Part IV (Final): Practicing Peace in Times of War – Pema Chödrön

This is the fourth 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. The third is here.

Tonight was a wrap-up session, followed by Pema’s idea of a ‘pep talk.’

Pema started out speaking of views and opinions. Our varied views and opinions are what make life rich. She’s not saying ‘no’ to views and opinions, or saying ‘no’ to preferences. We have them and they make things interesting. The only problem, she said, is the emotional charge we attach to them, which creates our biases and prejudices.

She likened this to a kind of fundamentalism. Her description of fundamentalism is that it’s characterised by righteous indignation, a sense that we are right and we are opposing what is wrong. This doesn’t lead to a capacity to go underneath the views and opinions to be in the shoes of the other, to have compassion.

The charge (or shempa) around our views and opinions comes, in her view, from a fear of groundlessness, a fear of insecurity and uncertainty. We as humans seem to have no tolerance for groundlessness or for holding the paradox. Groundlessness feels like the ultimate threat to us, and we combat the threat with fixed mind and heart, with a sense of certainty: I am like this, You are like that, It’s like this.  This seems to protect us from what we fear.

Fundamentalism, she said, is at its core based on wanting things to be a certain way so that we can breathe deeply. This understanding is ‘the soft spot,’ the place in ourselves and others that we can have compassion for no matter what else is going on.

She said that we are not really taught to treasure that feeling of groundlessness, of being

on the verge,

not summed up,

neither here nor there,


My comment: For a long time, I have thought of this “not summed up, on the verge” feeling as a quality of shimmering or vibrating. It’s the place (no-place) I most long for, and the reason, I think, that poetry appeals so deeply. Poetry comes at experience sideways, obliquely, and the cross-section it cuts is a sort of ‘experience hologram’ that glimmers, shimmers, pulses with energy, and changes shape and colour as it’s viewed. John Ciardi says it well: ‘Poetry lies its way to the truth.’  Or as T.S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

Pema said that a little groundlessness might be OK with us — when we experience it as awe or wonder — but we don’t like to remain there long. Usually we feel it as embarrassment, awkwardness, uncertainty, insecurity, not knowing what’s going on.

She encouraged her audience to be curious about groundlessness and uncertainty. She sees it as the source of confidence, natural openness, intelligence, and warmth.

We will have our views, opinions, and preferences. We can recognise that that’s what they are, no more and no less. They are impermanent, shifting, changing, not solid. We can stay with the feeling of pleasure or pain, and our preferences around those, in a sort of neutral way, rather than doing what we commonly do, which is to build up the preferences, the opinions, to give them meaning, to invest them with emotional energy, to (she didn’t say this but I am extrapolating) make them the foundation of our identity.

We can allow ourselves to change by listening deeply to what others say, especially when they are saying things that trigger us, that annoy and anger and scare us.

It’s always good, she said, to set our standards low. That will keep us from hopelessness as we practice. She suggested that each morning we might say, “May I be kind today.” That’s something we can probably do at least once in a day, and if not, we can have the same intention tomorrow.

My comment: I’m a big believer in low standards. My daily (sometimes many times per day) prayer/intention is this:  “May I be well within my own soul and body, and may I be part of the world’s healing today.” For me, the first part is required for the second part. If I act from a place of unwellness, I won’t be healing for others no matter what task I do. So it’s both a reminder to me to look for wellness and for places of healing in myself and others, and it’s a request for God’s grace in all things.

Pema reminded us that when we have fixed mind/heart about someone, we don’t see them change and don’t see the soft spot in them. From this blindness comes all grief, suffering, and war.

Her ‘pep talk’ was, in my view, so reminiscent in concept and language of the film “My Dinner with Andre,” when Andre talks about the way the people of Findhorn see things. Pema said that her teacher (and the founder of Shambhala), Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, had a reputation among his students for being prophetic. He’d look in a mirror and see the future. Her foresaw that intolerance in the USA would become worse so that anything and anyone not entirely mainstream would be unsafe, under threat. We would live in a place that would not nurture open mind, open heart, sanity, and there would spring up islands of sanity, messengers of sanity and peace, an enlightened society that could permeate the society that had lost its way. Eventually, because of these islands and messengers, the sanity would return to the USA.

