by Pema Chödrön
Meditation practice is regarded
as a good and in fact excellent way to overcome
in the world: our own warfare as well as greater
—Chˆgyam Trungpa Rinpoche
As a species, we should never underestimate our low
tolerance for discomfort. To be encouraged to stay with
our vulnerability is news that we definitely can use.
Sitting meditation is our support for learning how to do
this. Sitting meditation, also known as
mindfulness-awareness practice, is the foundation of
bodhichitta training. It is the home ground of the
Sitting meditation cultivates loving-kindness and
compassion, the relative qualities of bodhichitta. It
gives us a way to move closer to our thoughts and
emotions and to get in touch with our bodies. It is a
method of cultivating unconditional friendliness toward
ourselves and for parting the curtain of indifference
that distances us from the suffering of others. It is
our vehicle for learning to be a truly loving person.
Gradually, through meditation, we begin to notice
that there are gaps in our internal dialogue. In the
midst of continually talking to ourselves, we experience
a pause, as if awakening from a dream. We recognize our
capacity to relax with the clarity, the space, the
open-ended awareness that already exists in our minds.
We experience moments of being right here that feel
simple, direct, and uncluttered.
This coming back to the immediacy of our experience
is training in unconditional bodhichitta. By simply
staying here, we relax more and more into the open
dimension of our being. It feels like stepping out of a
fantasy and relaxing with the truth.
Yet there is no guarantee that sitting meditation
will be of benefit. We can practice for years without it
penetrating our hearts and minds. We can use meditation
to reinforce our false beliefs: it will protect us from
discomfort; it will fix us; it will fulfill our hopes
and remove our fears. This happens because we don’t
properly understand why we are practicing.
Why do we meditate? This is a question we’d
be wise to ask. Why would we even bother to spend time
alone with ourselves?
First of all, it is helpful to understand that
meditation is not just about feeling good. To think that
this is why we meditate is to set ourselves up for
failure. We’ll assume we are doing it wrong almost
every time we sit down: even the most settled meditator
experiences psychological and physical pain. Meditation
takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our
sanity. This complete acceptance of ourselves as we are
is called maitri, a simple, direct relationship
with our being.
Trying to fix ourselves is not helpful. It implies
struggle and self-denigration. Denigrating ourselves is
probably the major way that we cover over bodhichitta.
Does not trying to change mean we have to remain
angry and addicted until the day we die? This is a
reasonable question. Trying to change ourselves doesn’t
work in the long run because we’re resisting our own
energy. Self-improvement can have temporary results, but
lasting transformation occurs only when we honor
ourselves as the source of wisdom and compassion. We
are, as the eighth-century Buddhist master Shantideva
pointed out, very much like a blind person who finds a
jewel buried in a heap of garbage. It is right here in
our smelliest of stuff that we discover the awakened
heart of basic clarity and goodness, the completely open
mind of bodhichitta.
It is only when we begin to relax with ourselves as
we are that meditation becomes a transformative process.
When we relate with ourselves without moralizing,
without harshness, without deception, we finally let go
of harmful patterns. Without maitri, renunciation of old
habits becomes abusive. This is an important point.
There are four main qualities that are cultivated
when we meditate: steadfastness, clear seeing,
experiencing one’s emotional distress, and attention
to the present moment. These four factors apply not only
to sitting meditation, but are essential to all the
bodhichitta practices and for relating with difficult
situations in our daily lives.
Steadfastness. When we practice meditation we
are strengthening our ability to be steadfast with
ourselves. No matter what comes up—aching bones,
boredom, falling asleep, or the wildest thoughts and
emotions—we develop a loyalty to our experience.
Although plenty of meditators consider it, we don’t
run screaming out of the room. Instead we acknowledge
that impulse as thinking, without labeling it right or
wrong. This no small task. Never underestimate our
inclination to bolt when we hurt.
We’re encouraged to meditate everyday, even for a
short time, in order to cultivate this steadfastness
with ourselves. We sit under all kinds of circumstances—whether
we are feeling healthy or sick, whether we’re in a
good mood or depressed, whether we feel our meditation
is going well or is completely falling apart. As we
continue to sit we see that meditation isn’t about
getting it right or attaining some ideal state. It’s
about being able to stay present with ourselves. It
becomes increasingly clear that we won’t be free of
self-destructive patterns unless we develop a
compassionate understanding of what they are.
One aspect of steadfastness is simply being in your
body. Because meditation emphasizes working with your
mind, it’s easy to forget that you even have a body.
When you sit down it’s important to relax into your
body and to get in touch with what is going on. Starting
with the top of your head, you can spend a few minutes
bringing awareness to every part of your body. When you
come to places that are hurting or tense you can breath
in and out three or four times, keeping your awareness
on that area. When you get to the soles of your feet you
can stop or, if you feel like it, you can repeat this
body sweep by going from bottom to top. Then at any time
during your meditation period, you can quickly tune back
into the overall sense of being in your body. For a
moment you can bring your awareness directly back to
being right here. You are sitting. There are sounds,
smells, sights, aches; you are breathing in and out. You
can reconnect with your body like this when it occurs to
you—maybe once or twice during a sitting session. Then
return to the technique.
