“Buddhist Meditation is Relaxing with the Truth,” part 2
by Pema Chodron
After we’ve been meditating for a while, it’s common to feel that we are regressing rather then waking up. “Until I started meditating, I was quite settled; now it feels like I’m always restless.” “I never used to feel anger; now it comes up all the time.” We might complain that meditation is ruining our life, but in fact such experiences are a sign that we’re starting to see more clearly. Through the process of practicing the technique day in and out, year after year, we begin to be very honest with ourselves. Clear seeing is another way of saying that we have less self-deception.
The Beat poet Jack Kerouac, feeling primed for a spiritual breakthrough, wrote to a friend before he retreated into the wilderness, “If I don’t get a vision on Desolation Peak, then my name ain’t William Blake.” But later he wrote that he found it hard to face the naked truth. “I’d thought, in June when I get to the top-and everybody leaves-I will come face to face with God or Tathagata (Buddha) and find out once and for all what is the meaning of all this existence and suffering-but instead I’d come face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it, but face to face with ole Hateful . . . Me.”
Meditation requires patience and maitri. If this process of clear seeing isn’t based on self-compassion it will become a process of self-aggression. We need self-compassion to stabilize our minds. We need it to work with our emotions. We need it in order to stay.
When we learn to meditate, we are instructed to sit in a certain position on a cushion or chair. We’re instructed to just be in the present moment, aware of our breath as it goes out. We’re instructed that when our mind has wandered off, without any harshness or judgmental quality, we should acknowledge that as ‘thinking” and return to the outbreath. We train in coming back to this moment of being here. In the process of doing this, our fogginess, our bewilderment, our ignorance begin to transform into clear seeing. “Thinking” becomes a code word for seeing “just what is”—both our clarity and our confusion. We are not trying to get rid of thoughts. Rather we are clearly seeing our defense mechanisms, our negative beliefs about ourselves, our desires and our expectations. We also see our kindness, our bravery, our wisdom.
Through the process of practicing the mindfulness-awareness technique on a regular basis, we can no longer hide from ourselves. We clearly see the barriers we set up to shield us from naked experience. Although we still associate the walls we’ve erected with safety and comfort, we also begin to feel them as a restriction. This claustrophobic situation is important for a warrior. It marks the beginning of longing for an alternative to our small, familiar world. We begin to look for ventilation. We want to dissolve the barriers between ourselves and others.
Experiencing our Emotional Distress
Many people, including long-time practitioners, use meditation as a means of escaping difficult emotions. It is possible to misuse the label “thinking” as a way of pushing negativity away. No matter how many times we’ve been instructed to stay open to whatever arises, we still can use meditation as repression. Transformation occurs only when we remember, breath by breath, year after year, to move toward our emotional distress without condemning or justifying our experience.
Trungpa Rinpoche describes emotion as a combination of self-existing energy and thoughts. Emotion can’t proliferate without our internal conversations. If we’re angry when we sit to meditate, we are instructed to label the thoughts “thinking” and let them go. Yet below the thoughts something remains—a vital, pulsating energy. There is nothing wrong, nothing harmful about that underlying energy. Our practice is to stay with it, to experience it, to leave it as it is, without proliferating.
There are certain advanced techniques in which you intentionally churn up emotions by thinking of people or situations that make you angry or lustful or afraid. The practice is to let the thoughts go and connect directly with the energy, asking yourself, “Who am I without these thoughts?” What we do with mindfulness-awareness practice is simpler than that, but I consider it equally daring. When emotional distress arises uninvited, we let the story line go and abide with the energy of that moment. This is a felt experience, not a verbal commentary on what is happening. We can feel the energy in our bodies. If we can stay with it, neither acting it out nor repressing it, it wakes us up. People often say, “I fall asleep all the time in meditation. What shall I do?” There are lots of antidotes to drowsiness but my favorite is, “Get angry!”
Not abiding with our energy is a predictable human habit. Acting out and repressing are tactics we use to get away from our emotional pain. For instance most of us when we’re angry scream or act it out. We alternate expressions of rage with feeling ashamed of ourselves and wallowing in it. We become so stuck in repetitive behavior that we become experts at getting all worked up. In this way we continue to strengthen our conflicting emotions.
One night years ago I came upon my boyfriend passionately embracing another woman. We were in the house of a millionaire who had a priceless collection of pottery. I was furious and looking for something to throw. Everything I picked up I had to put back down because it was worth at least $10,000. I was completely enraged and I couldn’t find an outlet! There were no exits from experiencing my own energy. The absurdity of the situation totally cut through my rage. I went outside and looked at the sky and laughed until I cried.
In vajrayana Buddhism it is said that wisdom is inherent in emotions. When we struggle against our own energy we are rejecting the source of wisdom. Anger without the fixation is none other than mirrorlike wisdom. Pride and envy without fixation is experienced as equanimity. The energy of passion when it’s free of grasping is discriminating awareness wisdom.
In bodhichitta training we also welcome the living energy of emotions. When our emotions intensify what we usually feel is fear. This fear is always lurking in our lives. In sitting meditation we practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotional distress.
Attention to the Present Moment
Another factor we cultivate in the transformative process of meditation is attention to this very moment. We make the choice, moment by moment, to be fully here. Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward other, and toward the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love.
Coming back to the present moment takes some effort but the effort is very light. The instruction is to “touch and go.” We touch thoughts by acknowledging them as thinking and then we let them go. It’s a way of relaxing our struggle, like touching a bubble with a feather. It’s a nonaggressive approach to being here.
Sometimes we find that we like our thoughts so much that we don’t want to let them go. Watching our personal video is a lot more entertaining than bringing our mind back home. There’s no doubt that our fantasy world can be very juicy and seductive. So we train in using a “soft” effort, in interrupting our habitual patterns; we train in cultivating self-compassion.
We practice meditation to connect with maitri and unconditional openness. By not deliberately blocking anything, by directly touching our thoughts and then letting them go with an attitude of no big deal, we can discover that our fundamental energy is tender, wholesome and fresh. We can start to train as a warrior, discovering for ourselves that it is bodhichitta, not confusion, that is basic.
Pema Chödrön is a full-ordained Buddhist nun and the director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. This article is adapted from her Shambhala Publications book, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.
Resting Completely, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, May 2001