Posts Tagged ‘pema chodron’

For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with self-doubt. I felt there was something different about me, something not quite right. While other children seemed confident in who they were and what they wanted, I was never quite sure of myself. As a result, I became very interested in and curious about others, how they felt, how they knew what they knew.

To some extent, I still navigate the world in this way. I ask people a lot of questions about how they handle day-to-day events, relationships, and feelings. I bounce my thoughts off of trusted friends and family members, hoping to find myself somewhere on the continuum of “normalcy” and to triangulate my way toward a sense of certainty and rightness. Still, I don’t quite trust my intuition and my own goodness.

The concept of basic goodness is foundational in Buddhism. In contrast to original sin, Buddhism holds that humans are essentially good, clear-seeing, loving, and compassionate. In Ocean of Dharma, Chogyam Trungpa writes:

The Buddha discovered that there is something in us known as basic goodness. Therefore, we don’t have to condemn ourselves for being bad or naughty. The Buddha taught what he had learned to the rest of mankind. What he taught then – twenty-five hundred years ago – is still being taught and practiced. The important point for us is to realize that we are basically good. Our only problem is that sometimes we don’t actually acknowledge that goodness. We don’t see it, so we blame somebody else or we blame ourselves. That is a mistake. We don’t have to blame others, and we don’t have to feel nasty or angry. Fundamental goodness is always with us, always in us.

When I first learned about basic goodness, it was difficult to think of myself in this light. As a life-long self-doubter, it was easier to see the basic goodness in others than in myself. I still struggle with it.

This past weekend I took the refuge vow to formalize my commitment to the Buddhist path. I took refuge in the Buddha as an example of a human being who attained enlightenment. I took refuge in the dharma – the truth – the teachings of the Buddha on the nature of reality. And I took refuge in the sangha, the community of practitioners who are all on their own lonely paths but who are also there to support one another.

As part of the ceremony I was given a Tibetan name – Champa Wangmo – which can be roughly translated as “maitri (or loving-kindness) lady.” The Acharya who named me explained to those of us taking the vow that in his experience, we grow to embody our refuge names over the course of a lifetime. While I am sure I will be figuring out the meaning of this new name for many years to come, I have some initial thoughts.

Maitri has been described by Chogyam Trungpa and other Buddhist teachers as an unconditional friendliness, toward others and especially toward oneself. Maitri has also been described, most recently by the wonderful Susan Piver, as an antidote to self-doubt. This is not about countering doubt by beating my breast and proclaiming all my wonderful, lovable qualities. And it’s not about “managing” or forgiving myself for being scared or petty or small-minded. I’m beginning to see it’s about opening to myself with the same sense of love and welcome that I have for others.

Since taking the refuge vow, my thoughts and emotions have gone technicolor. My doubts and fears feel magnified, and I have an increasing sense of groundlessness. I have reached out to friends and family to talk through my concerns, for some consolation, for someone to confirm me, but the feelings haven’t changed. After a few days of confusion, I realized this is exactly what I signed up for.

In practicing maitri or loving-kindness, I am practicing turning toward all of the scary, uncomfortable feelings with softness and a sense of welcome. I think this is the practice of my lifetime. And it’s all good, basically.

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Last time I saw you
We had just split in two.
You were looking at me.
I was looking at you.
You had a way so familiar,
But I could not recognize,
Cause you had blood on your face;
I had blood in my eyes.
But I could swear by your expression
That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine.
That’s the pain,
Cuts a straight line
Down through the heart;
We called it love.

~From “The Origin of Love,” Hedwig and the Angry Inch


I’ve always loved gender-bending movies: Orlando, Boys Don’t Cry, Prodigal Sons, and can I get a shout out for the horribly good 80s classic Just One of the Guys? Still my favorite remains John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. As if life isn’t tough enough for a young, gay, East German boy before the wall came down…Hedwig undergoes a sex change operation so that he can marry and come to the US with the American GI Luther, who leaves him for a cabana boy shortly thereafter. But the operation gets botched, leaving Hedwig with an angry inch. Music ensues.

Gender defines us at the deepest level. When a baby is born, even before the toes and fingers are counted, the question is raised ‘boy or girl?’ So much is determined by which door you enter when you use a public restroom. And stories of individuals who are different on that very basic level speak to me.

I have not had to deal with issues of gender in my life, but for some reason I empathize very strongly with someone who feels they were born the wrong sex or love the same sex despite cultural expectations to the contrary. As if it’s something that goes way back to the differentiation of cells into testes or ovaries, I have long felt different from everyone else on a very deep, basic level.