In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness.
Sometimes we get up and leave. Sometimes we sit there
but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds go far
away. This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it’s
impossible to stay. Yet this feeling can teach us not
just about ourselves but also about what it is to be
human. All of us derive security and comfort from the
imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We
really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our
present experience. It goes against the grain to stay
present. There are the times when only gentleness and a
sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.
The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just
stay. Learning to stay with ourselves in meditation is
like training a dog. If we train a dog by beating it, we’ll
end up with an obedient but very inflexible and rather
terrified dog. The dog may obey when we say
"Stay!" "Come!" "Roll
over!" and "Sit up!" but he will also be
neurotic and confused. By contrast, training with
kindness results in someone who is flexible and
confident, who doesn’t become upset when situations
are unpredictable and insecure.
So whenever we wander off, we gently encourage
ourselves to "stay" and settle down. Are we
experiencing restlessness? Stay! Discursive mind? Stay!
Are fear and loathing out of control? Stay! Aching knees
and throbbing back? Stay! What’s for lunch? Stay! What
am I doing here? Stay! I can’t stand this another
minute! Stay! That is how to cultivate steadfastness.
Clear seeing. After we’ve been meditating
for a while, it’s common to feel that we are
regressing rather then waking up. "Until I started
meditating, I was quite settled; now it feels like I’m
always restless." "I never used to feel anger;
now it comes up all the time." We might complain
that meditation is ruining our life, but in fact such
experiences are a sign that we’re starting to see more
clearly. Through the process of practicing the technique
day in and out, year after year, we begin to be very
honest with ourselves. Clear seeing is another way of
saying that we have less self-deception.
The Beat poet Jack Kerouac, feeling primed for a
spiritual breakthrough, wrote to a friend before he
retreated into the wilderness, "If I don’t get a
vision on Desolation Peak, then my name ain’t William
Blake." But later he wrote that he found it hard to
face the naked truth. "I’d thought, in June when
I get to the top…and everybody leaves…I will come
face to face with God or Tathagata (Buddha) and find out
once and for all what is the meaning of all this
existence and suffering…but instead I’d come face to
face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of
faking it, but face to face with ole Hateful . . .
Meditation requires patience and maitri. If this
process of clear seeing isn’t based on self-compassion
it will become a process of self-aggression. We need
self-compassion to stabilize our minds. We need it to
work with our emotions. We need it in order to stay.
When we learn to meditate, we are instructed to sit
in a certain position on a cushion or chair. We’re
instructed to just be in the present moment, aware of
our breath as it goes out. We’re instructed that when
our mind has wandered off, without any harshness or
judgmental quality, we should acknowledge that as
"thinking" and return to the outbreath. We
train in coming back to this moment of being here. In
the process of doing this, our fogginess, our
bewilderment, our ignorance begin to transform into
clear seeing. "Thinking" becomes a code word
for seeing "just what is"—both our clarity
and our confusion. We are not trying to get rid of
thoughts. Rather we are clearly seeing our defense
mechanisms, our negative beliefs about ourselves, our
desires and our expectations. We also see our kindness,
our bravery, our wisdom.
Through the process of practicing the
mindfulness-awareness technique on a regular basis, we
can no longer hide from ourselves. We clearly see the
barriers we set up to shield us from naked experience.
Although we still associate the walls we’ve erected
with safety and comfort, we also begin to feel them as a
restriction. This claustrophobic situation is important
for a warrior. It marks the beginning of longing for an
alternative to our small, familiar world. We begin to
look for ventilation. We want to dissolve the barriers
between ourselves and others.
Experiencing our emotional distress. Many
people, including long-time practitioners, use
meditation as a means of escaping difficult emotions. It
is possible to misuse the label "thinking" as
a way of pushing negativity away. No matter how many
times we’ve been instructed to stay open to whatever
arises, we still can use meditation as repression.
Transformation occurs only when we remember, breath by
breath, year after year, to move toward our emotional
distress without condemning or justifying our
Trungpa Rinpoche describes emotion as a combination
of self-existing energy and thoughts. Emotion can’t
proliferate without our internal conversations. If we’re
angry when we sit to meditate, we are instructed to
label the thoughts "thinking" and let them go.
Yet below the thoughts something remains—a vital,
pulsating energy. There is nothing wrong, nothing
harmful about that underlying energy. Our practice is to
stay with it, to experience it, to leave it as it is,
There are certain advanced techniques in which you
intentionally churn up emotions by thinking of people or
situations that make you angry or lustful or afraid. The
practice is to let the thoughts go and connect directly
with the energy, asking yourself, "Who am I without
these thoughts?" What we do with
mindfulness-awareness practice is simpler than that, but
I consider it equally daring. When emotional distress
arises uninvited, we let the story line go and abide
with the energy of that moment. This is a felt
experience, not a verbal commentary on what is
happening. We can feel the energy in our bodies. If we
can stay with it, neither acting it out nor repressing
it, it wakes us up. People often say, "I fall
asleep all the time in meditation. What shall I
do?" There are lots of antidotes to drowsiness but
my favorite is, "Get angry!"
