Spiritual Thinkers: Pema Chodron

Everyone, at one point or another, has experienced heartbreak and despair. These emotions are unavoidable – what matters is how you choose to handle them. Deirdre Blomfield-Brown was an ordinary wife, mother and teacher – until she realized that her real calling was to pursue the monastic life of a Buddhist nun.

She traveled to the French Alps where she met Lama Chime Rinpoche whom she studied with for many years and even changed her name. Since her dramatic transformation, Pema Chˆdrˆn (literally meaning lotus torch of the dharma) has spent her life teaching others how to stick with “it” even at the most desperate hour. Her books When Things Fall Apart and Practicing Peace in Times of War, among others, have helped millions and have even been praised by Oprah.

Out with the old
Yes, that means annihilating the old dependent, clinging self. This is what Pema Chˆdrˆn teaches. She, like many, underwent an intense depression after her second marriage fell apart – trying in vain to pull herself together and find a sense of normalcy. But things didn’t look up until she happened upon an article written by a Tibetan meditation teacher that talked about using pain as a means to get closer to the truth. She soon became the first American woman to be ordained as a Buddhist nun and became the director of Gampo Abbey (the first Tibetan monastery in North America) in Nova Scotia. Since then, she has written numerous books encouraging people not to ignore the dark feelings that western society encourages us to sweep under the rug.

When things fall apart
In her recent chat with Oprah, Chˆdrˆn said, “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.”

Indeed, in Chˆdrˆn’s seminal work, When Things Fall Apart, the raw feeling of living in the “present” is a source of strength. Using simple Buddhist language, she lays out a case for anyone going through heartache to identify with. “When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell. In fact, that way of looking at things is what keeps us miserable… Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic – this is the spiritual path,” she writes.

Practicing Peace
“So when you’re like a keg of dynamite just about to go off, patience means just slowing down at that point – just pausing – instead of immediately acting on your usual, habitual response,” Chˆdrˆn writes in Practicing Peace in Times of War. “You refrain from acting, you stop talking to yourself, and then you connect with the soft spot. But at the same time you are completely and totally honest with yourself about what you are feeling. You’re not suppressing anything; patience has nothing to do with suppression. In fact, it has everything to do with a gentle, honest relationship with yourself.”

Chˆdrˆn has dedicated her life to simplifying Buddhist thought and practice in a way to help people understand and deal with the uncomfortable moments in life. With gentle language and compassion, Pema Chˆdrˆn teaches us how to fully live in the present moment and to harbor good thoughts toward others as a means to be at ease with ourselves and live in peace.

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