Drop the Storyline: Pema Chodron on Learning to Stay with Difficult Emotions

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"Deep down in the human spirit there is a reservoir of courage. It’s always available, always waiting to be discovered."

So writes Pema Chodron in the epilogue of her book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears, a collection of wisdom gained from her Buddhist teachers. It is, as Pema is known for producing, an attempt at honoring her beloved instructors, passing along their teachings as a means of healing a beautiful, broken world. Yet it becomes, as her work often does, a uniquely important rendering of timeless peace-based practices into a language the modern-day Westerner will be able to quickly understand.

We are all a mixture of aggression and loving-kindness, hard-heartedness and tender open-heartedness, small-mindedness and forgiving open mind. We are not a fixed, predictable, static identity that anyone can point to and say, ‘You are always like this. You are always the same.’

Life’s energy is never static. It is as shifting, fluid, changing as the weather. Sometimes we like how we’re feeling, sometimes we don’t. Then we like it again. Then we don’t. Happy and sad, comfortable and uncomfortable alternate continually. This is how it is for everyone.
— Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap

In the book, Pema utilizes various stories - the myth of Ulysses, for example, and the painful ending of her second marriage - to illustrate the emotional ebb and flow of life. She instructs her reader to open their mind and heart to new wisdom drawn from ancient practices, and with little difficulty the reader is able to follow her. Her Western experiences woven into her Eastern beliefs, along with her passionate and earnest championing of the enduring goodness of the world, is just the surface of what makes an unlikely Buddhist nun – an American woman who didn't turn to Buddhism until 37 years and 2 divorces impacted her life – such a powerful, transcendent teacher.

Buddhism encourages us never to reject what is problematic but rather to become very familiar with it. And so it is here: we are urged to acknowledge shenpa, see it clearly, experience it fully – without acting out or repressing.
— Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap

Pema does some of her most profound teaching as she turns the Buddhist principle of shenpa over her relatable vernacular. She explores the nature of human habit within the context of shenpa, the trigger that so often hooks us onto negative feelings and makes self-destructive behavior a reflexive habit. Where we respond to shenpa with fear, anxiety, blame, anger, and self-desctructive patterns, the Buddhist practice instead encourages adopting an awareness – an open, kind curiosity – toward the things that trigger difficult emotions, and even the emotions themselves. Pema walks the reader through the practices of acknowledging shenpa through sitting meditation, compassionate abiding, and the meditative tonglen.

When things fall apart and we can’t get the pieces back together, when we lose something dear to us, when the whole thing is just not working and we don’t know what to do, this is the time when the natural warmth of tenderness, the warmth of empathy and kindness, are just waiting to be uncovered, just waiting to be embraced. This is our chance to come out of our self-protecting bubble and to realize that we are never alone. This is our chance to finally understand that wherever we go, everyone we meet is essentially just like us. Our own suffering, if we turn toward it, can open us to a loving relationship with the world.
— Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap

As is her way, Pema connects these practices to everyday Western life by relating stories of people she has known and met, from criminals on death row to the Dalai Lama. In this, she shines her light onto the connectedness of humanity, illuminating the very sameness which she encourages us to see in each other as a tool for practicing compassion. And compassion for others, she points out, begins with compassion for ourselves. This is epitomized by the beautiful Sanskrit word maitri, which Pema informally translates to mean "unconditional friendliness to oneself".

Often, Pema reinforces the Buddhist belief that good and bad, happy and sad are all made of the same clear, unobstructed energy and space, and that our reaction to them is what creates difficulty and suffering. While we are only human in our patterns of either acting out or repressing, Pema encourages the alternative approach of staying, of leaning into the shenpa and dropping the storyline. The storyline, she explains, is the inner-dialogue we all know well which is encouraging us to act out or repress (which is to say, encouraging either anger or sadness).

Learning to stay is the basis for connecting with natural warmth; it is the basis for loving ourselves and also for compassion. The more you stay present with yourself, the more you realize what all of us are up against. Just like me, other people feel pain and want it to go away. Just like me, they go about this in a way that only makes matters worse.
— Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap

With their focus on stillness, mindfulness, and letting go, the practices Pema puts forth in this book are a soul-filling glimpse at one of the world’s most beautiful and benevolent spiritual philosophies; and her intelligent, open-hearted rendering of the Buddhist language welcomes anyone to listen, to practice, and to grow. With her simple words on courage at the beginning of the epilogue, Pema summarizes all that’s needed to apply these practices in our lives not just to develop maitri – compassion for ourselves as a means toward compassion for others – but also so that we might contribute, as an enlightened society, to the ultimate survival and beautification of the natural world around us.

So, we start by making friends with our experience and developing warmth for our good old selves. Slowly, very slowly, gently, very gently, we let the stakes get higher as we touch in on more troubling feelings. This leads to trusting that we have the strength and good-heartedness to live in this precious world, despite its land mines, with dignity and kindness. With this kind of confidence, connecting with others comes more easily, because what is there to fear when we have stayed with ourselves through thick and thin? Other people can provoke anything in us and we don’t need to defend ourselves by striking out or shutting down. Selfless help, helping others without an agenda, is the result of having helped ourselves. We feel loving toward ourselves and therefore we feel loving toward others. Over time all those we used to feel separate from become more and more melted into our heart.
— Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap

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