DT- Pema Chödrön-Welcoming the Unwelcome-Ch 12 & 13 – Impermanence & Emptiness
Tonight, I’ll continue a series of dharma talks based on Pema Chödrön’s book Welcoming the Unwelcome. The 12th chapter, titled “Life Changes in an Instant,” refers to the writer Joan Didion, whose husband died suddenly of a cardiac arrest while they were conversing and sharing a meal. In The Year of Magical Thinking, she writes, “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” In that moment, her world fell apart.
Many of us know what it’s like to experience a sudden shock that completely alters our usual conventional view of reality. When terrorists commandeered planes to destroy NYC’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, people were stunned all around the globe. One eyewitness wrote an account about that day. On her way to work at the World Trade Center, she had been so focused on rehearsing a presentation that she was oblivious to her surroundings. As she rushed up the stairs from the subway station at Ground Zero, she was horrified to see that her office building no longer existed. She wondered if any of her coworkers had survived. The air was filled with bits of paper. Documents and presentations that had seemed so important were simply loose pieces of floating paper.
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche teaches that all of us live in a bubble that reflects our own ego-created version of reality. As we try to maintain what feels familiar, we turn away from the open-ended nature of life as it is actually unfolding. We all have daily routines, particular ways of preparing our food and relating to different people around us, and we can lull ourselves into believing that we are protected from anything that might unsettle us.
The Buddha expressed the liberating power of recognizing the truth of impermanence: “It’s better to live a single day seeing the momentary rise and fall of phenomena than to live a hundred years without seeing this.” Joseph Goldstein points out that we can observe impermanence on every level, whether we watch clusters of galaxies through powerful telescopes or subatomic particles through quantum experiments. In our own lives, we witness the body aging, relationships changing, people being born and dying, and thoughts, dreams and emotions arising and passing away. The peaks and valleys of our lives come and go like a dream.
In our meditation practice, we see impermanence directly and intimately. We pay attention to what arises and passes away and to how we react to those shifts. Thoughts and sounds appear and disappear, body sensations continuously change, and the breath shifts in length, duration and quality. Nothing is constant or solid.
Impermanence is evident. And yet, we are still flummoxed when unexpected changes occur. A while ago, when I was anticipating a birthday call from a dear, longtime friend, one of his former students phoned with the news of André’s untimely death. After struggling with Covid and pneumonia, he died at home in Basel, Switzerland. I’m still adjusting to his absence and to the fact that we had no opportunity to bid each other farewell. Because of pandemic restrictions, his grieving wife and son could not hold an in-person memorial service.
A jolting experience launched Pema’s spiritual quest. She was sitting calmly in front of her house, when her husband arrived unexpectedly to announce that he was having an affair and wanted a divorce. In that instant, her life was changed. She felt as if her usual reference points were gone. Her ordinary ways of perceiving and processing no longer functioned.
Pema found herself in a groundless, empty space, which was, in her words, “free of imputed meaning.” No longer could she associate marriage with security and confirmation. She realized that her ego had been inventing a safe, reliable world. All of a sudden, she could see things just as they are, unfolding moment by moment. As she moved beyond labels and expectations, Pema discovered that it is possible to be free from her illusions.
Even though she was scared by the open-endedness and unpredictability of emptiness, a wise part of her sensed that she did not want to regress and struggle again to maintain a fictitious semblance of reality. Buddhist teachings and regular meditation practice helped her stop trying so hard to control life. She learned to sit in the middle of whatever was arising and to let go of related concepts, opinions, and fixed ideas. In this process, her heart opened with compassion for everyone who struggles to manipulate their circumstances according to preferences.
Along the dharma path, Pema has developed a sense of humor about how easy it is to fool ourselves. She tells a story about staying in a place heated by a gas fireplace with artificial logs. Although she enjoyed sitting close by the hearth and feeling the cozy warmth of simulated flames, their fumes gave her a splitting headache. It took her several days to stop associating the fire with hominess and to face the reality that she was allergic to gas-lit flames. She was able to laugh at her disappointment that the fire was empty of the meaning she had attributed to it.
Pema suggests that we practice cultivating openness and curiosity about whether our labels have any basis in reality. Daily meditation sits can prepare us for facing disorienting times of illness, loss and eventually our own death. The more we observe that everything is empty of labels, the less we will resist experiences of groundlessness when they occur. As she says, “When our bubble bursts, we can recognize that we are walking through a very important doorway. Then we can experiment with hanging out on the other side of that doorway. We can learn to relax there…. [P]eople I’ve encountered who have learned to live in this open space free of imputed meaning are the most fearless, compassionate, and joyful people I know.”
I am reminded of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who fled as a teenager over the Himalayan mountains to escape Chinese troops invading his Tibetan homeland. Rather than bemoaning his fate of living in exile for more than 60 years, the Dalai Lama has traveled widely, touching people around the globe with his kindness and spontaneous joy. For him, the emptiness of exile is not associated with loss and bitterness but with opportunities to alleviate suffering on the bodhisattva path.
In 1991, Mark and I had the honor of serving as the Dalai Lama’s personal hosts at Yale. When we met his plane at Kennedy airport, His Holiness gazed down at us before descending the stairs to the runway. In that instant, my heart was struck with an infusion of loving kindness, which left me speechless and tearful with gratitude. That was my first experience of a shakti-pat, a direct transmission of energy from a spiritual master. In that moment of unbounded openheartedness and groundlessness, I glimpsed how blissful emptiness can be.
In her chapter titled “Cool Emptiness,” Pema proposes that instead of avoiding emptiness, we take advantage of opportunities to cultivate it. We can connect with emptiness through unwanted emotions and states of mind such as boredom, loneliness, insecurity, uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and depression. Rather than resisting or adding stories to these mental states, we can experience them just as they are.
Trungpa Rinpoche used to distinguish between what he called hot and cold emotions. For example, hot boredom refers to the familiar struggle to reject or flee from the experience. Often there’s a storyline such as, “I’m frittering away my precious time.” On the other hand, cool boredom entails relaxing, opening, and even welcoming the quality of spaciousness. Similarly, hot loneliness implies discomfort, restlessness and seeking someone else to alleviate what feels stuck and problematic. Yet, with cool loneliness, we can pause, relax, and sense the fleeting nature of the experience.
By training ourselves to accept periods of boredom or loneliness, we can wean ourselves from the habit of blocking unpleasant states of mind. Ironically, the struggle to avoid unwanted emotions keeps them hot.
Pema points to depression as a training ground for connecting with emptiness. When her husband filed for divorce, her life felt meaningless, and she entered a period of depression. At first, she fought against slowing down and resisted the unfamiliar groundless feeling. Then, treating herself with kindness and gentleness, she began to learn what the experience of emptiness could teach her. She experimented with staying with unwelcome feelings for a few seconds at a time, until she could handle them. And her depression shifted gradually from hot to cool. With a spirit of inquiry and exploration, she grew less frightened about touching groundlessness.
She discovered a sense of joy and freedom in the limitless space outside her habitual bubble. And so can we.