Part II: Practicing Peace in Times of War – Pema Chödrön

This is the second in a series of (highly personal and biased) notes and commentary on Pema Chödrön‘s recent public meditation session on “Practicing Peace in Times of War,” given at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, California, on 13-15 July. The first is here.

I want to preface this post with two quotes I came across this morning:

“No words or concepts can ever really capture the truth; they can only point beyond themselves. The concepts can be contradictory, illogical, weird, and still fulfill the function of pointing you towards that which cannot be put into words directly. And so the key to being able to use them is to not get hung up on trying to make sense of the concepts on the level of thinking and reason, but rather allowing them to sink in and do their work. In many cases, something you read today that makes no sense to you whatsoever may later hit you in a sudden flash of insight.” — Helgi P. Einarsson, at Everyday Wonderland

This speaks for me as I fumble around in my mind, heart, and body incorporating, or not, Pema’s words and presence (and those of the discussion group I’m part of), as I relate what I’m hearing, not hearing, seeing, not seeing, etc., to my prior experience and observations; and it also relates to what Pema and those in my discussion group are saying. Sometimes — usually — our words fall short of “truth” while they still point to it and evoke from others perhaps a ‘yes,’ a yearning, a sense of knowing without being able to articulate the knowing.

The second quote relates to something Pema says about loving-kindness:

“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.” — Francois de La Rochefoucauld

So, on with the notes and commentary!

The topic of this talk was working with emotions. (Not sure what happened to the talk on natural warmth.)

Pema reiterated that the source of a violent culture is individuals like ourselves. We may not have killed someone, be in a gang, own a gun, commit domestic violence, etc., or we may, but we can nonetheless recognise that there is some kind of complicity going on, i.e., we buy into violence. We can observe our own capacity for violence when we strike out or react strongly in other ways when triggered, when we feel a desire to get even (or feel that getting even is right and just).

She made a distinction between taking responsibility for our own complicity vs. being self-accusatory, self-blaming, saying “I’m at fault.” The distinction is that taking responsibility is a positive point of view, one that says, “I could be a light in the darkness … But maybe I’m not quite ready yet. Still, I have the tools I need — natural intelligence, natural openness, and natural warmth — and I can work with these in every moment.”

She talked more about natural openness. It’s the mind and heart before it’s divided the world into black and white, good and bad. It’s the mind and heart without bias.

So, we can choose to be complicit or we can choose to be a light.

How can we be lights? How can we be peacemakers?

First: Start where we are, with who we are — with our violence, aggression, negativity, critical nature, with our complete package of ‘beauty and grotesqueness’ — and with our current circumstances. The idea is not about getting rid of anything, whether in ourselves or in our circumstances.

Does ‘not getting rid of anything’ = ‘nothing changes’? No. The way things change — the way we uncover our capacity to love — is by giving full attention to who we are right now and not looking for alternatives.


Paradoxical: The way we change, essentially, is by not trying to change ourselves or our circumstances. How hard this is to do in the Puritan-influenced Western world! The non-fiction bestseller list is full of books about how to change either self or situation, how to ‘better’ ourselves and our circumstances, how to work to be more productive — even if the ‘product’ is love!

I wonder what we think about people who have sought to change themselves — not necessarily by getting rid of anything or adding anything, but perhaps by consciously entering into a transforming process of their own design or someone else’s — and feel that they have succeeded. If change comes not by trying to change ourselves, yet people who have tried to change themselves feel that they have changed, can they be correct?

I’ve been part of a church that listed its foundational beliefs at one point, one of which was that “transformation is possible in every moment.” That phrase doesn’t seem to assume how it occurs, just that it can. I was reminded of that belief, and the difficulty of holding it, later in the talk when Pema observed that we don’t let family members, co-workers and people we are close to change … And every time they open their mouths, it’s proof that they haven’t! In other words, bias blinds us to reality, and all the more when we think we have none. (Which reminds me of the Christian admonition to remove the log from one’s own eye before trying to remove the twig from one’s neighbour’s.)

I don’t quarrel with the idea that change can come through giving full attention to who we are, as we keep our seat in the midst of whatever is going on. It seems likely that change will come as we interrupt any habit or addiction — in this case, perhaps the habit or addiction of looking persistently for alternatives to who we are and what our circumstances are. It does remind me, though, of the idea I heard recently (as part of a group of people studying money) that we can acquire money only through not having the desire to acquire money. That has not been true for me, though I’m sure it’s true for some. That particular suggestion, in a book being used by people who were reading the book with an eye towards having more abundance (including, for most, money), seems almost cruel: Obviously, people reading the suggestion wanted more money, but they are told that you have to not want money in order to have it. Too late! The only way to proceed then is with a pretense that money doesn’t matter. In fact, it seems to be a demand to get rid of something — one’s desire for money — and to hide part of oneself from others and possibly from oneself.

Anyway, that’s not a strict parallel to Pema’s suggestions, just a sort of shadow thought that surfaced for me as I listened. Pema’s suggestion that we can give our full attention to ourselves in the current moment does, actually, seem like making a change. I’m glad (Jungian that I am) that I don’t have to get rid of anything, because the darkness often seems the most interesting to my mystical and perhaps naive mind.