There’s a scene in Hedwig and the Angry Inch in which Hedwig and his love interest Tommy are becoming intimate for the first time. But intimacy is averted when Tommy feels (literally) just how different Hedwig is – neither male nor female, per se:

Tommy: What is that?
Hedwig: It’s what I have to work with.

This scene has always resounded with me. Lately though it has taken on a new significance. As I struggle with my current issues – the frustrations and uncertainty of unemployment, stunted and confused book writing attempts, questions about other aspects of my personal life – I find myself wishing for a different set of issues. My issues feel stickier, ickier, and more difficult than I imagine others’ to be. They seem like things to be gotten through, vanquished, so that my “real life” can begin.

During a recent conversation about our romantic lives, a friend said to me, “Your problems seem so light and fluffy compared to mine.” After a beat, I realized that I also felt this way to an extent. This is part of my story about myself (and a lot of our stories about ourselves), how sordid and heavy my problems are compared with those of others. And it separates me from others. I look at the people walking down the street or my facebook friends and assume their lives are much better, easier, coordinated, and certain.

The ‘What I have to work with’ scene came to mind recently as I was practicing meditation. I had just read the following from Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape and made the connection:

…sometimes the teachings emphasize the wisdom, brilliance, or sanity that we possess, and sometimes they emphasize the obstacles, how it is that we feel stuck in a small, dark place. These are actually two sides of one coin: when they are put together, inspiration (or well-being) and burden (or suffering) describe the human condition.

…we see how beautiful and wonderful and amazing things are, and we see how caught up we are. It isn’t that one is the bad part and one is the good part, but that it’s a kind of interesting, smelly, rich, fertile mess of stuff. When it’s all mixed up together, it’s us: humanness.

…even though there are so many teachings, so many meditations, so many instructions, the basic point of it all is just to learn to be extremely honest and also wholehearted about what exists in your mind…the whole thing that adds up to what we call “me” or “I.” Nobody else can really begin to sort out for you what to accept and what to reject in terms of what wakes you up and what makes you fall asleep.

It’s true that I often feel different from everyone else and that my problems are somehow more problematic. But by believing this, I am solidifying my story, using it to go to sleep, rather than to wake up. If I think of what is going on in my life as what I have to work with, something shifts. I realize that these are the very things that can help me wake up and that my real life is happening right now.

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Since I wrote my last post – Meditation, Medication, and Where I’ve Been – I’ve thought a lot about the things I do that affect my mood. In that piece, I was working through my own resistance to taking an anti-depressant because I felt that it was a false comfort, an artificial means of improving my experience of my life and the world. While taking a drug for depression may not be ideal (my Words with Friends winnings have dipped precipitously, for example), I now realize that anti-depressant medication really isn’t as different as I thought. There are in fact many things I take and do, pharmacologic and otherwise, that alter how I experience life day to day.

Take something I do every day: eat. Clearly the foods I eat affect how I feel. Dark chocolate, fatty fish, or dark-green leafy vegetables (though not necessarily all at once) have effects on the brain that make me feel better. (I once had a dentist who claimed eating a pound of spinach always cured his blues.) On the other hand, I associate chicken soup or my mother’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with intensely comforting feelings. Whether a food has an actual physiologic effect on the brain or brings about pleasant feelings – or a combination of these two – the result is the same.

In an attempt to address depression more “naturally,” I once experimented with dietary supplements such as St. John’s wort, SAMe, and fish oil. Though the effects of these substances can vary from source to source and person to person, they are biologically active compounds that affect the brain (often along the same pathways as anti-depressant drugs).

Exercise – running, walking, yoga, or my new passion Physique 57 – is perhaps the best non-pharmacologic approach to improving depression. Again, it is not totally clear whether the effects are predominantly physiological or a result of switching things up and, as Pema Chodron says, “doing something different.” It is likely a combination of these.

It bears mentioning that alcohol and drugs can be remarkably effective, at least in the short term, in making one feel better. I used to derive great relief and comfort from a glass (or three) of wine. However, in the best of cases, these positive effects didn’t last, and in the worst of cases, alcohol made my depression worse and led to dependence as more and more was needed to achieve the perception of pleasure.

Meditation, on the other hand, has improved my depression by changing how I relate to my thoughts and feelings. By taking the brave step to stay with feelings of depression, I have been able to develop curiosity about what is going on in my mind. I was ultimately able to discern what was depression – which I decided to treat with an anti-depressant for now – and what were judgments and anxieties about my depression.

Many other things – laughter, sex, getting a massage, listening to music, taking a vacation, spending time with animals or the people that make me feel good – enhance feelings of enjoyment and happiness and should not necessarily be thought of as that different from a little green capsule.

