Taking the Leap

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by Pema Chodron


Nothing is static and permanent. And that includes you and me. We know this about cars and carpets, new shirts and DVD players, but are less willing to face it when it comes to ourselves or to other people. We have a very solid view of ourselves, and also very fixed views about others. Yet if we look closely, we can see that we aren’t even slightly fixed. In fact, we are as unfixed and changing as a river. For convenience, we label a constant flow of water the Mississippi or the Nile, very much the way we call ourselves Jack or Helen. But that river isn’t the same for even a fraction of a second. People are equally in flux—I am like that, and so are you. Our thoughts, emotions, molecules are continually changing.

If you are inclined to train in being open-endedly present to whatever arises—to life’s energy, to other people, and to this world—after a while you’ll realize you’re open and present to something that’s not staying the same. For example, if you are truly open and receptive to another person, it can be quite a revelation to realize that they aren’t exactly the same on Friday as they were on Monday, that each of us can be perceived freshly any day of the week. But if that person happens to be your parent or sibling, your partner or your boss, you are usually blinded and see them as predictably always the same. We have a tendency to label one another as an irritating person, a bore, a threat to our happiness and security, as inferior or superior; and this goes way beyond our close circle of acquaintances at home or at work.

This labeling can lead to prejudice, cruelty, and violence; and in any time or place when prejudice, cruelty, and violence occur, whether it’s directed by one being toward another or by groups of beings toward other groups, there’s a theme that runs through: “This person has a fixed identity, and they are not like me.’’ We can kill someone or we can be indifferent to the atrocities perpetrated on them because “they’re just hajis,’’ or “they’re just women,” or they’re just gay.” You can fill in the blank with any racial slur, any dehumanized label that’s ever been used for those we consider different.

There’s a whole other way to look at one another—and that is to try dropping our fixed ideas and get curious about the possibility that nothing and no one remains always the same. This starts, of course, with getting curious and dropping the limiting stories we’ve created about ourselves. Then we have to stay present with whatever is happening to us. What I find helpful is to think of whatever I am experiencing—whether it’s sadness, anger, or worry; pleasure, joy, or delight—as simply the dynamic, fluid energy of life as it is manifesting right now. That shifts the resistance I have to my experience. Because I’ve been practicing this approach for some years now, I’ve come to have confidence in the capacity for open receptivity, for wakefulness and nobility, in all beings. And I’ve seen that how we regard and treat one another can draw this nobility out.

In the book The Search for a Nonviolent Future by Michael Nagler there’s a story that illustrates this. It concerns a Jewish couple, Michael and Julie Weisser—but it could have been any victim of prejudice and violence. The Weissers were living in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Michael had a prominent role at the synagogue, and Julie was a nurse. In 1992 they began to receive threatening phone calls and notes from the Ku Klux Klan. Of course this was illegal at the time and not condoned in this town, but nevertheless it was happening. The police told them that it was probably the work of Larry Trapp. He was the Grand Dragon, the head of the Klan, in that town. Michael and Julie Weisser knew of Trapp’s reputation as a man filled with hatred. And they knew that he was in a wheelchair, having been disabled by a beating years ago.

Each day, Larry’s voice on the phone would threaten to kill them, destroy their property, and harm their family and friends. Then one day Michael decided, just on the spot with the support of Julie, to try something. So in the next phone call, when Larry Trapp was ranting at them, he waited for an opportunity to speak. He knew that Trapp had a hard time getting around in his wheelchair, so when he could get a word in, he offered him a ride to the grocery store. Trapp didn’t speak for a while, and when he did, the anger had left his voice. He said, “Well, I’ve got that taken care of, but thanks for asking.”

By then, the Weissers had more in mind than ending the harassment: they wanted to help free Larry Trapp from the torment of his prejudice and rage. They began calling him, and told him if he needed help, they would be there for him. Not long after that they went to his apartment, taking him a home-cooked dinner, and the three of them got to know one another better. And he did begin to ask them for help. One day when they arrived for a visit, Trapp took off the ring he wore and gave it to them. It was a Nazi ring. With that gesture he was breaking his association with the Ku Klux Klan, telling the Weissers, “I denounce everything they stand for. But it’s not the people in the organizations that I hate…If I were to say I hate all Klansmen because they’re Klansmen…I would still be a racist.” Rather than replacing one prejudice with another, Larry Trapp chose to let go of closed-mindedness altogether.

Like Larry Trapp, each of us has our own capacity for prejudice, and it’s very common to justify it when it comes up. Our fixed ideas about “them” arise quickly, and this has again and again caused great suffering. This is a very old habit, a crippling habit, a universal response to feeling threatened. We can look at this habit with compassion and openness but not continue to reinforce and strengthen it. Instead, we can acknowledge the powerful energy of our fear, of our rage—the energy of anything at all that we may feel—as the natural movement of life, and become intimate with it, abide with it, without repressing, without acting out, without letting it destroy us or anyone else. In this way, anything we experience becomes the perfect opportunity for touching our basic goodness, the perfect support for remaining open and receptive to the dynamic energy of life. As radical as this idea might seem, I know it to be true that there is nothing that can occur that has to set off the chain reaction of shenpa. Anything we experience, no matter how challenging, can become an open pathway to awakening.

Sometimes in a really threatening situation there may not be a lot we can do or say to help anyone, but we can always train in staying present and not biting the hook. I received a letter from my friend Jarvis Masters, an inmate on death row, recently in which he told me that there are many times when the prison atmosphere is so violent that all he can do is not harm anybody and not get caught up in the seductive force of aggression. The stories don’t always have a happy ending.

