions arising and passing away without my usual reactivity. When fearful thoughts surfaced, I noted a habitual tendency to speed up my pace and flee. Instead, I chose to walk slowly and steadily as a way of caring gently for vulnerable, childlike emotions that I no longer needed to avoid.

Make Friends With Yourself

I was learning to embody the second key to waking up, which is to make friends with yourself. Pema notes that at a certain point in meditation practice, we may become self-critical as we notice traits and tendencies that we dislike. She advises us to look more deeply until we can bring compassion to the sadness, anxiety or loneliness that may underlie our unskillful thoughts, words, or deeds. 

As Pema says, “When you have a true friend, you stick together year after year, but you don’t put your friend up on a pedestal and think that they’re perfect. You two have had fights. You’ve seen them be really petty, you’ve seen them mean, and they’ve also seen you in all different states of mind. Yet you remain friends, and there’s even something about the fact that you know each other so well and still love each other that strengthens the friendship. Your friendship is based on knowing each other fully and still loving each other.”

Unconditional friendship with yourself has the same flavor of kindness as deep friendships with others. Just as we want to alleviate the suffering of a dear friend, we want to enhance our own happiness. Pema teaches that instead of repressing unwholesome tendencies or feeling ashamed of being a “bad person,” a friendly attitude is the best way to transform our unwholesome habits. She recommends embracing whatever we see in ourselves. Pema tries to identify and to accept the buddha in every feeling that arises: Feeling Hurried Buddha, Feeling No Compassion Buddha, Feeling Cut Off From Nature Buddha, etc.

Be Free from Fixed Mind

A third quality for waking up is to be free from fixed mind. Life gives us ongoing opportunities to experience this freedom. Fixed mind is stuck and inflexible. No matter how noble our cause is, we can be caught in a closed mind. You might be an ardent environmentalist who cares deeply about conserving nature. But if your mind is fixed, you tend to see people in the oil and gas business as enemies. An activist who is prejudiced is less effective than one who has an open mind. 

A fixed mind may be suddenly freed in a trauma or a crisis when our usual way of perceiving the world shifts. Pema tells the story of a woman who was rushing to work at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. On the subway, she reviewed a pile of papers for a presentation she was about to give. Distracted, she climbed the stairs to the street. 

Then she saw inconceivable destruction. The air was filled with papers like the ones she was holding—all the paperwork that had been filling up drawers in offices like hers. Her mind stopped. In that moment, none of her usual reference points made sense. It was an opportunity for her heart to open with compassion for all who were suffering around her. 

When Pema first started practicing meditation, advanced meditators told her about “the gap” of open awareness that’s revealed when we’re free from fixed mind. Rather than experiencing a gap, her mind seemed full of thoughts and emotional reactivity. On a month-long retreat during the summertime, she became acclimated to the continuous sound of an air conditioner in the meditation hall. One day, someone switched off the air conditioner, and she experienced a gap. When the expected sound was interrupted, all that remained was open awareness.

This simple experience shifted Pema’s meditation practice and her life. Amidst a heated debate, she would become aware of her mouth and her mind yacking away. Then she would stop arguing and take a break to free herself from fixed mind. She knew that the mind would start up again, just the way the air conditioner did. But with practice, she learned to appreciate the freedom of gaps or pauses.  She could see that in every action, sound, sight, and smell there is space for wonder, and that the potential of human life is enormously vast.

Take Care of Others                                                                                                  With more spaciousness in our lives, we understand that our joys and sorrows are not separate from the joys and sorrows of others. The fourth key to waking up is to take care of others. Pema states: “When you feel bad, let it be your link to others’ suffering. When you feel good, let it be your link with others’ joy.” 

Sea anemones are open and soft, but if you put your finger anywhere near them, they close. Pema compares them to people with untrained minds who shut down because they can’t stand to see their flaws or failings; can’t tolerate their feelings of boredom, disappointment, or fear; and don’t want to witness suffering on the evening news or in the face of a homeless person on the corner. 

It may seem sane to try to protect ourselves from pain that we fear might be overwhelming. But Pema urges us to follow our heart’s aspiration to become increasingly open to ourselves and to others. In her words, “The attitude is one step at a time—four baby steps forward, two baby steps back. You can just allow it to be like that. Trust that you have to go at your own speed.”

Gradually, we can overcome our habit of allowing difficult emotions and experiences to isolate us from other people. Rather than feeling alone, we can use our depression or desperation or sadness to link us to everyone else in the world who’s suffering in the same way. Once we are in touch with our human interconnection, we discover a deep well of compassion for others.

As we review these four keys to waking up—stabilizing the mind, befriending yourself, letting go of fixed mind, and taking care of others—take a moment to reflect upon which of the keys would most benefit your meditation practice and your daily life now.