Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön

“In its simplest terms, then, the path to liberation begins with refraining from hurting ourselves and others. When many people hear ‘”refrain”, they automatically think “repression” and assume that when an urge comes up, they should just push it under. In therapeutic circles, there’s an ongoing debate about which causes more harm: repression or acting out. To me, they’re equally harmful. Once you speak or act, there’s a chain reaction, and other people’s emotions become involved. Every time you speak or act out of aggression or craving or jealousy or envy or pride, it’s like dropping a pebble into a pool of water and watching the ripples fan out; everyone around you is affected. Similarly, if you repress your feelings, everyone is affected by that too, because you’re walking around like a keg of dynamite that’s about to go off.”

Confession: this book was borrowed from the library.

Image result for living beautifully with uncertainty and changeYes, I’ve borrowed a few books from the library recently, breaking my pledge not to borrow or buy books until I’d read all of my own. For the past month or so I have been exploring Buddhist practice in more depth and as I have a very limited supply of books on the subject I have felt the need to dip into the library for a wider supply. I’ve borrowed only 3, which I think is not too bad: a book of poetry by the Zen poet Ryokan, a book by the Dalai Lama and this one. It’s a small deviation and I’m not going to beat myself up about it. Which I think might mean I’ve learned something.

This book came as something of a surprise to me, which is odd because I’m not sure I had any clear expectations. I hadn’t heard of the writer before, though it turns out she is quite a force in Western Buddhism, and I was slightly ambivalent about the title. Yet this book has been one of the clearest, most accessible and gentlest texts I’ve encountered on  Buddhist principles. The book centres around 3 core commitments:

The First Commitment: Committing to not cause harm (the Pratimoksha Vow)

The Second Commitment: Committing to take care of one another (the Bodhisattva Vow)

The Third Commitment: Committing to embrace the world just as it is (the Samaya Vow)

Whilst these commitments may seem relatively simple in principle, practicing them is difficult but Chödrön provides some gentle, clear guidance on how to approach the commitments, what they mean and how to go about incorporating them into your daily life. As she describes approaching the first commitment:

“It’s a tricky business – not rejecting any part of yourself at the same time that you’re becoming acutely aware of how embarrassing or painful some of those parts are. What most of us have been doing is gearing our lives toward avoiding unpleasant feelings whilst clinging to whatever we think will make us feel good and secure. From a conventional point of view, this makes perfect sense. But from the vantage point of remaining with our direct experience, the vantage point of opening to the tentativeness of life, this strategy is self-defeating, the very thing that keeps us stuck.”

By providing examples from her own life, and examples of what the three commitments comprise and, perhaps more importantly, don’t comprise, Chödrön patiently develops the ideas of the three commitments. We start with the first commitment which involves not causing harm or refrain from unwholesome action if I relate it back to my readings of the Shobogenzo. In approaching the first commitment, we seek to refrain from causing harm to both ourselves and to others. This involves not lashing out at others, not speaking in a way which will cause harm or distress to others, and similarly refraining from self-criticism, from causing distress to ourselves. Instead we pause, we do not send the angry e-mail, we do not defend ourselves, we do not complain about the behaviour of others. This is an uncomfortable place, it asks us not to apply judgement and labels but rather to learn to simply experience the emotion. If someone humiliates you, then you don’t label that experience as bad. Instead you try to experience it in its entirety, as explained here:

“As a way of working with our aggressive tendencies, Dzigar Kongtrul teaches the non-violent practice of simmering. He says that rather than “boil in our aggression like a piece of meat cooking in a soup,” we simmer in it. We allow ourselves to wait, to sit patiently with the urge to act or speak in our usual ways and feel the full force of that urge without turning away or giving in. Neither repressing nor rejecting, we stay in the middle between two extremes, in the middle between yes and no, right and wrong, true and false. This is the journey of developing a kindhearted and courageous tolerance for our pain. Simmering is a way of gaining inner strength.”

The Second Commitment asks us to extend that practice to encompass kindness and compassion towards others, all others. It asks to us allow other beings into our lives and to care for them. Whilst this might seem like a soft commitment, in reality it is not. In fact I wonder if this is the most difficult of the three because it incites us to be vulnerable, to be open and vulnerable in a way we generally are not. As Chödrön describes:

“Compassion is threatening to the ego. We might think of it as something warm and soothing, but actually it’s very raw. When we set out to support other beings, when we go so far as to stand in their shoes, when we aspire to never close down to anyone, we quickly find ourselves in the uncomfortable territory of “life not on my terms”.”

This might be described as do wholesome action or perhaps more recognisable as the practice of bodhicitta, the offering of compassion to the world. In approaching the second commitment we offer to breathe in the pain of others and breathe out soothing, calmness and joy. It is hard because it asks us to offer compassion even for those who commit acts of cruelty, not just the victims of cruelty. It asks us to transcend our need to apply judgement.

The final commitment is to accept the world just as it is, full of petty annoyances and discomforts, it’s trials, the loss of all that we know and love. This practice asks us to confront the fact that there is no escape, that we cannot avoid pain or death, that we cannot avoid loss. We can fight, or we can relax and smile. This commitment asks us to relax and smile, to respect the difficulties of life as our beautiful practice ground in which we can learn to transcend our instinct and experience life in all its glorious intensity.

“From the perspective of charnel-ground practice, the chaos in our lives isn’t terrible. It’s simply the material that we work with. Viscerally, however, it feels terrible, and we don’t like it a bit. So it takes courage and gentle, compassionate discipline just to hold our seat. What keeps us moving forward is that the practice puts us in touch with the living energy of our emotions – an energy that has tremendous power, the power to wake us up. Because of its intensity, it can pop us our of our neurosis, pop us out of our fearful cocoon, pop us into sacred world.”  

I found this book an extremely clear-eyed, compassionate and insightful way of approaching the difficulties of life a bit differently. I am, as most people are, prone to trying to control the situations I’m in. Consequently I think I have suffered more because not only have my attempts at control largely failed, but I have suffered the additional disappointment of that failure; as well as the twin, and equally destructive, poles of the hope that things will turn out differently and the certainty that if only I had done something differently, or the world was different, that it would have done. Instead of setting my life on track, I have simply moved onto a path which was more wrong. Stopping and confronting, accepting and offering compassion, however, feels much more right, if less instinctive (and therefore more difficult). I thought this book might offer comfort, and it does but it also offers truth and that is much more powerful. I am not sure I am ready, by any stretch, to embrace the world as it is; but by practicing non-harm, coupled with a more compassionate spirit, I may stop running into walls of my own making. And maybe the rest will come, with time and patience and practice.



About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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7 Responses to Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön

  1. alison41 says:

    I’m familiar with Pema Chodron’s books. I’ve always found her quite challenging. Enjoy your practice!

  2. This sounds wonderful and like it could provide a lot of helpful insights. I love that you described as gentle.

  3. SimplyMe says:

    I haven’t read this particular book of Pema Chodron’s (her Buddhist practice centre is in Nova Scotia, Canada btw). I think her most popular book is When Things Fall Apart. She was an early North American student of Chogyam Trungpa, who wrote many books. Again, I think his most popular work is The Spiritual Path of the Warrior.

    For an overview of Pema Chodron’s life and Buddhist approach, I would recommend the interview with her done by BIll Moyers’ in his Faith and Reason series. Here is the YouTube link to the beginning of it:

    Wishing you happiness and as always, thank you for the book review and your sharing.

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