The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
Last night I came home from work and I didn’t feel good. I was tired and my eyes were glazed; I felt brain-dead and a little sad. Anxiety about time and losing it, and a familiar associated feeling of guilt and fear started up their regular rotation in my brain. I recognized that I was on the edge from which I have so often fallen into a pit of depression. This time, though, was different. This time I remembered what I’ve been reading in Pema Chödrön’s books about gentleness, curiosity, and non-judgment, and I decided not to feel bad about feeling bad (I didn’t even try to stop feeling bad, just to stop feeling bad about feeling bad). I remembered that instead of being angry I could make friends with myself and notice with a friendly curiosity how I was feeling and maybe why, but I didn’t have to condemn myself for it; I didn’t have to fall into the trap of thinking there was something wrong with me just because I didn’t feel great. As soon as I remembered this and relaxed into my feelings, allowing them to be what they were, they changed. The negativity seemed to break apart, dissipate, and pop like carbonated bubbles in the air. I felt lighter, better. Such is the power, when we’re strong enough to use it, of a Buddhist approach to life’s everyday trials.
This is why I study Buddhism, at least in part. The other, even better part is that the benefit is not only personal. In this case, because I felt better I didn’t pick a fight with my husband when he came home. Because I was relaxed, I was able to go out and be kind to my friends and to strangers. Because I was at peace I could smile and pass that peace on to others, instead of infecting them with depression. Buddhism teaches this mutual benefit, and Chödrön reminds us of it in The Wisdom of No Escape: “… we are actually needed. Individuals who are willing to wake up and make friends with themselves are going to be very beneficial, because they can work with others, they can hear what people are saying to them, and they can come from the heart and be of use.” This is the other reason I study Buddhism - because, selfishly, I want to help the world.
I say that wanting to help the world is selfish because the state of the world often causes me a great deal of fear and anxiety and guilt. So, selfishly, I want to change things so that I can get rid of these unpleasant emotions in myself. But what I’ve learned from Buddhism is that actions driven by fear and anxiety and guilt cannot generate peace and happiness and love - they will only perpetuate more fear and anxiety and guilt. I (we) need a way to find peace and gentleness inside of ourselves before we can expect to produce those qualities in the wider world. I’ve read a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh in the last six years, and he has taught me this. Like many westerners, TNH has been my introduction to Buddhism and, through his books, my spiritual teacher. I love him and am so grateful for his work, which has quite literally changed my life. At the same time, though, I decided it might be a good idea to diversify my spiritual diet, to diverge from my comfortable habit, so to speak. My sister, who has been studying Buddhism too, lent me these two books by Pema Chödrön, and I have benefited greatly from them both. I don’t think you have to have studied Buddhism previously to benefit, though a little bit of background could definitely help.
Neither of these books gives a general overview of Buddhism or its teachings, and neither is focused around a single topic, as Hanh’s sometimes are. Instead, both books are comprised of the transcripts of short talks by Chödrön: Things Fall Apart from various talks between 1987-1994, and No Escape from a one-month meditation retreat in Nova Scotia in 1989. As such, Things Fall Apart is somewhat less cohesive and harder to follow than No Escape. Despite When Things Fall Apart’s lack of obvious progression, it is a very worthwhile read. If you’re new to Buddhism, you might read it slowly, over the course of a few weeks or a month. If you read a chapter or two at a time, and then stop to let them sink in, it doesn’t matter as much that each chapter is completely new, and in a “plot” sense (though definitely not a spiritual one) unrelated to the last. Perhaps it’s even appropriate that the book is a bit jumbled, a bit here and there; life is like that, too. We encounter this and that and the other thing all the time, all at once, and presenting each point separately might in fact give us an unduly simplistic view of the teachings. A lot of the stuff discussed in this book was familiar to me already, but one topic was completely new, and extremely enlightening and useful. That is the practice of “tonglen.”