The day I published my last post, my blog had the highest number of hits ever in a single day. That tells me I hit a nerve. With so many of us experiencing depression, I hope we permit ourselves to do the things that make our lives better and loosen some of our harsh judgments about pharmacologic interventions for mood-related issues.

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You might have noticed recently that the lights have gone dark at Drinking to Distraction. I could make excuses: I’m busy with work, traveling more, doing fabulous and enviable things around New York City. But the truth is that I have been depressed.

Depression, much like alcoholism, is not something people are eager to talk or hear about. It’s not eminently discussable, and is rather something people suffer with privately. I have struggled with depression since I was a child, and I learned it was something to be whispered about and overcome. Yet, with the number of people affected (The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that 6.4% of US adults had depression in the year 2008; I was unable to find any statistics on how many have experienced depression at any point in their lives but I imagine it is a much greater number), it is also one of the most common health problems. And this reticence to address it directly and publicly seems a dangerous paradox.

After many years of living with it, I realized that depression may not be all bad. Many of those who suffer with depression also have a level of sensitivity that predisposes them to great empathy, compassion, and creativity. In his Shambhala Sun article entitled “Depression’s Truth,” Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche discusses another potential benefit of depression – clear seeing:

According to Buddhism, the world that we perceive—the world we interact with and live in—is insubstantial. Through the experience of depression and despair we can begin to see things more clearly rather than less clearly. It is said that we are normally charmed or bedazzled by the world, like a spell has been put on us by the allure of samsaric excitements and entertainment. When we get depressed, though, we begin to see through that—we are able to cut through the illusions of samsara. Depression, when we work with it, can be like a signal, something that puts a brake on our excesses and reminds us of the banality of the samsaric condition, so that we will not be duped into sliding back into the old habits again. It reminds us of the futility, insignificance and non-substantiality of the samsaric condition.

The author goes on to say that depression can present unique opportunities, if faced fearlessly and with courage, awareness, joy, love, and compassion. One of the main ways of doing this is through meditation: through remaining open and aware to the present, observing the moment to moment variability in depressed feelings, and being willing to look at things in a different way.

When I began practicing meditation almost 2 years ago, one of the first benefits I noticed was the opening up of space. Space between habitual thoughts, space between judging things as good or bad, space in which I could be rather than just do. As a result of this newfound space, I have become more compassionate and aware. I have cultivated the ability to observe myself encountering discomfort and to watch urges – to drink or zone out – rise and fall without reacting to them.

When this latest depression began, my first clue was an utter lack of space. I could locate no gaps in the negative soundtrack running in my head, telling me how awful, burdensome, boring, lazy, undeserving, and unlovable I was. I could not find the space to take the good with the bad and thus fixated on the negative aspects of every experience, real or imagined. I could not find the space to do the things that made me happy and kept me healthy – to exercise, eat well, read, write, or laugh. Even the space that allowed me to stop what I was doing and sit down to meditate diminished. I continued to sit, however, hoping to overcome this darkness and to find the space that would allow me to observe myself once again and make skillful changes. This did eventually happen but the change I kept coming back to wasn’t one I was ready to make.

For several years, before I quit drinking, I managed my depression with antidepressant medication. One of their earliest benefits was the quieting of that chorus chanting “you suck you suck you suck.” As a result, I became unstuck and faced some real challenges head on. But a part of me yearned to come off the medication, to be “pure,” and to experience my life’s highs and lows unmuted.

When I was struggling with questions of whether or not I was an alcoholic, one of seemingly few “solid” reasons to quit drinking was the possibility to stop taking antidepressants. And 5 months after taking my last drink, I began to taper off antidepressant meds. Much of what I write about here has been my experience since then, which for the most part seemed to be a story of successfully navigating the world with neither alcohol nor antidepressants. Until recently.

Through meditation, reflection, and discussions with people who love me enough to say “this isn’t working; it’s time to try something else,” I realized I needed to consider medication again. Even though antidepressants had helped me in the past, the idea of going back on them made me feel like an utter failure. I was also confused as to the Buddhist perspective on treating depression with drugs. According to my fledgling understanding of Buddhism and specifically the Four Nobel Truths, it is the relentless pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of discomfort that is the source of life’s suffering. What then are antidepressants but an FDA-approved affront to the second noble truth?

My confusion brought me, as it often does, to the Internet, where I found a 1993 Tricycle article by the Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein called “Awakening with Prozac.” Epstein writes:

There continues to be a widespread suspicion of pharmacological treatments for mental anguish in dharma circles, a prejudice against using drugs to correct mental imbalance. Just as the cancer patient is urged to take responsibility for something that may be beyond her control, the depressed dharma student is all too often given the message that no pain is too great to be confronted on the zafu, that depression is the equivalent of mental weakness or lassitude, that the problem is in the quality of one’s practice rather than in one’s body.

