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

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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When Construction and Feminism Meet Somewhere In Between

Dear James,

I often think of us as quite different.

When I was losing sleep about passing high-school AP exams and getting a top score on the SAT, you were writing songs on your guitar and riding your BMX bike at the skate park. I keep a collection of books —  bell hooks, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Adrienne Rich–, while you keep a collection of vinyl –Tom Waits, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, The Velvet Underground. I drink red wine. You chew tobacco.

Your appearance is the epitome of straight masculinity–your body muscled, not because you have spent a day in the gym, but because five days a week you swing hammers, dig ditches, and set housing foundations. If I did not know you and were to pass you on the street, I would most likely create a deep chasm of separateness between us.

You don’t identify as a feminist and we don’t use the same language. You aren’t familiar with words like heteronormativity, agency, intersectionality, transnationalism. You’ve never heard of Simone de Beauvoir, Sojourner Truth, Audre Lorde, or Gloria Stienem, and you don’t own any shirts exclaiming “This is What a Feminist Looks LIke.” But for me, you don’t need any of this. I already see it– your feminism– however tacit it may be, underpinning all your ordinary and audacious acts of openness, friendship, and love.

I see it when your girlfriend, a 22 year-old nurse, calls you in tears, fearful she might not succeed in her new job. You softly remind her, “Hanna, you are OK. You are amazing. Starting something new is always challenging at first.”

I see it when you show me pictures of you with your girlfriend’s gay father and his boyfriend in the Castro at San Francisco’s Pride. This is a reminder that somehow you never inherited the subtle and not-so-subtle homophobia of the 90 percent white, ‘Good Ol’ Boys’ small town of our childhood.

I see it in your accepting smile when I tell you I’ve fallen in love with a woman when the rest of our family stares with anger, shame, and indifference.

I see it when during a cross-country drive to New York you accompany me to what is likely the only gay bar in Omaha, Nebraska. We walk into a dark, music-less room, covered with pictures of bears–something I explain to you later. It’s 9 PM on a Wednesday night and the bar has only two people– the bar tender and an older man sipping a whiskey and coke.

“I’m sorry, James. Maybe we should just leave.” You grab my hand. “Come on, we’re already here.” You sit down, order two Budweisters, and say to the 20-something serving drinks, “So this is Omaha?”

I see it when in downtown Columbus, Ohio, bustling with college students dining at hip bars and expensive restaurants, you explain your theory of ‘the scene’ to me.

“It’s about three things: popularity, education, and money. Guys like me don’t have these things.”

In my ignorance, I haven’t realized that you too are looking atthe world with a critical lens, constructing yoru own narrative. “I see it all the time, Carly. Like when you say you’re going to graduate school and people respond with an excited ‘How wonderful!’ or an encouraging ‘Good for you!’ I say I work construction and people let out a hesitant ‘Ohhhh….'”

I see it when you’re helping me lift my bookshelf that will hold the books in which you are thoroughly uninterested up three flights of stairs to my apartment.

I see it in your refusal to be different than you are when we are going into Manhattan and I try to tell you that you should wear something besides your faded Vans, ripped 501 Levis and the red shirt you found at the Salvation Army with a yellow Iguana and the words “It’s rockin’ in Cancun, Mexico.” You respond, “No, this really works for me.”

Most significantly I see your love that is rooted in feminism when I confess my fear that I might not be good enough for graduate school, that perhaps it was an accident I was accepted. You simply laugh and say, “Stop believing lies, Carly.”

You remind me that as much as I try to deconstruct and distance myself from ‘the scene’ you describe, I also contribute to and benefit from my membership within it. I know it is not your intent to challenge me, to encourage a rethinking of my politics and consciousness. Yet you’ve deepened my understanding and stretched my boundaries of what it means to be and act as a feminist.

You are a constant example that feminism is much more than books, fancy words, or credentials from academic institutions. At its core it is about love and connection.

In your love you are political–a radical, a feminist.

With gratitude,

Your sister in feminism