Pema Chödrön: Buddhist Insight for Challenging Times

By Carly Fox 

I discovered feminism as a sophomore in college. I was insecure, angry, and to say the least, sad. Feminism gave me an intellectual framework with which to critically understand the world around me and a language to describe the feelings of isolation I had long felt. It gave me the tools to connect my personal experiences with history and politics, and inspired me to lead an engaged life that sought to undue oppression and division. Feminism radically altered my life; yet, as much as I read and studied, I still felt an underlying sense of insecurity, anxiety, and depression. I understood feminism from my mind, but I had yet to connect it with my heart.

The semester before I graduated college I bought a book by the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön.

Pema Chödrön was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936, in New York City

Pema Chödrön was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936, in New York City

A Buddhist nun since 1972, Pema studied under the well-known teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and is currently the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery for Westerners. Pema writes extensively about living with an open heart and relating directly to our experiences of suffering, fear, and uncertainty.  Her down-to-earth and accessible teaching style helped me learn how to stop struggling with myself and running from my fear. Her teachings also connected deeply with my understanding and passion for a feminist politics rooted in connectedness, love, and a shared commitment to end sexist oppression.

Cultivating Unconditional Friendship with Oneself

Learning how to befriend ourselves is fundamental to Pema’s teaching. As I read Pema’s work, I began to realize that I in fact knew very little about being a friend to myself; instead, I had spent a great deal of my life judging myself and trying to be “good enough.” I believed if I received A’s, went jogging more often, got into the right graduate school, read more books, had the right partner, ate organic food, and held the correct political beliefs then somehow I would finally be lovable. These things, I thought, would make that uncomfortable feeling of self-doubt disappear. To look honestly at all the parts of myself I didn’t like – my anger, jealousy, resentment, and self-denigration- was painfully frightening. Pema’s teaching, however, encourage us get to know all the parts of ourselves that we try to cover over.

Developing unconditional friendship means taking the very scary step of getting to know yourself. It means being willing to look at yourself clearly and to stay with yourself when you want to shut down. It means keeping your heart open when you feel that what you see in yourself is just too embarrassing, too painful, too unpleasant, too hateful (Pema Chodron).[1]

Rather than judging the parts of ourselves we dislike we could be tender and patient with all the ways we have been taught to self-reject and self-denigrate. Relating to ourselves in this way means creating space and acceptance for everything we experience, not just the parts or ourselves that we believe measure up.

In an interview with the Buddhist magazine, Shambhala Sun, feminist philosopher and public intellectual bell hooks explains the importance of first befriending ourselves in order for larger social movements to be truly transformational.

I would like to bring the work of mindfulness and awareness to everyday struggles. The most important field of activism, particularly for black people, is mental health. Activism does not need to be some kind of organized ‘against’ protest. When my students say they want to change the world, I espouse an inward to outward movement. If you feel that you can’t do shit about your own reality, how can you really think you could change the world? And guess what? When you’re fucked-up and you lead the revolution, you are probably going to get a pretty fucked-up revolution.[2]

As we create space for all parts of ourselves – the parts we are embarrassed by and the parts we are proud of – we then learn that we can let go of our constant need to be “good enough.” For the approach of unconditional friendship with oneself is not about becoming “better or “good enough,” but about becoming more of our true, authentic selves.

Smiling at Fear

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“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”
― Pema Chödrön

By cultivating unconditional friendship with ourselves we also begin to better understand the nature of fear. How do we stay present and open-heartened when our experience seems frightening and overwhelming? What do we do when we panic? Before reading Pema’s work I had thought very little about fear and how it manifested in my life. As I started to pay attention, however, I realized that fear permeated so much of my experience – fear of failing, fear of things changing, fear of someone leaving, fear of not being good enough. I had no tools for how to relate to this underlying fear, for so much of my life had been about trying to simply not experience fear, uncertainly, or insecurity. Pema teaches, however, that the first step in working with fear is to experience it fully.  By staying with our fear we begin to development confidence. Not a confidence that everything is going to work out the way we want, but a confidence that we can stay with ourselves no matter what the outer circumstances of our lives may be. Staying with our fear also begins to soften our hearts. We learn that instead of running away and arming ourselves we could in fact open genuinely to ourselves and to others. As Pema says,