My comment: I have two major responses to this. This first is just to quote at length the section from “My Dinner with Andre” where Andre explains what sounds like a very similar concept (and maybe this is because the people of Findhorn and Trungpa Rinpoche were/are on the same wavelength, literally):

“Chiquita [Andre’s wife] and I have had this very unpleasant feeling that we really should get out [of Manhattan] … that we really feel like Jews in Germany in the late 30’s. Get out of here. Of course, the problem is where to go. Because it seems quite obvious that the whole world is going in the same direction.   […]  Now, [physicist] Gustav Bjornstrand feels that there really is almost no hope, and that probably we’ll be going back to a very savage, lawless, terrifying period…

“Findhorn people see it a little differently. …

“It’s their feeling that there will be these pockets of light springing up in different parts of the world, and that these will be in a way invisible planets on this planet, and that, as we or the world grow colder, we will be able to take invisible space journeys to these different planets, refuel for what it is we have to do on the planet itself, and come back.  And you see, they believe that there have to be centers now, where people can come and reconstruct a new future for the world. And when I was talking to Gustav Bjornstrand, he was saying that these centers are actually growing up everywhere now… and what they’re trying to do, which is also what Findhorn was trying to do, and in a way what I was trying to do —  I mean, these things can’t be given a name — but in a way, these are all attempts at creating a new kind of school or a new kind of monastery. And Bjornstrand talked about the concept of reserves, islands of safety, where history can be remembered and the human being can continue to function in order to maintain the species through a Dark Age.In other words we’re talking about an underground, which did exist during the Dark Ages in a different way, among the mystical orders of the church. And the purpose of this underground is to find out how to preserve the light, life, the culture. How to keep things living.”

My second response is that this idea — that a group of people who practice meditation, who practice Buddhist concepts, forms an enlightened society that can show others the way — is very similar to what I think of as fundamentalism (which differs from Pema’s description of it). As I mentioned in the last post, this definition of fundamentalism seems accurate to me: “It is the belief that revealed truth is to be apprehended directly and in an unmediated form by a privileged group.” An enlightened society seems very similar to a privileged group. Again, it seems like one of those fine line things; even if practice merely prepares us to lead others from darkness (as other training prepares other people to qualify for the Tour de France, say), how quickly that can slide into the practicer (or trainee) feeling noble and ‘better than’ the rest of us, feeling as though we deserve to be this kind of leader.

I’d ask a question about intention here: To what extent is my prayer to be well and to be part of the world’s healing each day the same as a group of people practicing to be skillful peacemakers, hoping to someday liberate an unenlightened society?

Some questions that occur (I’m asking them as ‘or’ questions’ but I mean them not necessarily as polarities but as different paths of approach to the idea, some of which might contradict others): Are labels like ‘in need of healing’ and ‘unenlightened’ applied only to others, or applied to all of us? Is privilege (as in ‘privileged group’) something granted freely to a person, or to a group, or to everyone, or is it something merited or earned by actions, or is it a natural consequence of actions? Do we  acknowledge the need to be well, to be skillful practitioners, as a prerequisite to evoking any healing in others, or do we acknowledge that healing can be evoked regardless of wellness, practice or intention? Is healing seen as an evoking of one’s natural balance, wisdom and wellness, or as a way of externally fixing a person or system?

I’ve been in enough church systems and academic settings to be wary of those who identify themselves as bringers of enlightenment; but perhaps I am too wary. Jesus, after all, claimed that he was the light.

I’m going to write another post on fundamentalism.

That was the end of the formal presentation, after which followed the Q&A session. During that period, Pema said that the nature of the spiritual journey, if you’re doing it right (I believe those were her words), is that you become less certain.

Answering another question, Richard Reoch, the current president of Shambhala, said that he no longer feels that he has to proselytise his views to others, or even say anything to someone whose views are anathema to him.

My comment: This troubles me. As I also mentioned last week, I do at times feel an obligation to make intelligible my own point of view, without making it unassailable. That is, I think we benefit from listening to each others’ views, when we can share them (in writing, aloud, through art, in whatever form) without feeling a need to prove or defend ourselves through them, without trying to convince the other person to adopt our view. I often don’t say what I think, because of cowardice, confusion, and other trigger responses, but I think it’s worthwhile to do so at times.

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