A man jumped out of an 11th floor window the other day. When I read about his suicide, I noted that he had a floor-through apartment that overlooked both the East River and East End Avenue. That had to be worth at least $3 million, I thought. And then I thought: If he was depressed about money, why didn't he just sell his apartment? That's when I realized I needed a dose of Pema Chodron.
I tend to go to Pema Chodron when I discover that what I believe is my open, compassionate, loving heart is actually encased in concrete. Not that her writing makes me feel better --- bracing New Age affirmations are alien to her. Just the opposite: Pema Chodron rubs my face in something that feels like reality.
In The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness, a collection of talks she gave in 1989, she doesn't bother warming the reader up. She just lays it out:
There's a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to get comfortable. You can see this even in insects and animals and birds. All of us are the same.
A much more interesting, kind, adventurous, and joyful approach to life is to begin to develop our curiosity, not caring whether the object of our inquisitiveness is bitter or sweet. To lead a life that goes beyond pettiness and prejudice and always wanting to make sure that everything turns out on our own terms, to lead a more passionate, full, and delightful life than that, we must realize that we can endure a lot of pain and pleasure for the sake of finding out who we are and what this world is, how we tick and how our world ticks, how the whole thing just is.
Short version: Life is hard. Don't wait until you "get it together" to work at being your best self --- the self you've got is what you've got to work with. [She traces her Karma Kaygu lingeage, and, in a hilarious paragraph, shows how some of the Buddhist saints we may be tempted to revere were drunks, abusers, even murderers.] But there's no need to get all grim about your bad character. "Playfulness" awaits. First, though, you must accept that you are where you are, feel what you feel, think what you think --- and that that's okay:
The purpose of your whole life is not to make a lot of money, it's not to find the perfect marriage, it's not to build Gampo Abbey. It's not to do any of these things. You have a certain life, and whatever life you're in is a vehicle for waking up. If you're a mother raising your children, that's the vehicle for waking up. If you're an actress, that's the vehicle for waking up. If you're a construction worker, that's the vehicle for waking up. If you're a retired person facing old age, that's the vehicle for waking up. If you're alone and you feel lonely and you wish you had a mate, that's the vehicle for waking up. If you have a huge family around you and you wish you had a little more free time, that's the vehicle for waking up. Whatever you have, that's it.
I'll repeat: There's no point trying to improve. What you hate about yourself is just the flip side of your specialness. Yeah, your life is an "interesting, smelly, rich, fertile mess" --- and that's what makes you human.
So what's the good news?
You can lay the burden of your burden down. "You can connect with the joy in your heart." How? Relax.
Relax? Shouldn't she be pushing meditation, discipline, a modest life? Oh, she'd like that. But first you need to get out of the negative loop you're in. You're having a hard time? We all are. It is a hard time. So don't think taking "refuge" in the Buddha will change anything. You won't find consolation there. What you will --- perhaps --- find is the start of your own path. On which you really can't get help from others.
In 100 pages, Pema Chodron helps me find my courage. Which has, she says, two sides. One is that I see the world for what it is but choose to live courageously. The other is that I can make a proper cup of tea.
Too small an ambition? When I can make the tea correctly, I'll let you know.
[cross-posted from HeadButler.com ]