If you touch the fear instead of running from it, you find tenderness, vulnerability, and sometimes a sense of sadness. This tender-heartedness happens naturally when you start to be brave enough to stay present, because instead of armoring yourself, instead of turning to anger, self-denigration, and iron-heartedness, you keep your eyes open and you begin, as Trungpa Rinpoche said, to see the blueness of an iris, the wetness of water, the movement of the wind.[3]

Suffering: The Path to Freedom

As we learn to relate more openly to fear, we also learn to open to pain and suffering. Pema teaches that we can do two things with suffering. We can let it harden us, and become filled with more anger, resentment and hatred, or we can use it as a means to become more compassionate and loving. Letting suffering soften us, Pema teaches, is critical if we wish to change the world.

Times are difficult globally; awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal. It’s becoming critical. We don’t need to add more depression, more discouragement, or more anger to what’s already here. It’s becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times. The earth seems to be beseeching us to connect with joy and discover our innermost essence. This is the best way that we can benefit others.[4]

In a conversation with Pema, Alice Walker explained that she once believed suffering had no use.After listening to Pema’s tape set called Awakening Compassion, however, Walker said she discovered that staying with her pain and suffering in fact allowed her to lead a more joyous and open-hearted life.

Pema Chödrön in conversation with Alice Walker.

Pema Chödrön in conversation with Alice Walker.

Learning to relax into pain, rather than pushing it away, Walker says, is” just the right medicine for today.”

As you breathe in what is difficult to bear, there is initial resistance, which is the fear, the constriction. That’s the time when you really have to be brave. But if you keep going and doing the practice, the heart actually relaxes. That is quite amazing to feel.[5]

Pema’s teachings on suffering, fear, and unconditional self-love have been a bridge connecting the personal and political in my life, reminding me that indeed the two are never really separate. In my own experience, to engage in feminism is also to engage in a practice of radical self-love. By cultivating unconditional friendship with ourselves and learning to stay present with our fear and pain we can then begin to transform the world.

Helpful and Relevant Books

Dear Readers,

These books have been tremendously helpful in my own journey of working through depression and anxiety and creating a life filled with more self-love and inner peace. I hope you find them useful.

In love and feminism,

Carly

The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chodron

The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness  by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael A. Singer

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown

All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks

We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting for: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness by Alice Walker

Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth: New Poems by Alice Walker

Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life by Byron Katie

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Gift by Hafiz

Declaring Radical Self-Love and Authenticity: Andrea Gibson, Nicole Reynolds, and Mary Lambert in NYC

By Carly Fox

A ubiquitous name in the spoken-word movement and the first winner of the Women’s World Poetry Slam, Andrea Gibson performed at the Best Buy Theater in NYC on October 15, 2013. 2340772100_9eff0b0fa9_bSinger/Songwriters Nicole Reynolds and Mary Lambert opened for Gibson to a crowded room of more than 200 visibly queer and adoring fans. Through fearless prose, heart-wrenching honesty, and unapologetic presence, the three powerful voices interwove themes of queer politics, sexuality, gender, body image, sexual violence, and love and loss into her performance. Echoing the heart of feminism, that the personal is always political, Gibson, Reynolds, and Lambert also highlighted the fundamental importance of practicing radical self-love and authenticity as a means to reject sexism, racism, and homophobia.

Musician and poet Mary Lambert opened the show with a striking sense of honesty and emotional intensity. Lambert, who has been described in The New York Times as a “rarity”, is the powerful female voice accompanying hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis in the gay rights and marriage equality anthem “Same Love,” which has sold over two million copies in the US alone.

Mary Lambert performs " Same Love" with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at the 2013 VMA.

Mary Lambert performs ” Same Love” with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at the 2013 VMA.

Lambert’s poems and songs covered a wide range of political and deeply personal territory, using her sophisticated voice to address issues of rape, self-harm, and homophobia.

Perhaps most poignant and moving was Lambert’s reading of her poem “Body Love,” in which she describes with unparalleled images and metaphors the epidemic of body shame and self-hatred among young girls and women.

Lambert’s poem begins with the line:

“I know girls who wonder if they’re disaster and sexy enough to fit in.