Tonglen is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation technique that means “sending and receiving.” “It is a practice of taking in pain and sending out pleasure and therefore completely turns around our well-established habit of doing just the opposite.” Chödrön, who was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala meditation centers, and Naropa University, talks over and over again in both of these books about our tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This habit, she suggests, actually contributes to our pain. In running away and attempting to wriggle free from pain we defeat the purpose of the pain, which is to understand it. Tonglen is a method for staying with and addressing the pain we see around us. “When we see a woman and her child begging on the street, when we see a man mercilessly beating his terrified dog, when we see a teenager who has been badly beaten or see fear in the eyes of a child, do we turn away because we can’t bear it? Most of us probably do. Someone needs to encourage us not to brush aside what we feel, not to be ashamed of the love and grief it arouses in us, not to be afraid of pain.” Instead of getting away from these unpleasant feelings, Chödrön advises us to do the exact opposite – to actually open further to the unpleasantness. “Whenever we encounter suffering in any form, the tonglen instruction is to breathe it in with the wish that everyone could be free of pain. Whenever we encounter happiness in any form, the instruction is to breathe it out, send it out, with the wish that everyone could feel joy. It’s a practice that allows people to feel less burdened and less cramped, a practice that shows us how to love without conditions.” This idea struck me right away as revolutionary, and very practical. Off and on, (definitely with less than ideal discipline) I’ve been trying to cultivate it as I move about the suffering-filled streets of NYC. It’s not at all easy; it requires opening rather than closing. But what I like about it is that it offers a solution: instead of being bitter and angry about injustice, which only makes things worse, we can be gentle and loving towards those who suffer, which might just help us all.
The Wisdom of No Escape, the second Chödrön book I read, was shorter and a little bit easier to read. It hangs together better because she’s talking to the same group of people over the course of one month. In both books I really like Chödrön’s voice. She is humble, gentle, and not overly cute. She often tells seemingly banal stories about how she failed to uphold her own ideals and how she (and we) can learn from that. For example, if you intended to only eat one cookie, and then you ate three (as I did the other day), you can respond in a variety of ways. You could get angry at yourself, or depressed, or say “Screw it; I’m going to eat badly for the rest of the day, because now it doesn’t matter,” or any number of less-than-useful reactions. Or, you could respond with a gentle curiosity about why you overate. Obviously it wasn’t about being hungry; perhaps you were upset about something or feeling scared, or tired, or put upon in some way. You can notice and not judge, instead of spiraling into a pit of despair. These are the kinds of stories Chödrön tells because these are the kinds of “problems” we so often have. Ridiculous problems! And yet if we don’t address them in a positive way, they can become very big, very real problems. If we don’t figure out why we made the choice we did, we will just carry on with our habits that lull us into sleep when we need to be awake. And if we can’t react well to a small problem, we’re certainly not going to do any better when shit really hits the fan.
It’s very important that we are awake to our own thinking because “by the way that we think and by the way that we believe in things, in that way is our world created.” Chödrön is not saying that she has it all figured out, or that Buddhism will tell us what is true and what is false. Actually, what she’s saying is that it’s problematic to believe anything to the point that you no longer question it. She refers to a Buddhist teaching that says, “‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha.’ This means that if you can find Buddha and say, ‘It’s this way; Buddha is like this,’ then you had better kill that ‘Buddha’ that you found, that you can say is like this. … when you see that you’re grasping or clinging to anything, whether conventionally it’s called good or bad, make friends with that. Look into it. Get to know it completely and utterly. In that way it will let go of itself.” This kind of advice – to “look into it” – is very Chödrön. It’s very Buddhist. It’s also very hard, and often, as the title of one of her final chapters reflects, quite “inconvenient.” It’s a lot easier to let someone else tell you what is true and what isn’t, but figuring that out for yourself is the only way to see clearly what is. Chödrön’s books are extremely helpful tools in that endeavor.