Tag Archives: Pema Chodron

When Things Fall Apart (Or Seem To): Everyday Magic, Day 890

Since the inauguration our family has been living out a microcosm of the macrocosm. While the details aren’t mine to tell, let’s just say that we had one of those unjust life incidents in which we discover that, contrary to popular human opinion, there’s sometimes (translation: often to always) no real ground when it comes to what we can count on and control. Macrocosm-wise, this also feels true for many of us who are partaking of the buffet of letter- and email-writing, phone calls, marching, and all manner of resisting unjust policies stinging our hearts, violating our values, and crashing apart our ideals and safeguards.

In such times, I go back to Pema Chodron, particularly her anchoring-to-reality book, When Things Fall Apart, in which she writes,

We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

I remember when some close friends of ours were going through major marriage re-evaluation, both of them hurting but shining. They told us, “Then you realize there truly is no ground, and it’s terrifying and exhilarating.” They made it through and have been together for the likes of close to 40 adventurous years, and I’m so grateful to them for their example of courage and clear-seeing at the fall-apart times.

Yup, it’s a panoramic swirl of falling apart and together, and along the way, often all at once, there’s a careening dance of agony, ecstasy, anxiety, heartbreak, hope, amazement, and many moments when we can really feel our beating heart. Sometimes it all comes together at 4 a.m. when one of us wakes up to exhaustion, freak-out, and wonder. Sometimes the calm of trembling cedar trees against overlapping clouds reminds us to breathe. But always, there’s both groundlessness in such times, and the real ground, where we will walk soon, in a hurry to get from house to car on a cold morning, so that we can aim ourselves toward (what else?) love in whatever form shows us why we’re here.

Why I’m a Crazy Bitch Sometimes: Everyday Magic, Day 857

I think of myself as a peaceful person occasionally booted off the stage of my life by a crazy bitch who takes everything too personally and speed-walks in circles, planning defenses of attacks by the world not yet (or ever) launched.

In those moments, what runs through my mind and, when I’m not disciplined enough, out my mouth is more than a little appalling, landing me in morasses of guilt over feeling, being, or acting like a crazy bitch while still shouldering whatever triggered the calm, happy woman of me to go to crazy bitch town in the first place. The trigger could be a phrase someone casually says, an angry offspring, an email (oh, the woes of inflammatory screen-based communication!), or a mysterious and persistent physical symptom. Whatever it is, I’m hooked, my inner brat is sure the sky is falling, and somebody ought to be made to pay for it.

“Shenpa,” a Tibetan Buddhist term popularized by Pema Chodron, speaks to that moment when we take the hook, and all hell breaks loose in our little beings. While she speaks to how human this is, and how — instead of catapulting into habitual responses, e.g. going to town on some little or big stuff that we have no control over in most cases — we can remind ourselves that this is a shenpa moment, then, with all the strength we can muster, aim toward a different response or simply not act out at all. That’s all well and good, but for me, the best I can often do (and Pema Chodron says this is a good enough start) is to yell, “shenpa!” while packing the war chest.

Last week was a seven-day crazy shenpa-fueled bitchfest. Maybe  this had to do with the ill-advised timing of buying a new computer and embarking upon what’s known as data migration (moving vast parts of your mind from many sets of file cabinets and laundry baskets) at the same time I decided to paint two-thirds of the interior of the house, Ken was out of town, my son twisted his ankle, and my sleep was constantly ruined by a pouncing cat, a small herd of lightning bugs in the bedroom, and crazy-loud buzz of the dryer at 2 a.m. Maybe all the rain, the peaches I lusted after going bad because they got refrigerator-buried, the approaching space craft to Pluto, karma, bad luck, and something someone in congress did is to blame too. Most likely, there’s no one blame but my own pacing mind, so embroiled in fixing for a fight that it forgets how most of what it’s processing is self-generated.

Throughout the week, as a counterbalance to the big show playing in my mind, I was playing in the background Pema Chodron videos on shenpa in which she discussed how what freaks out us can also free us:

…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.