I know girls who are fleeing bombs from the mosques of their skin, playing Russian roulette with death. It’s never easy to accept that our bodies are fallible and flawed. But when do we draw the line? When the knife hits the skin isn’t it the same thing as purging because we’re so obsessed with death?”

Most striking about this performance was the profound honesty Lambert brought to the arena. Indeed, the crackling and bittersweet pain in her voice suggested that this was not just an abstract story for Lambert, but a deeply personal testament of overcoming self-rejection and embracing self-love.

“Love your body the way your mother loved your baby feet.” - Mary Lambert

“Love your body the way your mother loved your baby feet.” – Mary Lambert

By the end of the poem Lambert exclaims “The time has come for us to reclaim our bodies.” “Try this”, she urges the listener, “Take your hands over your bumpy love body naked. And remember the first time you touched someone with the sole purpose of learning all of them.”

Indeed Lambert’s trenchant prose are a powerful reminder to reject the lies of sexism and patriarchy.

“Love your body the way your mother loved your baby feet. And brother arm wrapping shoulders and remember this is important to our worth more than who you fuck. You are worth more than a waist line.”

In her online bio Lambert admits she is good at “two things: crying and singing.”

True to this statement, Lambert ended her set with a soft giggle and unassuming bow, telling the audience “Thanks for letting me cry at you.”

Philadelphia based singer and songwriter Nicole Reynolds, who works on organic farms raising sheep and growing her own food through the WWOOF program (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), followed Lambert with songs about her childhood, farming, the art of storytelling, and the chaotic feeling of falling in love for the first time. In an interview with the Pittsburg CityPaper, Reynolds says “I’m just honest on stage. I think for people to start opening their minds — and they’re starting to — it just takes a whole lot of people being honest.” Indeed the honesty of Reynold’s performance was striking.  Whether humorous, sad or melancholy, Reynold’s songs were filled with an uncanny sense of authenticity.

Introducing her song “Like the Ocean,” Reynold’s explained that it was about her childhood, adolescence, sexuality, being raised Catholic, and how she came through it.

The song’s opening phrases highlight much of the fear and homophobia that young queer adolescents often face.

“When I was a girl they told me in this world some things fit and some things don’t. A man and a woman, a man and a woman that’s what he wrote. This we know. A priest looked at me with his big blue eyes. He told me my love was the devil in disguise. My mother couldn’t look at me. Her eyes turned blank.”

By the end of the song, however, Reynold’s deeply moving lyrics underscore her reclaimed sense of self love and openness.

"I love who I love who I love like the ocean.” Nicole Reynolds

“I love who I love who I love like the ocean.” Nicole Reynolds

“I think what I think and I say what I see. I cut my own hair and I am who I be. I love who I love who I love like the ocean.”

 Andrea Gibson, followed Reynolds and Lambert with more provocative reflections on authenticity, love, and the need to look honestly at personal shame. Gibson’s poems addressed issues of white privilege, racism, homophobia, and recent public tragedies like the death of Tyler Clementi and the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Before reading her poem about Trayvon Martin, Gibson described the personal and collective grief his death caused, and the anger and helplessness she felt on July 13, 2013, the day George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin.

In her poem “July 13, 2013” Gibson laments “I don’t know what makes us human more than our crimes. That just breaks my heart.”

“I am small as a kid being pushed inside a locker. Good god I want to be big. Big enough to stop editing the ugly out of my bio. To empty every bullet from the chamber of my heart to fill it with the hoodie of a boy. What poem will walk him home? What radio tower of light, what redemption will dull the blade, melt it down to mirror. Give us back to god. Unhaunt the house of the mother choosing the color of the casket.”

Other poems addressed issues deeply personal to Gibson. In “An Insider’s Guide on How to be Sick”, a poem about having Lyme disease, Gibson explores her own sense of shame and fear. “Nothing has brought up shame as much as living with Lyme disease” she explained candidly to the audience. Admitting that it had taken her over a year and a half to find the courage to perform the poem in public, Gibson credited the transgender and human rights activist Leslie Feinberg as a powerful inspiration. Feinberg, who Gibson called one of her biggest “activist heroes”, writes openly about her personal experience of having Lyme disease on her blog TransgenderWarrior.