Part of paying full attention to who we are is to have loving-kindness with self. It’s like having a close friend, someone you know so well that their weaknesses and strengths are obvious to you, as well as their neuroses and their sanity. You love your friend for all she is, not because you think she’s flawless but because you know who she is. We can love ourselves this way. Once we know ourselves — the dark, the light, and all those other oppositions — we don’t need to protect ourselves from the danger of this incipient, suspected knowledge by striking out at anyone who threatens us. (This is where the La Rochefoucauld quote seems relevant.)

Comment: For me, this was the key thing Pema said tonight: We strike out in order to protect ourselves from knowing ourselves as we truly, really, wholly are. This accords directly with Girardian thought: the ‘other’ threatens our very sense of being because it’s from the other that we derive our being, but we don’t want to know that. Envy, jealousy, rivalry, violence, etc., are all symptoms of not wanting to know that.

Loving-kindness is an open receptivity in all circumstances. For example: There’s someone walking towards you. It might be a friend, or it might be a big hulking stranger. A completely open, receptive person will have no preconception about the person. This openness means that we don’t overlay our concepts on them. It’s being able to perceive without prejudice or bias, without labels. She also spoke of this in the context of “right intention,” which is to stay open and not jump to conclusions. Openness is perception before it freezes the person who’s approaching us into “friend” or “foe.”

Comment: How does this apply not just to individuals but to political entities, groups, organisations, corporations, governments? When we see George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Osama bin Laden (fill in your own name) approach, can we be open, without bias, maintaining a curious, receptive attitude? When we tune into a news story on FOX news or read one in the Guardian newspaper (again, fill in arch-media of your choice), are we similarly receptive in each instance? Is that where this practice leads?

So, the training is to be open and receptive to self and to others. She suggested that one sign that we’re moving along that path is that our capacity to listen to someone with whom we don’t agree will increase.

She went on to talk in some detail about shenpa. I think she said that shenpa is the charge behind the emotion that’s behind views and opinions. She said it’s not the emotion itself. It’s that reactive sensation of being hooked, of being triggered. One quality of it is that it’s very hard to let go of. We might know we’ve been triggered and that it would be better not to escalate. But instead, the habit is to feed the reaction with our thoughts.

Shenpa, she said, comes with an undertow. If I understood correctly, this undertow means that although in the moment of triggering we might recognise that we’ve been triggered, and step back, there is still an urge, a craving, to go ahead and take the bait anyway. And if we step back from that, there is another moment when we might get sucked under. And so on. It sounds like, as with an actual undertow, we can eventually become weary of fighting it and so just give in.

Thoughts, or storyline, feed the undertow, which makes it hard to remain open and receptive. An example of this dynamic might be two people who want to work on their relationship and have moments when they can do so, and other moments when they can’t seem to resist blaming, accusing, “but you did this bad thing to me,” and more subtle forms of the same. We might wish to lay down the storyline, but it’s also the thread that we hang onto.

Eventually, we might see the storyline as transparent, but the first step, as in meditation, is to interrupt the storyline. Even for a second.

She spoke of Buddha’s temptations at the end of his life, suggesting that as we practice, the number of things that trigger us may become fewer and fewer, and their intensity less and less, but that we will still feel the temptation to take the bait. We will still have temptations that tug at us, but we will respond differently. (Of course, this reminded me of Jesus’s temptations at the beginning of his ministry. He also seemed to feel the temptations as temptations.)

Pema then spoke of craving: the craving to react, to stick to the bias, to continue criticising. We do these things to get something to hold onto. It takes great courage and dignity to not take the hook and not feed the storyline, to be fully present with the underlying experience, over and over, still.

Ultimately, she said, we can each trust only our own wisdom and intelligence. (Which is a tricky thing when it’s mostly covered up!) Natural intelligence, e.g., tells us that biting the hook and getting swept away have consequences: we can strengthen the habit or addiction we already have, and perhaps cause a habituated chain reaction, or we can do something different, which is difficult, because doing something different will likely have unknown consequences. We already know that the habitual reaction brings us momentary pleasure, or at least forestalls pain. Not resorting to that resaction might actually lead us to a more painful place for a while.

Emotional reactivity is energy, and like all energy, it’s not solid; but we freeze that energy into fixed concepts that feel solid. They feel like ground. They feel real. We have another choice, and that’s to be naked with the raw energy and make friends with it.
Pema then went back to one of the goals of the session, which is to offer practices for peacemakers.

She warned (I guess it’s a warning) that when we set out to disentangle ourselves, the first thing we’re aware of is our entanglement. When we set out to rejoice in the well-being of others, we are immediately confronted with our envy. Etc.!

She’s already presented two practices: 1. sitting meditation, which is the practice of being present; and 2. pausing, which interrupts our unconsciousness for a moment and can be done throughout the day, any time.

The next practice (3) is leaning in; it’s done in the moment of feeling shenpa, of feeling triggered. The steps are:

  1. Acknowledge that you’ve been triggered

  2. Pause (as previous practice), taking 1-3 conscious breaths

  3. Lean in. I.e., become one with your own energy. Feel it.

  4. Go on with your life — no big deal. ‘Disown’ the moment — let it go.

When we give up any addictive habit, it’s not comfortable. It leaves us in the room with our own restless energy, which we will usually do anything to avoid.
Her parting words were: The peacemaker works now, not later.

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