To be honest, I rarely want to lean into my inner (and sometimes, god help me, outer) crazy bitch. I would rather banish her to therapy camp in the Adirondacks, telling her to return when she’s realized the futility of her trauma drama ways and is now ready to take up a new craft, like making vanilla-scented candles. Yet I understand how, even when we’re at our most unlovable and even deplorable, there’s something deeply tender about scooping up our crazy bitch, and saying, “I see you and hope you feel better soon.” Then it’s time to listen for what’s really driving the bitch bus which, unlucky at the moment, and lucky for us overall, comes right on time.

 

When Things Fall Apart: Everyday Magic, Day 795

One of my favorite books, Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, names this week. Two of our three young adult children lost their jobs, my uncle died after a difficult (but thankfully short) hard ending, another friend is close to leaving us, and yet another is in the hospital in critical condition. Several nights of thunderstorms translated into my very big dog trying to climb on my head while the cats danced and pounced across our blankets. Yet the universe has added some comic relief: yesterday, Shay the dog strategically unzipped my purse and proceeded to eat a large bag of cough drops, making his breath methol-fresh.

In between buying a plane ticket after several hours of scouring the Internet (beginning at 5:38 a.m.), packing, and finishing getting a book of poetry ready for publication, I turn to Pema Chodron’s writings, and find this:

We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy…..To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.

As I sit in my living room, watching the haze of the softly-lit clouds blow through the tops of the cedars, I breathe slowly, trying to appreciate life out of the nest, the place where I can no longer pretend life isn’t so unpredictable or dangerous. I open my heart to the sadness I feel about my uncle, a man who often made us laugh very hard and was the first person I knew who adored sushi. I replay the refrain Kim Stafford told me about being a parent,”Difficult to watch, impossible to fix.” I listen to the dog, snoring beside me on the couch as he catches up on sleep after so many restless nights.

Some weeks things fall apart. Plans drastically change on a dime. Life lessons, as my mother reminded me yesterday, come at us, no matter our age or circumstance. “Let me remember to let there be room enough for healing,” I tell myself just as a large crow landed on the top of the cedar, balanced on the swaying branches.

When the Hooks Are on the Wind: Everyday Magic, Day 729

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun and writer, calls it shenpa, which she defines as “….the urge, the hook, that triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that moment of tightening when we reach for relief. To get unhooked we begin by recognizing that moment of unease and learn to relax in that moment.” Life calls it just-being-life. I have other names for the moments the hooks are on the wind heading toward me.

Lately, I’ve had a lot of reminders about the dangers of catching hooks. I’m amazed that I can feel so calm and happy-go-lucky one moment, then trip over a hook into a caldron of spinning fear or defensiveness the next. Then again, we’re wildly vulnerable creatures, prone to easy breakage but, luckily enough, full recovery in ways we can barely grasp.

Growing up with a father who an expert hook-thrower, I learned early how to catch every hook whether I had to squat down or leap up suddenly. Then I learned how not to reach out my unprotected hand for what wouldn’t serve my spirit or actually help anyone. The art of not grabbing the hook isn’t as simple as ducking or turning away. It entails deeply considering how to respond or not respond to someone who is determined to cast you as an evil force or powerless victim in his/her fast-moving and fairly dramatic narrative. What complicates clear thinking and meeting the situation with tenderness and curiosity is the habitual going-to-the-races responses most of us have honed to perfection.

As Pema Chodron writes:

I recently saw a cartoon of three fish swimming around a hook. One fish is saying to the other, “The secret is non-attachment.” That’s a shenpa cartoon: the secret is—don’t bite that hook. If we can catch ourselves at that place where the urge to bite is strong, we can at least get a bigger perspective on what’s happening. As we practice this way, we gain confidence in our own wisdom. It begins to guide us toward the fundamental aspect of our being—spaciousness, warmth and spontaneity.