If you’re in a profession where you’re interacting with violent people, you know that it’s not so easy to avoid getting hooked. But we could ask: “How can I regard the ones I don’t agree with, with an open mind?” “How can I look deeper, listen deeper, than my fixed ideas?” or “How can I address the ones who are in a cycle of violence, the people who are hurting others, as living, feeling human beings just like me?” We know that if we approach anyone with our fixed preconceptions, with our minds and hearts already closed, then we’ll never be able to communicate genuinely, and we can easily exacerbate the situation and promote more suffering.

Underlying hatred, underlying any cruel act or word, underlying all dehumanizing, there is always fear—the utter groundlessness of fear. This fear has a soft spot. It hasn’t frozen yet into a solid position. However much we don’t like it, fear doesn’t have to give birth to aggression or the desire to harm ourselves or others. When we feel fear or anxiety or any groundless feeling, or when we realize that the fear is already hooking us into “I’m going to get even” or “I have to go back to my addiction to escape this,” then we can regard the moment as neutral, a moment that can go either way. We are presented all the time with a choice. Do we return to old destructive habits or do we take whatever we’re experiencing as an opportunity and support for having a fresh relationship with life?

Basic wakefulness, natural openness, is always available. This openness is not something that needs to be manufactured. When we pause, when we touch the energy of the moment, when we slow down and allow a gap, self-existing openness comes to us. It does not require a particular effort. It is available anytime. As Chogyam Trungpa once remarked, “Openness is like the wind. If you open your doors and windows, it is bound to come in.”

The next time you’re getting worked up, experiment with looking at the sky. Go to the window, if you have one in your home or office, and look up at the sky. I once read an interview with a man who said that during the Second World War, he survived internment in a Japanese concentration camp by looking at the sky and seeing the clouds still drifting there and the birds still flying there. This gave him trust that the goodness of life would go on despite the atrocities that he was witnessing.

Photo By David DeHetre

Photo By David DeHetre

Usually when were all caught up, we’re so engrossed in our storyline that we lose our perspective. The painful situation at home, in our job, in prison, in war, wherever we might find ourselves—when we’re caught in the difficulty, our perspective usually becomes very narrow, microscopic even. We have the habit of automatically going inward. Taking a moment to look at the sky or taking a few seconds to abide with the fluid energy of life, can give us a bigger perspective—that the universe is vast, that we are a tiny dot in space, that endless, beginningless space is always available to us. Then we might understand that our predicament is just a moment in time, and that we have a choice to strengthen old habitual responses or to be free. Being open and receptive to whatever is happening is always more important than getting worked up and adding further aggression to the planet, adding further pollution to the atmosphere.

Whatever occurs is the right opportunity to shift the basic tendency to get hooked, to get worked up, to close our minds and hearts. Whatever we perceive or feel or think is the perfect support for making a fundamental shift toward openness. Natural openness has the power to give life meaning and to inspire us. With just a moment of recognition that the natural openness is here, gradually you realize that natural intelligence and natural warmth are present too. It’s like opening a door to the vastness and timelessness and magic of the place in which you find yourself.

Basic wakefulness, natural openness, is always available.
This openness is not something that needs to be manufactured.
When we pause, when we touch the energy of the moment,
when we slow down and allow a gap, self-existing openness comes to us.
It does not require a particular effort. 
It is available anytime.

When you are waking up in the morning and you aren’t even out of bed, even if where you are is frightening or perhaps so routine that it’s boring or deadening, you could look out and take three conscious breaths. Just be where you are. When you are standing in a line waiting, just allow for a gap in your discursive mind. You can look at your hands and breathe, you can look out the window or down the street or up at the sky. It doesn’t matter if you look out or if you give your full attention to a detail. You can let the experience be a contrast to being all caught up, let it be like popping a bubble, a moment in time, and then you just go on.

When you meditate, every time you realize that you are thinking and you let the thoughts go, that openness is available. Chogyam Trungpa called it being “free from fixed mind.” Every time the breath goes out into space, that openness is available. In any moment you could put your full attention on the immediacy of your experience, you could look at the floor or the ceiling, or just feel your bottom sitting on the chair. Do you see what I mean? You can just be here. Instead of being not here, instead of being caught up, absorbed in thinking, planning, worrying—caught in the cocoon where you’re cut off from your sense perceptions, cut off from the sounds and the sights, cut off from the power and magic of the moment—instead of that you could choose to pause. When you go out for a walk in the country, in the city, anywhere at all, just stop now and then. Punctuate your life with these moments.

In modern life, its so easy to get consumed, particularly by computers and TVs and cell phones. They have a way of hypnotizing us. As long as we are on automatic pilot, just run around by our thoughts and emotions, we’ll feel overwhelmed. It doesn’t make much difference whether we’re at peaceful meditation center or in the busiest, most caught-up place in the world. In any setting, we can allow a gap and let natural openness come to us. Over and over and over, we can allow the space to realize where we are, to realize how vast our mind is. Find a way to slow down. Find a way. to relax your mind and do it often, very, very often, throughout the day, not just when you are hooked but all the time.

The crucial point is that we can relate with our life just as it is right now, not later when things improve. We can always connect with the openness of our minds. We can use our days to wake up rather than go back to sleep. Give this approach a try. Make a commitment to pausing throughout the day, and do that whenever you can. Allow time for your perception to shift. Allow time to experience the natural energy of life as it is manifesting right now. This can bring dramatic changes in your personal life, and if you are worried about the state of the world, this is a way that you can use every moment to help shift the global climate of aggression toward peace.

Pema Chödrön is an American Tibetan Buddhist nun, acharya and disciple of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She is the director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada.

From Taking the Leap, edited by Sandy Boucher.   Copyright © 2009 by Pema Chodron.  Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc., shambhala.org.

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