Thursday, December 8, 2011

Snuggling, rather than sledgehammers

I listened to a smart, daring thinker I know discuss paths to happiness.  I thought the guy had good things to say.  However, as with lots of things American, I felt there was a bit too strong an emphasis on happiness all the time, at any cost, so to speak.  I have been impressed with the basic Buddhist emphasis on the unavoidability of mishaps, errors, tribulations, disappointments and the like.  Of course, all religions and all humans of any years realize that things will "Gang aft agley" as Bobbie Burns said a couple hundred years ago.  Our plans and intentions "go often awry".

If we grit our teeth, deny any feelings of disappointment or unhappiness, we fall right into the trap discussed by Freud, Dr. Mark Epstein, Jack Kornfield and many others.  Such a strategy can lead to a record of nothing but 'happiness' but it is a record containing many errors and fake entries.  We get a set of cooked books, not the real experience of life.  

Can anything be done?  Yes.  We can observe.  We can look at, from a little distance, our reaction to tragedy, pain, confusion, loss.  As we become more confident and more competent at such observation, getting to know, tasting, sampling, examining, we become better able to know and accept, sometimes even benefit from, the very events that we didn't want, the events that are negative and unpleasant.  It requires balance to accept the negatives without being negative, to accept them and still enjoy the good things.

Pema Chodron is a American-born Canadian Buddhist abbottess, a grandmother and a former elementary school teacher.  She is very well known and has several books and CD's and conducts workshops and retreats.  She publishes a weekly note about Buddhist practice and basically offers advice and comments that are useful for American and Western audiences. Today she sent this message.


Rather than going after our walls and barriers with a sledgehammer, we pay attention to them. With gentleness and honesty, we move closer to those walls. We touch them and smell them and get to know them well. We begin a process of acknowledging our aversions and our cravings. We become familiar with the strategies and beliefs we use to build the walls: What are the stories I tell myself? What repels me and what attracts me? We start to get curious about what's going on.

To me, this is the key: moving closer to the mental barriers and pains, giving them gentle, honest attention.  "We begin to acknowledge" our own aversions and fears rather than either fighting or becoming them.

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