So as I swim through today, I try to not bit the hook. Fortunately, I have chicken enchiladas in my future to bit into instead.

Dwelling in Uncertainty & Snow: Everyday Magic, Day 504

The view from my office on the cusp of the incoming storm
The view from my computer of two napping mandalas

When is it most difficult to dwell in uncertainty? When you’re exhausted and ready to be home and then, weather intervenes …..or not. It’s hard to tell what will happen now that a winter storm warning has been issued for the part of Vermont I and the airport are in when the warning extends until Saturday morning. All I know is that the snow is coming. It could be a few inches or well over a foot. It could turn to rain or, worst scenario, freezing rain and ice. The weather is iffy enough that the campus has just announced that the residency is officially over now so if people need to leave early to out-race the storm, they can…..that is, if they drive or have other means of getting from here to there.

Not having my own private plane, I’m here, like many others, and I’m thinking about this state of not-knowing. I looked to solace by re-reading Pema Chodron, my favorite writer on the shaky and unpredictable wiles of the life force:

Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground be-neath us suddenly disappears. We can bring ourselves back to the spiritual path countless times every day simply by exercising our willingness to rest in the uncertainty of the present moment —over and over again
The view of a campus wondering just how much snow will come

And there’s nothing like the weather outside the window or within our own bodies to bring us back to the present moment and also face-to-face to whatever habitual ruts we dive ourselves into when the going gets tough and keeps the tough from going. “Learning to stay,” as Pema Chodron writes, is about opening ourselves to the wild groundlessness of whatever ground we’re inhabiting which, in my case, is some hilly forests surrounding a small campus, all of it staring up expectantly to the sky for what will come next.

But while life is a series of travels through and dwellings in uncertainty, you could also say it’s a cabaret, especially here at Goddard where, despite the residency being over, a bunch of students are right now down the hall painting their faces, cross-dressing, rehearsing dance numbers and banging on drums in preparation for the unofficial cabaret, which begins in seven minutes. The snow may be coming, the program for tomorrow may be cancelled but the show, at least, must go on.

Holiday Gifts For the Heart & Soul: Everyday Magic, Day 461

I believe in giving gifts whenever the spirit moves us as well as giving ourselves whatever gifts feed our souls and lift us up to live out our callings. In this tune, I want to recommend these possibilities for you to give others and/or give yourself, all of which are home-grown (benefiting the 99% and not just the 1%) and offered by people I believe in.

  • Writing as a Way of Healing: Ourselves & Others, an online class with Sharon Bray: Sharon is fabulous at helping people connect with their deepest truths, and she’s very experienced at offering superb online classes. She writes of this one, “What is the story you want to tell? In ‘Writing as a Way of Healing: Ourselves and Others,’ we begin with you. Your experience. Your story. We will work together to create a virtual community that has as its ground rules an atmosphere of safety, support and mutual respect, one that allows you to write authentically and deeply from painful life experiences. In this way, we will experience and model the ways in which writing can be healing, for ourselves and for others.” This class is offered by the Transformative Language Arts Network.
  • The Music of Kelley Hunt, Greg Greenway, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Leonard Cohen, and Others: Music keeps speaking through us and to us, and a gift of music goes, like the song, on and on and on. These are some of my favorites, but feel free to ask people around you who their favorites are, and then investigate! Also, Kelley has an amazing New Year’s Eve Eve concert coming up on 12/30.
  • Great Books!: I recommend these books I’ve read in the last year and loved: Chris Offutt’s The Same River Twice, Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, Harriet Lerner’s The Marriage Rules, Betsy Sholl’s Rough Cradle, Katherine Towler’s Island Light, Dick Allen’s Present Vanishing, two anthologies I edited (so of course I love these poems!) — Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems, and An Endless Skyway: Poetry from the State Poets Laureate, Stephanie Sandmeyer’s Broken for You, and anything by Pema Chodron.
  • Solitude & Beauty: Consider a retreat, particularly in Kansas at Shantivanam, a beautiful center just an hour from Kansas City or Lawrence. It’s a great way to recharge and relax.
  • Brave Voice: Writing & Singing For Your Life: This six-day retreat I offer with Kelley Hunt is all about recovering and celebrating your creative spirit. Past participants have gone on to write and publish books, release CDs, perform and read, and most of all, make enduring community with others who support their art and share the riches of their voice and vision. We have a solstice sale — $60 off if registered by 12/21 — here.

