Oprah Talks to Pema Chödrön
She's one of the most influential voices in contemporary spirituality, the writer whose books are passed from friend to friend, whose life has taken her from a Connecticut prep school to a monastery on the wild coast of Nova Scotia. Pema Chödrön explains the great trick in dealing with difficult feelings, what her calling has meant to her two children, the meditation practice that will keep you from ever feeling alone again, and why, finally, "this moment is the perfect teacher."
The words "Buddhist nun" probably don't spring to mind when most of us contemplate making a change in our lives. But in the early 1970s Pema Chödrön, born Dierdre Blomfield-Brown, was a mother of two who found herself in the kind of emotional agony that called for drastic redirection. Until then her life had been utterly conventional: The youngest of three from a Catholic family in New Jersey, Pema attended the prestigious Miss Porter's School in Connecticut and Sarah Lawrence College. She met and married a young lawyer and had a daughter, Arlyn, and a son, Edward. The family moved to California, where Pema earned a master's degree in education at the University of California at Berkeley and became an elementary school teacher. But within a few years, things began to change. Pema and her husband divorced; she later married a writer, and the couple moved to New Mexico, where Pema continued to teach as they raised her children from her first marriage. One day Pema's husband told her he was having an affair and intended to leave her, and she went into an intense depression.
She struggled to find a way to break through it, but conventional advice didn't seem to help. By chance she came across a magazine that was open to an article by Chögyam Trungpa, a renowned Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher; it described how pain, instead of being something to avoid, can actually bring us closer to the truth. The words not only altered Pema's relationship to her feelings but put her on a trajectory that would change her life as well as the lives of many others.
A few months later, while visiting a Sufi camp in the French Alps, Pema met a Tibetan lama, or master, whom she then went to London to study with. Within a year, she took a Buddhist vow to spend the rest of her life helping others seek enlightenment and end their suffering. Chögyam Trungpa became her teacher, and in 1981, Pema became the first American woman to become a fully ordained Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition. During her spiritual studies, she was given the name Pema Chödrön, which means "lotus torch of the dharma" (a loose translation might be "lamp of the truth").
In 1984 Pema became the director of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery established in North America for Westerners. Now 71 years old, she teaches in the United States and Canada, gives interviews—like this one, which is part of my Soul Series on Oprah Radio on XM Radio—and has written books including Start Where You Are, When Things Fall Apart, and Practicing Peace in Times of War. That one's by my bedside; I've read it so many times and marked it up so much, it looks like every sentence is highlighted. Perhaps what makes Pema's message resonate so strongly with people, no matter what their religion or spiritual path, is its universality. Each of us has experienced heartache; how we interact with that feeling, Pema says, can create the possibility of a more joyful life. In her most desperate moment, that's precisely what she learned to do.
PEMA: I became involved in Buddhism in a way that's very appealing to a lot of people because of the fact that their lives fall apart, and that's what happened to me. When my second marriage broke up, it just floored me, but I had some kind of fundamental sanity that kept saying, "There's something very profound in this that will teach you something," so I started looking for it. The first line of Chögyam Trungpa's article "Working with Negativity" read, "We all experience negativity—the basic aggression of wanting things to be different than they are." Everything else was saying, "Look at the positive side," and this said, "Stay with your experience." That's how it started.
OPRAH: Is that what you advise we do when things fall apart—stay with it?
PEMA: Yes. The problem is that we have so little tolerance for uncomfortable feelings. I'm not even talking about unpleasant outer circumstances, but that feeling in your stomach of "I don't want this to be happening." You try to escape it in some way, but if somehow you could stay present and touch the rawness of the experience, you can really learn something.
PEMA: Go to your body and connect with the physical sensation. It always feels really bad; it's usually a tightening in the throat or the heart or the solar plexus. Stay with that and say to yourself, "Millions of people all over the world have this kind of discomfort, fear—I don't even have to call it anything—this feeling of not wanting things to be this way. This is my link with humanity." Connect with the idea that this moment is a shared experience all over the world.
OPRAH: What happens if you choose not to sit with the feeling?
PEMA: It cuts you off from your compassion and empathy for others. That gives birth to a chain reaction that causes people to self-destruct or strike out and hurt other people. It's the source of a lot of the pain and destruction that we see in the world today.
OPRAH: So what do you do to stay with it?
PEMA: I think the most straightforward way is to breathe in very deeply and connect with the feeling, and breathe it out on the exhalation. I call it compassionate abiding. It means staying with yourself when, probably for your whole lifetime, you've always run away at that point.
OPRAH: For me, that's getting a bag of chips.
OPRAH: I recall you telling a story about Jarvis Jay Masters, an inmate on death row in San Quentin, and how he took a vow for peace. [During a Buddhist ceremony, Masters vowed, "From this day forward I will not harm other people, even if it costs my life."]
PEMA: I've learned a lot from that man in terms of how he puts these words into practice and how it brings him so much empathy for other people.OPRAH: I love the idea of making a vow about how you want to be, according to your honored calling or your path.
