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

This is the third 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. The second is here.

Pema continued talking about ‘working with emotions,’ particularly through the practice of ‘leaning in,’ and she spoke a bit more about natural openness.

First, she reiterated that the ‘leaning in’ is no big deal. It’s like punctuation.

She said the practice of ‘leaning in’ is based very much on alchemy. That is, it’s a transmuting of the energy of confused emotions into mirror-like (very clear) wisdom. But nothing actually changes except how it appears to us. Nothing changes except that we don’t split off from the energy but instead give it our full attention.

Another way to speak of ‘leaning in’ is to talk about having the felt sense of the energy.

Directing our emotions towards an object — whether we express or repress — is a way of getting ground under our feet. We act on these emotions in the service of ego. This acting is fed by storyline. Some emotions she spoke of during this talk were anger, rage, hatred, craving, depression, loneliness, resentment, and bitterness.

Instead of directing our emotions towards an object, we can respect the underlying energy of emotions, because that is exactly where mirror-like wisdom is to be found. She gave an analogy: The energy underlying emotions is like fluid, dynamic, living water. When we freeze it or harden it with our thoughts, into beliefs and opinions, it becomes like ice, frozen energy. She described our situation has having a glass of ice cubes in our hands. Someone asks us for water, and we walk around hunting for water while we are holding the ice, perhaps even believing that the ice is in some way keeping us from finding the water. But — we won’t find the water anywhere but in the ice. And we won’t find wisdom anywhere but in the energy that underlies the emotions.

Most of the talk was a teaching on Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on the practice of Leaning In. He talked about five steps, though as Pema said, the steps sort of blend together and may happen in an instant.

1. Seeing: This refers primarily to an attitude towards oneself. It’s an unconditional acceptance of our own energy, it’s being open and receptive to our energy — whether it’s rage, craving, depression, resentment, bitterness, loneliness, etc. The energy wants to resolve itself, and it pulls us in the direction of doing something to resolve it. The practice is to hold our seat and not block openness; to not act by expressing or repressing but to experience the energy. The practice is to have lovingkindness towards energy that feels intolerable to us.

My comments: When Pema said that the energy pulls us in the direction of doing something to resolve it, it led me to think that all emotion may share some aspect of craving or addiction. When we’re addicted to something, we want to feed the addiction, in the belief that once fed, the addiction will leave us alone and stop making us feel incomplete, needy, desirous … unresolved.

That reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s comment that “our best havings are wantings.” Doubtful that he meant that it feels great to have an uncontrollable and unresolved craving for something, but there is something there that feels true to me. Maybe it’s on the flip side, the recognition that having what I thought I wanted can be disappointing, can feel like “not enough,” can lead to wanting more, and more, which is an endless cycle. So if we can be satisfied with “wanting,” with that unresolved state, then maybe it will come to feel as solid as “having.” (And would that be another form of “ground,” which would then be dug out from under us?) Or maybe Lewis is simply saying that in the moments of wanting we aren’t yet disappointed, while in the moment of having, or the moment after that, we are, and are already moving towards the next “having.” This all reminds me of another quote, that you can never get enough of what you don’t need. That’s a good description, it seems to me, of the addictive cycle.

The notion of feeling unresolved also reminds me of the Myers Briggs personality typology, based on Carl Jung’s work. In that ideology, there are four components to one’s type. The last one is “structure“: “In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options?” One can either be a J (Judging) or a P (Perceiving). In terms of the Myers-Briggs, Js might tend to have a strong (innate?) pull towards decision-making and coming to a resolution, while Ps might have a tendency to keep collecting information without making a decision, not wanting to pin themselves down. (Caveat: Since the ‘structure’ aspect describes only to how we deal with the outer world, and not how we might function internally, neither of these suppositions might be true.) Both the urge to come to resolution and the urge to keep options open could be addictive or compulsive, it seems, but I’m wondering how to relate them (if at all) to what Pema says about our energy’s urge to resolve — a P seems to resist coming to resolution — and about what underlies that urge, which is our reluctance to experience the energy as it is. Does a P, perhaps, also resist experiencing the energy but in a different way than by moving towards resolution? Perhaps persisting in collecting information and maintaining a state of indecision can also be means of evading feeling emotion? Or ?