The Girl, The Ego & The Comfortable Room: Everyday Magic, Day 382

‎”Your goal on the spiritual path should be to free everyone else from your ego.” – Ken Wilber. That’s what my friend Scott posted on facebook the other day, which stirred some polar opposite reactions, from my “wow” to others certainly not in agreement. It got me thinking about how much am I impose my ego on others here and there without noticing. Then of course, I had to ask what constituted such an imposition. If I interrupt someone to say something funny, am I kind sort imposing my ego? If jostle for attention or avoid dealing with a mess, I’m clearly not freeing others of my ego.

And all this made me remember the best quote on the ego I’ve ever heard, from Pema Chodron:

Ego is like a room of your own, a room with a view with the temperature and the smells and the music that you like. You want it your own way. You’d just like to have a little peace, you’d like to have a little happiness, you know, just gimme a break. But the more you think that way, the more you try to get life to come out so that it will always suit you, the more your fear of other people and what’s outside your room grows. Rather than becoming more relaxed, you start pulling down the shades and locking the door. When you do go out, you find the experience more and more unsettling and disagreeable. You become touchier, more fearful, more irritable than ever. The more you try to get it your way, the less you feel at home.

I think about this often since like many of you, I love a good room: at the right temperature, with the food and sounds and smells I like best, and absolutely with the people who most please and least challenge me. Yet, as William Stafford in his poem, “Pretend You Live In A Room,” writes:

 

You have this world.  You wander the earth.
You can’t live in a room.

So from this girl’s vantage point, I write this from a room, a nice room in the back of the cottage, with windows overlooking the green unfolding of the Vermont woods, and inside this room, one of my colleagues quietly napping on the couch, her sneakers hanging over the arm. But I tell myself as much as I like this room, this isn’t just where I live. There is the world, and finding ways — small as nodding at someone I pass on the path to the dining room or large as deeply examining my motives in wanting to go to town over trying to change someone — to free the world of my own ego is the work. It’s what’s required for us to treat each other with greater compassion as well as to open our eyes and hearts to the other-than-human world buzzing and unfolding around us. It starts with doing this very work in whatever room I’m in at the time, comfortable or not, navigating from where I’m free from my own ego.

We Have Less Control Than The Little Control We Think We Have: Everyday Magic, Day 153

The older I get, the more apparent it is to me that whatever control I thought I had was largely illusionary. Beyond having real choices here and there (what to wear, eat, do in various moments), most of life is beyond my plans. This brings to mind two important quotes that guide me — one from my friend Shelley. When she and her then-partner received, a year after they adopted their daughter, received the phone message, “Would you like the brother?”, she quickly realized that “Life has more imagination that we do.”

The other quote comes from Pema Chodron, and I know it’s about how we humans are wired for solid ground while life is the opposite, but when I looked through When Things Fall Apart for it, I found this quote: “Impermanence is a principal of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality.”

Life is more imaginative. The only way to find the groove is to stop fighting change. All true, but why does thinking about this shake me sometimes, even bring me down to sad stillness? “This shaking keeps me steady. I should know,” Theodore Roethke writes in his great poem, “The Waking” (the one with the line, “I wake to sleep and take my waking slow”).

I watch the window, the sun almost burning through the clouds but not quite. The tree stands bare with just one remaining leaf shaking. A remnant of a spider web blows against the glass. It’s all always changing and even the lack of birds in the tree, something I just noticed, has been remedied. How little control we have, and yet this is the gift of being alive.