One of the only concrete things worth learning in all of [my] years of training was that there actually are several psychiatric conditions which can be cured or prevented through the use of medications and that denial of such treatment is folly. This is not to say that it is always so clear when a problem is chemical, when it is psychological, or when it is spiritual. There are no blood tests for depression, for example. And yet, the presence of certain constellations of symptoms invariably point to a treatable condition that is unlikely to resolve through spiritual practice alone.

There are undoubtedly dharma practitioners who are depriving themselves in the same way, out of a similar faith in the universality of their ideology. Such people would do well to remember the Buddha’s teachings of the Middle Path, especially his counsel against the search for happiness through self-mortification in different forms of asceticism, which he called “painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.” To suffer from psychiatric illness willfully, when treatment is mercifully available, is but a contemporary ascetic practice. The Buddha himself tried such ascetic practices, but gave them up. His counsel is worth keeping.

At the same time I sent a text message to my meditation instructor asking, “What would the Buddha think of my going back on antidepressants?” Her response, “He would be delighted for you to do whatever you need to create stability and thus find it easier to experience gentleness toward yourself and others. But just a guess!!!”

Once I gave myself permission to treat my depression and perhaps actually thereby further my dharma practice, I began taking an antidepressant. Though it takes several weeks for the medication to have its full pharmacologic effect, I noticed subtle changes steadily taking place. First the breaking up of the cloud that had settled over me like Eyeore, the quieting of my self-deprecating Greek chorus, and the breaking down of barriers to doing the things that make me feel good, capable, and whole. After one month, I find myself picking up a book rather than zoning out in front of Bravo TV, going for a run rather than remaining chained to my desk, choosing to lighten up on myself rather than running myself into the ground for the slightest perceived fault. Pema Chodron writes:

Instead of struggling against the force of confusion, we could meet it and relax. When we do that, we gradually discover that clarity is always there. In the middle of the worst scenario of the worst person in the world, in the middle of all the heavy dialogue with ourselves, open space is always there.

Once I stopped struggling against my confusion and recognized what was true for me in that moment, the answer became clear and a space continues to open up before me. As with all things, I needed to find my own middle way and just see where it takes me.


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Some people experience breakthroughs when they meditate. I am not one of them. While I endeavor to maintain perfect awareness on the breath, instead I seem to be trying to tame my wild-horse mind that sets off to the races the moment my butt hits the cushion. Occasionally, however, there are moments of clarity that make this effort worth it.

As I have mentioned before (here, here, and here), I am someone who finds uncertainty supremely uncomfortable and generally likes to know what to expect. Through what I’ve called emotional disaster-preparedness, I imagine the worst-case scenario under the faulty assumption that I will feel less pain/anxiety/upheaval when disaster really does strike. As I’ve also noted, however, I fail miserably to imagine what actually does happen in the future and in the process, make the present very unpleasant.

I’ve lived for a long time with this notion of disaster lurking just around the corner. The monster under the bed. The other shoe about to drop. These negative imaginings are much of what brought me to the meditation cushion in the first place. So, as I sat one day and heard myself silently say to myself, “in this moment, there is nothing wrong,” the earth moved.

The idea that taking the risk to be fully present (rather than stocking my emotional fallout shelter with rations and gasmasks) relieved me of the burden of imagining every possible thing that might go wrong and resting, truly resting, in awareness. What a relief!

I came back to this idea many times both on and off the cushion. Meditation had led me to the realization that oftentimes, if I stopped and noticed what was actually happening, there was nothing wrong. One day months later, while meditating, I recalled this notion, silently repeating to myself “in this moment, there is nothing wrong,” with the intention of labeling this thought – thinking – and returning to the breath. Instead, I heard myself answer “in this moment, there is nothing right, either.”

Full on, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: WHOA!


In her book Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chodron writes the following about equanimity:

By practicing loving-kindness, compassion, and rejoicing, we are training in thinking bigger, in opening up as wholeheartedly as we can. We are cultivating the unbiased state of equanimity. Without this fourth boundless quality the other three are limited by our habit of liking and disliking, accepting and rejecting.

Cultivating equanimity is a work in progress. We aspire to spend our lives training in the loving-kindness and courage that it takes to receive whatever appears—sickness, health, poverty, wealth, sorrow, and joy. We welcome and get to know them all.

To cultivate equanimity we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion, before it hardens into grasping or negativity. We train in staying with the soft spot and use our biases as stepping-stones for connecting with the confusion of others.

Though I’m far from cultivating perfect equanimity and I often find myself grasping or repelling, I’ve begun to notice this habit. And I’ve begun to recognize that I have the choice to stay with the raw vulnerability before it hardens into something else.


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