Finally, a brief comment on the idea of having “lovingkindness towards energy that feels intolerable to us.”

Lovingkindness towards self and others seems like a good start for peacemaking, and it seems helpful to cultivate an attitude of gentleness and respect towards raging energy. I wonder, however, about the applications of this for all of us — perhaps when something feels intolerable it’s a clue for us to act on it, as when something is physically intolerable we’re wired to move away from it? — and particularly for people who are diagnosed as mentally ill (e.g., with schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or bipolar illness), who take mood-altering pharmaceutical drugs that are designed to regulate emotional response. Perhaps one person’s sense of intolerable, as in the physical realm, is another person’s tolerable, and vice versa, and for someone with a very low level of tolerance to emotional energy (or whose emotional energy is somehow stronger than that of the ‘average’ person, if that were possible), it might be counterproductive and even dangerous to sit with the naked energy and feel it as it throbs wildly. Maybe the sense of threat is too strong. Do we know that someone who is delusional (more delusional than some of the rest of us, that is … Or in a different direction, perhaps), for example, will benefit from this practice? It would be reassuring, perhaps, to do this practice and realise that though the energy is powerful and feels like it might overwhelm, it doesn’t, and there is something wise at its center. If that were the case.

(None of my questions is rhetorical, by the way. I really am wondering aloud.)

2. Hearing: This refers to an exploration, with curiousity, of the pulsating energy of emotion, of experiencing the waves and waves of energy that feel overwhelming to us.

3. Smelling: Again, this is about an attitude: The energy is workable. The situation is workable. This is what is happening now, and it’s workable. Whatever occurs in the confused mind is the path. Everything is workable, not a mistake, not something to get rid of.

My comment: “Whatever occurs in the confused mind IS the path.” Is this thought to be true for people with schizophrenia, for sociopaths, for psychopaths? I can see that it might be seen as true, since “all” we’re talking about is transmuting energy, but I wonder how?

4. Touching: With this attitude of unconditional acceptance and workability, touch the energy, try to feel its texture. Try to find it and feel it. Actually, though we can find it, we can’t really pin it down. All wars, violence, injustice, prejudice, fundamentalism, etc., are based on this energy when it is frozen, and yet, it doesn’t exist any more than a rainbow exists. We can see it, but it recedes as we get close to it. It’s like a mirage.

My comment: Fundamentalism is a charged word. For many it brings to mind certain groups of people (there go those biases and prejudices again). For me, it describes almost everyone (if not everyone) and so means nothing in this context, except as a shorthand way of saying, “someone else.” My experience and observation is that we all have beliefs that we don’t seriously question, even Buddhists, even atheists, even small children. (Some of them might even appear, in their obverse form, on this list.) Beliefs that aren’t seen as beliefs, or that aren’t seriously questioned, are, by definition, fundamental beliefs.

I’ve also read this definition of fundamentalism: “It is the belief that revealed truth is to be apprehended directly and in an unmediated form by a privileged group.” Even based on that definition, most of us seem to me to be fundamentalists, though we don’t often admit it. “Privilege” is a very negative word in our culture. I’ve found an article called Facing Up To Fundamentalism, written by Simon Barrow of ekklesia, helpful in thinking about this. I particularly liked his excerpt from Catherine Madsen: ‘To grow up politically is to understand that there are other points of view, and that you cannot erase them; … that our obligation to our fellow humans is to make our own point of view not unassailable but intelligible.” That is my challenge, too, not to defend anything but to say it in a way that is articulate and understandable. Sigh.

5. Transmuting: This is steps 1-4 together, being completely at one with our own energy, without a storyline.

Finally, she clarified her teaching on Natural Openness:

She referenced Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s book The Path is the Goal.

She said that when we pause, natural openness is there. Whatever your experience of the pause, it’s good enough. Openness doesn’t need to be manufactured;

whenever there is a gap, openness enters into us. There’s no effort required. An analogy: Openness is like the wind: if the doors and windows are opened, it’s bound to come in. Another analogy: openness is like the sun, always there behind the clouds, which are in reality transparent. From our view it sometimes seems that the sun goes away, but it’s still there, just obscured by what look like solid clouds. When we pause, we poke a hole in the clouds and feel the sun shine.

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