As long as we’re caught up in always looking for certainty and happiness, rather than honoring the taste and smell and quality of exactly what is happening, as long as we’re always running away from discomfort, we’re going to be caught in a cycle of unhappiness and disappointment, and we will feel weaker and weaker.
Instead of asking ourselves, “How can I find security and happiness?” we could ask ourselves, “Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering, both yours and mine, without trying to make it go away? Can I stay present to the ache of loss or disgrace—disappointment in all its many forms—and let it open me?” This is the trick.
The Pocket Pema Chödrön (30)
This seems very contrary to the normal way we human beings (and other animals) respond to our lives. It’s normal and healthy to seek certainty, happiness and security. We are hardwired to seek these circumstances, and that programming is what enables us to stay alive and to grow.
However, when other animals suffer, they just go on as best they can—even with pain or handicaps. When we humans suffer, we tend to be stopped short by the suffering, to turn around toward it, to focus our energy and attention on getting rid of the suffering—or at least blocking it out.
There is nothing to feel guilty about in doing this. It’s a side effect of what makes human beings different from other animals. They have to just keep going. We have conscious minds with the ability of stopping to plan before we go on.
This is why we are able to learn from our mistakes and successes in a way other animals cannot. They have to learn from “behavioral conditioning,” that is, from repeatedly responding to a similar situation until they discover which response works. We are able—if we are attentive and courageous enough—to learn from one mistake or success, or even to learn from someone else’s mistake or success.
So, when Pema says, “Can I touch the center of my pain? Can I sit with suffering…?” she doesn’t mean just sit here and suffer. She means really let myself feel the pain and observe the circumstances which brought it about (both outward and inward) and all the unsuccessful ways I have tried to avoid it or fend it off or dull it. That is how I learn—not how to avoid or fend off or dull pain, but how to go on. Because now the pain is information. It is still pain, but it is now also a teacher.
A very strange way of thinking. Even so, it’s what I see Jesus doing: touching his own pain and that of others. Sitting there with it until he understands what is within the realm of human possibility to enable himself and others to go on.
And so it is.
Acharya Pema Chödrön is principal teacher for Gampo Abbey, a Western Buddhist Monastery in the Shambhala Tradition, located in Nova Scotia, Canada, which was founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1984.