PEMA: It has a lot of power, particularly if you word the vow in your own way. It's something like saying, "This morning, I renew my vow to listen more deeply to people, even if I don't like what they're saying and I start to tense up."
PEMA: Exactly. That's what all of that is—the ego. I equate ego with trying to figure everything out instead of going with the flow. That closes your heart and your mind to the person or situation that's right in front of you, and you miss so much.
PEMA: That's a very powerful way to look at it. People often use spirituality like medicine when they're in a tough situation, and they start coming up with their own ways of expressing it, as you just did. All religions point to the fact that being fully present is the only state in which you can wake up—not by somehow leaving. So you have to find your own simple, grounded language to say that to yourself, and that's a beautiful way to express it: What is this moment, this situation, or this person trying to teach me? Another one that I love is "This is a unique moment. Maybe I'm glad about that because it's painful, but I don't want to waste it, because it's never going to happen again this way. So let's taste it, smell it, experience it."
OPRAH: You also wrote in When Things Fall Apart that every day gives us an opportunity to either open up or shut down, and that the most precious opportunity presents itself when you think you can't handle whatever is happening. So if, in that moment, you can train yourself to open up instead of shutting down...
OPRAH: Don't you think that's hard, though? I mean, life is slamming you against a wall and you're supposed to say, "Let me open up and get slammed some more"?
PEMA: Of course it's hard. I devote my life to trying to find a way to say this so that it resonates with people. It begins with meditation—you just sit down with yourself. It's a way of being completely open to whatever is happening in your mind, and you realize your mind is wild and crazy and all over the place. The instruction is so simple: Just keep coming back to your breath. Then you say, "This is almost impossible!" It isn't, but I know how hard it is. That's why I have a passion for finding a way to communicate that you can have an appetite for life as it is rather than life as you want it to be.
OPRAH: Why do Buddhists always seem so peaceful? I've never met a Buddhist who wasn't actively seeking peace. It seems that there's something very calming about the...what would you call it—a philosophy, or way of life?
PEMA: Those are both helpful ways to think of it. And if there is a reason for the calmness, I think it's that when you train yourself to be receptive to whatever is occurring, fewer things throw you for a loop.OPRAH: What does it mean to be a Buddhist?
PEMA: In my opinion, the essence of it is trusting that the nature of your mind and heart is limitless openness, free of prejudice and bias, and that you can open all your senses to what's happening without narrowing down into a solid point of view that says, No, it can't be like that, it has to be like this. Somehow that leads to seeing the humanity in even the worst people.
PEMA: Maybe so. On the other hand, you don't have to be a Buddhist to practice this—that's what I know for sure. If you look at the teachings of all the wise people throughout history, this is what they've practiced—the ability to stand in someone else's shoes. Martin Luther King said that until we're all healed, no one is healed.
PEMA: Well, I don't want to make any false statements here—my children might read this and blow my cover! But it's my aspiration and my passion. I notice when I lose my perspective. That's the moment of truth, whether I'm going to be open or closed. Then I think, "I have to do this for all the people in situations that are so much more horrific than mine." If I can't do it in my luxurious life circumstances, how can I expect anybody else to do it? I feel like I have a responsibility to do it. And I love it; it's what has made my life worthwhile and meaningful.
OPRAH: Your children were teenagers when you decided to become a Buddhist nun. How did they take that news?
PEMA: My son, Edward, was 13, and my daughter, Arlyn, was 15. Edward, who's now in his 40s, says he took it in stride, but my daughter and I had to do a lot of healing around it. She took it as quite a rejection. I was still in her life—it wasn't like I went away completely—but my passion and attention went from family toward this.
PEMA: No, I don't think anybody thought that. That's a blessing! Somehow, gradually, everyone in the family was proud that I'd taken this path. No one else took it, but they've all been very supportive.
OPRAH: You're very well known in spiritual circles. You walk into a room and people say, "Oh, Pema Chödrön, I read your books, thank you for all your wisdom..." Can you ever have a bad day and get ticked off at people?
PEMA: You mean can I afford to, because my reputation is at stake? Well, as much as I value my teacher, I value my children, my family, and an old friend because they don't regard me as this big deal. My son—Oprah, this was so wonderful—recently, my son very sweetly said, "Mom, tell me honestly: What does your Buddhism have to do with the fact that you get so uptight about things?" I just roared with laughter. I said, "It has nothing to do with my Buddhism at all, except that I don't flagellate myself for it." Your family and your old friends still see you as the person you always were. Without them, you could think you were pretty hot stuff.OPRAH: What would you consider the fundamental pearl of wisdom from the teachings of the Buddha?
OPRAH: Yes, I'll accept that.
PEMA: It would be something like "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Also, stay open to whatever life presents you with, because it will teach you something if you'll let it. It's about keeping an unbiased heart and mind. A lot of it is forming an unconditional friendship with yourself as you begin to see all the stuff you've been running away from.
PEMA: You can certainly be a good Christian and be completely involved in these ideas and meditation. There is a formal ceremony you go through to become a Buddhist, and you decide what your main path will be. There are a lot of people who don't want to choose any path, but these ideas resonate with them.