Not abiding with our energy is a predictable human
habit. Acting out and repressing are tactics we use to
get away from our emotional pain. For instance most of
us when we’re angry scream or act it out. We alternate
expressions of rage with feeling ashamed of ourselves
and wallowing in it. We become so stuck in repetitive
behavior that we become experts at getting all worked
up. In this way we continue to strengthen our
One night years ago I came upon my boyfriend
passionately embracing another woman. We were in the
house of a millionaire who had a priceless collection of
pottery. I was furious and looking for something to
throw. Everything I picked up I had to put back down
because it was worth at least $10,000. I was completely
enraged and I couldn’t find an outlet! There were no
exits from experiencing my own energy. The absurdity of
the situation totally cut through my rage. I went
outside and looked at the sky and laughed until I cried.
In Vajrayana Buddhism it is said that wisdom is
inherent in emotions. When we struggle against our own
energy we are rejecting the source of wisdom. Anger
without the fixation is none other than mirrorlike
wisdom. Pride and envy without fixation is experienced
as equanimity. The energy of passion when it’s free of
grasping is discriminating awareness wisdom.
In bodhichitta training we also welcome the living
energy of emotions. When our emotions intensify what we
usually feel is fear. This fear is always lurking in our
lives. In sitting meditation we practice dropping
whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into
the emotions and the fear. Thus we train in opening the
fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We
learn to abide with the experience of our emotional
Attention to the present moment. Another
factor we cultivate in the transformative process of
meditation is attention to this very moment. We make the
choice, moment by moment, to be fully here. Attending to
our present-moment mind and body is a way of being
tender toward self, toward other, and toward the world.
This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to
Coming back to the present moment takes some effort
but the effort is very light. The instruction is to
"touch and go." We touch thoughts by
acknowledging them as thinking and then we let them go.
It’s a way of relaxing our struggle, like touching a
bubble with a feather. It’s a nonaggressive approach
to being here.
Sometimes we find that we like our thoughts so much
that we don’t want to let them go. Watching our
personal video is a lot more entertaining than bringing
our mind back home. There’s no doubt that our fantasy
world can be very juicy and seductive. So we train in
using a "soft" effort, in interrupting our
habitual patterns; we train in cultivating
We practice meditation to connect with maitri and
unconditional openness. By not deliberately blocking
anything, by directly touching our thoughts and then
letting them go with an attitude of no big deal, we can
discover that our fundamental energy is tender,
wholesome, and fresh. We can start to train as a
warrior, discovering for ourselves that it is
bodhichitta, not confusion, that is basic.
from The Places that Scare You: A Guide to
Fearlessness in Difficult Times, by Pema Chödrön,
Shambhala Publications, Inc. 2001. Reprinted by
Ane Pema Chödrön Ane Pema Chodron was born Deirdre
Blomfield-Brown in 1936, in New York City. She attended Miss Porter's School in Connecticut and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. She taught as an elementary school teacher for many years in both New Mexico and California. Pema has two children and one grandchild.
While in her mid-thirties, Ane Pema traveled to the French Alps and encountered Lama Chime
Rinpoche, with whom she studied for several years. She became a nun in 1974 while studying with Lama Chime in London. His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa came to England at that time, and Ane Pema received her novice ordination from him.
Pema first met her root guru, Trungpa Rinpoche, in 1972. Lama Chime encouraged her to work with
Rinpoche, and it was with him that she ultimately made her most profound connection, studying with him from 1973 until his death in 1987. At the request of the Karmapa, she received the full bikshuni ordination in the Chinese lineage of Buddhism in 1981 in Hong Kong.
Ane Pema served as the director of Karma Dzong in Boulder until moving in 1984 to rural Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to be the director of Gampo Abbey. The Vidyadhara, Chogyam
Trungpa, gave her explicit instructions on running Gampo Abbey. The success of her first two books, The Wisdom of No Escape and Start Where You Are, made her something of a celebrity as a woman Buddhist teacher and as a specialist in the mahayana lojong and paramita teachings. She and Judy Lief were instructed personally by the Vidyadhara on lojong, "which is why I took off with it," she explains.
Pema has struggled with health problems in the past five years but her condition has improved in recent months and she now anticipates being well enough to continue teaching small programs at Gampo Abbey and in California. She hopes for a simplified schedule with a predictable itinerary, such as the opportunity to teach at Karma
Choling, RMSC and Boston once a year. As Pema is no longer doing any administration at Gampo Abbey, during her time in residence there she will be able to teach more and work with people on a one-to-one basis.
Pema is also very interested in continuing her work with western Buddhists outside the vajrayana tradition, sharing ideas and teachings. Her latest book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times is available from