Highlighting the vivid reality of living with a disease, in “An Insider’s Guide on How to be Sick,” Gibson explains:

“Every fever is a love note to remind you there are better things to be than cool. Fuck cool. Fuck every pair of skinny jeans. From the month your muscles started atrophying to a size two.”

Gibson ends her poem with a powerful reminder that one could choose to embrace challenges as teachers. “Everything is a lesson” she says.“Lesson number one through infinity: You will never have a greater opportunity to learn to love your enemy than when your enemy is your own red blood. Truce is a word made of velvet. Wear it everywhere you go.”

In a culture which constantly bombards young girls and women with messages of shame, self-rejection, and not-enoughness, Andrea Gibson, Nicole Reynolds, and Mary Lambert remind us to speak our own stories, and embrace ourselves and others with compassion, love, and honesty. Indeed their words stand as powerful testaments that radical self-love and unabashed honesty is perhaps one of the most profoundly political acts in which we can engage.

When Will We Be Feminists?

 When Compassion is a Value

When Progresspicasso-woman-in-blue-nov-23-2009

Is Measured

By

How Much Truth

We Dare

To Know, To Speak

When Pushing a Wheel-Chair is Worth More Than Your Stocks

When Peace is More Than a Logo on Some T-shirt the Gap is Selling

When Patriotism is Pacifism

When We Stop Believing in Borders

When We Stop Building Walls

When Courage is Not a Gun

When War is Not an Option

When Man is No Longer Defined by NOT Woman

When Beauty is No Longer Measured in 2’s and 4’s

When We Can Stand Naked Without Sucking in Our Guts

When We Stop Applying Perfume

To Cover up the Scent

Of  What They  so Presumptuously Call “Feminine Oder”

And Instead,

Let Pussy Smell Like Pussy

When Our Bumper Stickers Read Not, “God Bless America,” but

God Bless the Orphan in Gaza

God Bless the Widow in Afghanistan

God Bless the 15 year Old Boy in Yemen Who’s Learning to Shoot a Missile

God Bless the Woman in the Congo Who’s Been Raped More Times than She Can Count

God Bless US All

When We Remember That the Man We Call God

Came From the Vagina of a Poor Palestinian Woman

When a Black –

Muslim –

STONE

BUTCH

Who’s Taken a Punch

Who Knows the Meaning of the Word Dyke

Who Prays to an Indigenous God

Who Took the First Bite of the Apple and Enjoyed It

Who Remembers Stone Wall – And the Hard Fist from the Cop

Who Was Burned at the Stake

Who Was an American before Columbus

Who Marched in Birmingham, in South Africa, in India, in Palestine

Who Was There, at the Bottom of the Ship, Crossing the Atlantic

Who Sat in the Back

Who Drank from the Other Water Fountain

Who Jumped from the Windows at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Who Gave Birth to Jefferson’s Negro Baby

Who’s Been Down and Out, and Then Some.

Who’s Cried

Who’s Fought

Who’s Lost

Whose Father was Hagar

Whose Mother was Jezebel

Whose Name is Not Remembered

And Whose Story is Never Told

When

This

STONE

BUTCH

Is

Elected

President

Then

Then We Will Be Feminists.

Welcome to ART as a form of ACTIVISM Issue!

Dear Readers,

Welcome to our Art as a Form of Activism Issue!

Our November issue is dedicated to poets, filmmakers, writers, visual artists, and feminists who utilize art as a means to inspire and empower. From the classroom, to the streets, or behind a camera lens, words and themes of self- empowerment, feminism, and activism are being spread to individuals around the world.  We wanted to highlight those who are devoted activists and artists.

This month features:

  • A piece by Re/Visionist co-editor Tiffany Williams that looks at two black women independent filmmakers and how they allow black women subjects occupy space in film.
  • A poem titled ” Beauty Rest” by Alicia Cobb
  • A review of a recent poetry reading by Mary Oliver from co-editor Emilie Egger
  • A paper excerpt about themes of prostitution in early-1920s films by Emilie Egger
  • An analysis of Mary Magdalene in medieval art by women’s-history student Kaitlyn Kohr.
  • A review of a recent spoken word performance by Andrea Gibson from web-editor Carly Fox
  • A poem by Carly Fox titled ” When Will We Be Feminists?”

Sincerely,

Emilie Egger and Tiffany Williams, Re/Visionist co-editors

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