PEMA: I'm ashamed to say that of all the schools of Buddhism, that's the one I know the least about, although I have tremendous respect for it. But I believe it keeps you in touch with the largeness of your mind and heart. My main emphasis is the basic meditation of staying open to whatever arises, plus the practice of tonglen, which is seeing the sameness of what you're feeling with what others feel and letting the pain and joy of your life connect you with all people. That's the one that resonated with Alice Walker so much.
OPRAH: She's another calm one, and a great one. In the book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert describes how during a period of meditation, she experienced nirvana; she felt that she was in the palm of God's hand. Have you ever experienced anything like that?
PEMA: Yes. For me, it's lightening up about all the relative facts of life, seeing things from a much more vast and timeless perspective. That's not to say that relative things don't arise in your life, but there is a feeling of lightness about what's coming; it passes, but this timeless nowness is always here, always present, and always available to everyone. According to the Buddhist belief, you can go on and on indefinitely, so you see your life as just a brief moment in time. How you relate to that moment, and how open you are, seem like the only things that matter. One of the reasons I spend a lot of time on meditation retreats is to connect with that feeling in a more ongoing way.
OPRAH: Wow. So the more you're able to be in touch with the connection to that which is higher than yourself...
OPRAH: And "What do I have?" and "What am I doing?" and "What are other people thinking of what I'm doing? I'm separate from everybody else and I'm separate from what I think is missing, and I'm separate from God."
PEMA: That's right. It's a strong feeling of separation, even if you don't consciously recognize that. Say you're having a conversation with someone, you're interested in what they're saying, and you're right there. Then this thought crosses your mind: "Was what I just said stupid?" And you're not there anymore.OPRAH: It takes you out of the discussion.
OPRAH: So the more you meditate...
PEMA: The more you have a lightness about what's occurring in your life. But it's not about becoming indifferent to life's experiences; it actually allows you to be much more present with whatever arises because you experience it from this timeless space. You're fully engaged, but you see it from a different perspective. One way to think of it is, at the moment of your death, how significant will winning that argument seem?
OPRAH: So when you meditate and feel the oneness and love that connect us all, it makes the other stuff in the world seem more mundane. But trying to feel that we're all connected can be hard considering how much of the conflict in our world is based on people believing that they're right and the other person or group is wrong.
PEMA: Sometimes people's spiritual ideas become fixed and they use them against those who don't share their beliefs—in effect, becoming fundamentalist. It's very dangerous—the finger of righteous indignation pointing at someone who is identified as bad or wrong. You get a lot of false security from that, and the underlying tenderheartedness that's available in all of us turns into a hard view of other people. But when you know yourself at a very deep level, you know other people. Then it's very hard to condemn them when their minds get sick or carried away by emotionality, because you've seen it in yourself.
PEMA: If you're always trying to get things to work out so that it's all pleasure and no pain, then you're going to be stuck in this cycle that's doomed to failure. That belief is one of the major causes of suffering. You keep thinking, erroneously, "Well, other people have it together, and if I could just scramble enough, I could avoid all these bad feelings." And the Buddha said no, it's a myth to think that you can get all the pieces to line up so that everything goes your way. That's what I mean by being open and receptive to situations, rather than trying to control everything. The Buddha taught that we're not actually in control, which is a pretty scary idea. But when you let things be as they are, you will be a much happier, more balanced, compassionate person.
OPRAH: Which brings us back to being in the now, not resisting it or trying to change it.
PEMA: Exactly. "Being in the now" has become such a catchphrase, but it is actually very profound.OPRAH: I loved how Eckhart Tolle redefined the present moment in his book The Power of Now. He said that all the stress and pain in the world is about not being in the now, because it's not allowing whatever moment you're in, even if it is a moment of despair, to be that moment; wanting it to be something else is what causes the pain and the suffering.
PEMA: That was the basic teaching of the Buddha. Not only that, but the pain that you're resisting cuts you off from understanding other people. You could say that meditation is about being receptive rather than resisting. That takes some learning, but if you're hurting enough, you'll be highly motivated to do it.
OPRAH: And when you know that, you get to move through the world without as much stress. What would you suggest to those of us who don't necessarily want to become Buddhists, but who do want to continue toward being as highly evolved as we can be? Meditation?
PEMA: Yes. And to notice when you're hooked, meaning something has triggered you. You're biting the hook and about to get swept away and lose being in the now.
OPRAH: What do you do when that happens?
PEMA: Notice it, pause, take three to five deep breaths. Just doing that is a shift. Then you can do something different.
OPRAH: That is beautiful, because what you said is true—the moment you realize whatever it is that triggers you or hooks you, in taking those deep breaths, you change your vibrational frequency and allow for the possibility of something better to happen.
PEMA: Yes. When you're triggered and you take those conscious breaths, you begin to understand that if you keep talking to yourself, you're fueling the triggered feeling. That feeling comes with an undertow; you're going to get swept away again and end up with the same result.
OPRAH: But if you pause and breathe, you open the door to bring something new in.