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