DT-Wisdom and Humor Change the World (Pema Chödrön)

This is the final dharma talk in a series based on Pema Chödrön’s book Welcoming the Unwelcome.  Her chapter titled “Our Wisdom Changes the World” points out that a sane, peaceful world depends on individuals who care for themselves and for each other. Our meditation practice helps us view ourselves compassionately and give others the benefit of the doubt. We can be part of building a culture that values every person’s basic goodness and potential. Big-hearted and big-minded people manifest a caring culture. 

The Dalai Lama reminds us that our underlying nature is good. Difficult emotions like jealousy are not permanent fixtures in our character but temporary habitual patterns that are possible to change. These habits are like clouds that obscure the sun for a while before moving away to reveal the brilliant light that has been shining all along. The more familiar and intimate we become with the clouds, the more we know how insubstantial they are. 

Pema suggests that we practice intentionally to connect with basic goodness. As part of that process, we contact whatever is blocking us from our essential nature. One of the most common blockages is a doubting mind, which wonders, “Is there something inherently wrong with me?” Haunted by a sense of imperfection, it’s tempting to try to escape by rushing around busily, by clouding the mind with substances, or by seeking distractions. 

When we encounter doubts, it’s helpful to investigate any story line that is underpinning them. There may be a childhood memory of being judged or criticized harshly. Beneath the words of the story, there is often an uncomfortable preverbal feeling or energy. We can practice staying present and accepting that feeling tenderly. As Pema says, “Place the fearful mind in the cradle of loving kindness.” 

Acceptance doesn’t mean that we like or enjoy uncomfortable emotional and mental states. But it does mean that we learn to expand the range of human experiences that we can tolerate. A while ago on a retreat, I met with Jack Kornfield to describe sensations of fear that I was experiencing. To my surprise, he responded kindly, “You can bear it.” I realized that he was right and felt more confident about my capacity to be with difficult emotions and sensations without avoiding or rejecting them. I saw how I could bring tenderness instead of judgment to that process. 

In Pema’s words, “If each of us can change how we look at ourselves, that becomes the basis for a culture of people who don’t give up on themselves or each other…. How we respond [to violence, polarization, environmental degradation, and suffering all over the globe] will determine the way the world will go. As citizens of our world, we can help things go in the direction of wisdom, caring, and compassion.” 

Humor is part of changing how we look at ourselves and the world around us. In her chapter titled, “Welcoming the Unwelcome with Laughter,” Pema advises us to lighten up about our flaws and to be friendly to ourselves. As a reminder to stop striving to be a perfect Buddhist practitioner, she has a collection of humorous spiritual cards. One depicts an irate monk throttling another monastic. The caption reads, “[Are you] having an Unbuddha-like Moment?” Another card portrays a woman meditating in the half-lotus position and reflecting, “Here I sit, totally evolved and at one with all life…compassionately not judging stupid people.”

Pema’s friend, Jarvis Masters, who is imprisoned on death row, confesses that when visiting chaplains preach cheerfully about virtue, ethics and maintaining a sunny attitude, he wonders, “Am I the only one having a bad thought?” Even when we have a genuine intention to wake up for the benefit of all sentient beings, numerous conditioned thoughts arise in our minds. Unless we have a sense of humor, we can feel discouraged by the internal mental stream, which includes habitual petty desires, prejudices, and complaints. 

Rather than viewing unwelcome thoughts or feelings as enemies, we can treat them like familiar friends. For instance, if I catch myself obsessing about all the tasks that I have left undone, I can respond silently, “Greetings again, my old friend, Neurotic Fretting!” 

The Buddha set an example for this friendly approach. The night before his enlightenment, he sat steadfastly while the demon god Mara tempted him with lust, greed, anger and doubt. Although Mara admitted defeat temporarily, he continued to make unexpected appearances. Ever vigilant, Ananda, the Buddha’s loyal attendant, would announce that the “Evil One” had returned. Instead of ignoring Mara or driving him away, the Buddha would say calmly, “I see you, Mara.” Then he would invite him to tea and serve him as an honored guest. Because the Buddha remained undisturbed and at ease, Mara did not linger. 

When Mara visits us in the form of difficult emotions or scary stories, we can greet him, “I see you, Mara,” acknowledging the craving and fear that every human being faces. No matter what presents itself, we can welcome kindly the reality of our experiences.

In Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach writes, “Seeing what is true, we hold what is seen with kindness.” She says, “Our habit of being a fair-weather friend to ourselves–of pushing away or ignoring whatever darkness we can—is deeply entrenched. But just as our relationship with a good friend is marked by understanding and compassion, we can learn to bring these same qualities to our own inner life.”  

In meditation practice, we have an opportunity to bring compassionate awareness to whatever arises. When the attention wanders away from the breath to follow a thought, observe your attitude as you note, “Thinking, thinking.” If the tone is impatient or harsh, is it possible to soften it? Can you label all thinking gently, regardless of content—whether the thoughts are pleasant, unpleasant, angry, worried, fearful, comforting or uplifting? 

One of Rumi’s poems addresses the theme of welcoming the entire spectrum of thoughts and emotions.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival. 

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all…
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing 

and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

In Pema’s words, “Being able to laugh at ourselves connects us with our humanness.” With humor, we connect with other people and empathize with our common situation. Like all human beings, each of us has basic goodness plus a measure of neurotic habits. All of us experience moments of vulnerability, discomfort and confusion. The more tenderly we treat our own weaknesses and the more we appreciate ourselves just as we are, the better we can accept other people without judging and criticizing their foibles. 

Last week Travis reminded us of the Buddha’s metaphor of properly tuned lute strings as a guide for meditation practice that is “not too tight and not too loose.” With a sense of humor, we can open up spontaneously to unexpected events. When we take ourselves less seriously, it’s easier to let go of fixed ideas about how we are supposed to be and how life ought to unfold. 

Our meditation practice prepares us to accept whatever arises—welcome or unwelcome—as part of our path of awakening. As Pema says, “Although it is embarrassing and painful, it is very healing to stop hiding from yourself…. By knowing yourself, you’re coming to [understand] humanness …. We are all in this together…. [You’re] changing old stuck patterns that are shared by the whole human race.”

Our individual practice matters in the interconnected web of life. By training our hearts to be kinder and our minds to be clearer and steadier, we benefit the world around us. If we learn to meet difficult circumstances with compassion and humor, we will be better prepared to help others in times of hardship. The fundamental message of Welcoming the Unwelcome is that we can take whatever occurs in our lives and use it to cultivate our basic goodness for the welfare of ourselves and all beings.