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Book Excerpt: ‘How to Meditate’ by Pema Chodron

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The following is an excerpt from How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind by Pema Chödrön. Stay tuned for the giveaway!

Chapter Title: Becoming Intimate with Our Emotions

Working with emotions in meditation practice is a big subject for me. Very often, our thoughts are pretty lightweight. Just light, discursive thoughts. We’re thinking, “What’s for lunch?” or, “Did I remember to run the dishwasher this morning?” Sometimes we’re just having the strangest thoughts. Perhaps you are having a memory of your grandmother eating raw onions. Where does that come from?

Sometimes these thoughts take you away. Usually they do. But many times, they don’t have a lot of emotion in them. These little things passing through your mind come and go like the wind. You can get completely caught up in this fantasy world, but on the other hand, it’s somewhat lightweight. When you realize you’re thinking, you say “thinking.” You let the thoughts go, and there you are in the present moment. Maybe it lasts only half a second.

But if you sit longer, the more you sit, then—no question—painful memories will come up. Suddenly you are struggling against how you’re feeling, and a lot of emotion is involved.

The instruction I’ve been giving for years is: when you’re meditating, and even in your everyday life, notice when you’re hooked. Notice when you’re triggered or activated. That’s the first step: you acknowledge that emotion has arisen.

Next, I advise students to drop the story line and lean in. Just pause, and for a second connect in with spaciousness, with openness. I call this the “pause practice.” It’s like taking a time-out for yourself. Then you lean in to the quality or the texture or the experience, completely touching in to the emotion, without the story. How does the sadness feel? How does the anger feel? Where is it in your body? You let the feeling of the emotion become the object of your meditation. And the reason that I’ve been so committed to teaching on this is emotion itself is a radical and very potent way of awakening.

Without a doubt, this is where everyone loses it. We have so much fear of our emotions, so much aversion to them. You get caught in the momentum of the emotion, and it sweeps you away as if you were in its control. But I’ve found that we can take another approach, which is to enter the emotions that arise in our practice. Emotions are actually very empowering; I call working with the emotions “accelerated transformation.” When you experience difficult emotions in your sitting practice, and you let go of the words and the story behind the experience, then you’re sitting with just the energy. And yes, it can feel painful to do this.

It’s so funny, because sometimes when I give retreats, the TV cameras come in and take pictures of people meditating, and it looks like everyone’s sitting there in complete serenity.

If you could see the speech balloons above people’s heads, or feel what’s going on with them, you might be knocked over in shock! The person next to you doesn’t know that you’re reliving a horror story from your childhood in graphic, heartbreaking detail, or that you’re in a deep depression, or that you’re having the world’s most pornographic fantasy. What we look like and what’s actually going on are often so completely different. We’re just sitting there in a Buddha-like posture, and it might appear that we are experiencing nothing but openness and calm—and nothing could be further from the truth. But I think the Buddha had the same experience that we do. For him, as for us, meditation isn’t always about sitting in a state of absolute calm. There is a scene in the movie Little Buddha where special effects are used to reflect the myriad emotions and temptations that are trying to seduce the Buddha. So much is coming at him—everything from gorgeous women to opportunities for power to things that are frightening, everything. The idea that the Buddha was completely chilled out and didn’t experience emotion around any of these things simply isn’t true. When the Buddha achieved enlightenment, he learned to be settled with all of those feelings coursing through him.

Like the Buddha, you can come to know your own energy, and you can feel quite settled with it. You become intimate with your own energy, and it no longer rules your life. Your conditioning doesn’t go away, but it no longer controls you.

In many ways, it is critical that we do become intimate with our emotions. Sometimes it is even a matter of life and death. I want to tell you a story about my granddaughter. Her mother, my daughter-in-law, died of alcoholism at age forty-eight when my granddaughter was seventeen years old. The addiction had been going on for a long time, from the time my granddaughter was about two. Her mother had a recovery and was sober for ten years, but then she relapsed.

So my granddaughter was applying to college and she had to write an essay. One of the essays for the college was to write about a transformative experience, and the first line of her essay was, “My mother died on December 1, 2009.” And this essay was so remarkable to me because in it she explained how her mother had died of alcoholism, and she said, “all my mother’s friends from Alcoholics Anonymous were telling me, and I knew it to be true, that alcohol is a disease and once it has you in its grip it’s pretty hard to shake it, and they said that’s what happened with my mother.” She said, “I knew that to be true, but I felt that her drinking was a symptom of something else. So while my mother was in the hospital in a coma, I wrote and wrote and wrote, trying to remember everything about my mother—my own memories, things she had said about herself, things her friends had said about her. I was trying to figure out who my mother was because I’m so much like her, and I wanted to figure out where she went wrong and what happened that ended in her dying so young.”

In her essay, my granddaughter came to the conclusion that her mother had a fixed idea of herself as being a certain way. And one of my granddaughter’s conclusions was that we’re changing all the time; everything about us is always changing. My granddaughter said, “When you hold a fixed idea of yourself, you have to leave out all the parts that you find boring, embarrassing, difficult, or sad. You leave out the emotions you don’t want to feel. And then when you do that, when you leave out all those parts, when those parts are not acceptable, then it eats away at you underneath. These unacknowledged parts are like a hum in the background that’s eating away at you, and you have to find an escape to get away from that. And my mother’s escape was alcohol.”

In order for us to be fully present, to experience life fully, we need to acknowledge and accept all our emotions and all parts of ourselves—the embarrassing parts as well as our anger, our rage, our jealousy, our envy, our self-pity, and all these chaotic emotions that sweep us away. Looking for an exit from experiencing the full range of our humanity leads to all kinds of pain and suffering. Meditation gives us the opportunity to experience our emotions naked and fresh, free from the labels of “right” and “wrong,” “should” and “shouldn’t.”

Excerpted from How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind by Pema Chödrön. Copyright © 2013 by Pema Chödrön. Reprinted with permission of Sounds True.

pema-chodronAbout Pema Chödrön:

Pema Chödrön is the author of many spiritual classics including When Things Fall Apart (Shambhala, 2000), The Places That Scare You (Shambhala, 2001), and Taking the Leap (Shambhala, 2009). She serves as resident teacher at Gampo Abbey Monastery in Nova Scotia and is a student of Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche and the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Visit gampoabbey.org or www.soundstrue.com to learn more about Pema Chödrön’s new book, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind.




4 comments… add one
  • G Faunk

    It goes something like this:

    “OMG I have so much to do today, blah blah stop thinking about it, BREATHE. God all I hear is static from proto thought garbage. I wonder how long it’s been? don’t check the clock! ”
    – feeling of intense anxiety
    ” what the hell is that? why do I want to get up so bad? sit with the feeling”
    – feeling of anxiety becomes slightly duller
    ” what is that feeling? can I go deeper into it? too hard, not working. what other stuff is going on I’m not noticing? shit I’m thinking about thinking. am I even breathing?”
    – checks breath. I was definitely holding it.
    ” ok back to breath”
    – impatience springs up again
    ” I wonder if anybody responded to my post on yogadork. could I have won? no probably not. I’ll get the book anyway. oh wait, I’m broke. need to check my email for job offers. is it time to get up yet? ahh good enough”
    – gets up and wastes hours on the internet.

    that’s the typical session in a nutshell

  • Tanya

    And must read on my list. Pema has brought me so much closer to loving me, and I am using her wisdom to raise confident self -loving girls.

  • Thank you for posting this. My Dad died of alcoholism when I was 17, and these words are great inspiration.

  • An absolutly right thing you said in the blog. Emotions play a vital role in every sphere of life and that in meditation too. Great words of inspiration

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