Spending the weekend with Pema Chodron

I shared her – with 4,999 others. For 2,000 of us, it was an online retreat. The retreat in California sold out after 3,000 registered. Someone had the idea to make it available worldwide through the power of technology.

It was different, sure. I could sit in my rainbow striped flannel pajamas and not get funny looks. I had no long lines to the bathroom. And I had a great seat, up close, on my computer screen.

Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition. She speaks in a simple, clear manner. Her sense of humor can be startling at first. Pema tells the truth and helps you realize it as well.

This woman saved my sanity in 2004 with her book Start Where you Are (first sentence: “We already have everything we need”). I was going through a rough period with work, relationships and direction in life. When I spotted this title at a bookstore, it stopped my mind (as the Buddhists say). Of course! I thought. It really is as simple as this. Where else could one start? I remember reading half the book in one sitting. When a friend called, I said “I can’t talk long – I’m reading a great book and have to get back to it.”

Six years later seems like longer – so much has happened in my life. I’ve contined to be a fan of this wise spiritual teacher. So when I saw the ad on Facebook I was interested. I checked my calendar and decided to do the retreat.

Dogs can be distracting but, overall, mine were pretty cooperative over this special fall weekend. Since the retreat didn’t begin until 9:00 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, I had a leisurely Saturday morning and was able to take the dogs for a ride and walk Sunday morning. I relocated my laptop into my meditation room, lit candles, turned off the phone and email. My two ‘girls’ followed me and got some good dog karma for their efforts.

Pema looked frailer than I’d remembered. She is now in her mid 70s and spends most of her time at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. She has been a Buddhist nun for more than thirty years. She has written several books and has had dvds made of her talks. This one would be available for sixty days so I can go back and take notes as I listen again.

The theme of the talks was “Smile at Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery.” Pema was interpreting a book by her former teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She applied its teachings to troubling situations in participants’ lives currently: “The only real choice is to embrace and befriend the uncertainty of these times.” We need to “open our hearts and extend to others . . . being vulnerable yet strong.”

I thought of times I had been brave. I believe I have taken many emotional risks in my life. Speaking the truth is important to me. Sometimes it has been scary but usually things have turned out alright; in fact, I have made some new friends by sticking my neck out. I have stretched myself as a human being.

There was that time my former employer decided to terminate all the assistant managers. I had only six months until I got my thirty years in for retirement. I recall my supervisor being more anxious about it than I. (She was likely projecting her own fear of providing for her family.) “How can you be so calm?” she asked me one day while Human Resources was working through the plan. “What can I do? I guess my zen training is coming in handy,” I answered. Circumstances worked out that assistant managers would be able to remain at their pay scale for a six month transition period no matter what job they may be able to transfer to in the library system. A few quit in anger, a few retired early, and some transferred to branches. As karma would have it, I was able to remain in the History Department for those remaining months – gaining my full pension as a result.

There was much talk from Pema about getting comfortable with “groundlessness.” There is no question that assistant managers experienced groundlessness the day when we came into work and discovered the new plan the Board had come up with. We were forced to deal with the fear of uncertainty for our future. Not knowing the name for it, I began work toward being a “spiritual warrior,” with confidence and joy.

Pema exhibited deep compassion as she interacted with participants’ questions, many of which dealt with diseases and dying, extremely autistic children, suffering of one kind or another. Always, she proved approachable, wise, and sometimes, witty. Watching her connect with others was a delight. Pema seemed so approachable as she blended harmoniously with the question and the person. She modeled the teachings.

The organizers scheduled stretch times interspersed with meditation periods and the talks so the afternoon went fast. I took a break from the flow of the retreat Saturday evening. Betsy Lippitt was performing on guitar and violin at College Hill Coffee Co. I joined some friends there. Although it was a bit jarring to hear so many voices after sitting alone at home all day, I was glad I went. Still, I noticed how unnecessary many of the conversations were. Some of the silliness and small talk were actually posturing, finding one’s place in the group. Betsy’s talent was more evident than usual; her appearances are rare. I knew I could return to the video on my computer and watch the part I missed.

Sunday afternoon and evening followed the same pattern. Morning was free, then I focused on the retreat via my computer screen. I felt as if I had camped out in my meditation room – which, after all, I had. I reflected on Pema’s presence as well as her words. Uncertainty, groundlessness, fearlessness. She had participants form dyads, two people taking turns listening to the other while one talked without interruption. “What do you fear?” Sitting alone at home, mine surfaced immediately for I have thought of it often: What if I keel over and die at home alone? How long before my absence would be noted? It is this sort of question a spiritual warrior must face.

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