Pema Chödrön and Alice Walker / "What lies in the underbelly of the human condition ... in search of meaning in the joy and suffering that exist between the heavy folds of skin" [audios/video]



Writers often spend inordinate amounts of time immersed in literary worlds of their own creation. These worlds, however, offer neither protection nor respite from life’s vicissitudinous nature. Author Alice Walker points out this fact in a conversation with Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön about what lies in the underbelly of the human condition. Together, the duo travel in conversation, in search of meaning in the joy and suffering that exist between the heavy folds of skin. During an evening of discussion at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theater (text excerpts and audio download available below) Chödrön and Walker explore how “meditation practice opens our heart, expands our vision, and plants the seeds of love in our lives.”

-posted by Nyaugenya (Intern, The Liberator Magazine)


Audio Album: Pema Chödrön and Alice Walker In Coversation (*)

Good Medicine For This World: Alice Walker & Pema Chödrön in Conversation
(SOURCE: Shambala Sun)

Alice Walker: About four years ago I was having a very difficult time. I had lost someone I loved deeply and nothing seemed to help. Then a friend sent me a tape set by Pema Chödrön called “Awakening Compassion.” I stayed in the country and I listened to you, Pema, every night for the next year. I studied lojong mind training and I practiced tonglen. It was tonglen, the practice of taking in people’s pain and sending out whatever you have that is positive, that helped me through this difficult passage. I want to thank you so much, and to ask you a question. In my experience suffering is perennial; there is always suffering. But does suffering really have a use? I used to think there was no use to it, but now I think that there is.

Pema Chödrön: Is there any use in suffering? I think the reason I am so taken by these teachings is that they are based on using suffering as good medicine, like the Buddhist metaphor of using poison as medicine. It’s as if there’s a moment of suffering that occurs over and over and over again in every human life. What usually happens in that moment is that it hardens us; it hardens the heart because we don’t want any more pain. But the lojong teachings say we can take that very moment and flip it. The very thing that causes us to harden and our suffering to intensify can soften us and make us more decent and kinder people.

That takes a lot of courage. This is a teaching for people who are willing to cultivate their courage. What’s wonderful about it is that you have plenty of material to work with. If you’re waiting for only the high points to work with, you might give up, but there’s an endless succession of suffering.

One of the main teachings of the Buddha was the truth of dukha, which is usually translated as “suffering.” But a better translation might be “dissatisfaction.” Dissatisfaction is inherent in being human; it’s not some mistake that you or I have made as individuals. Therefore, if we can learn to catch that moment, to relax with it, dissatisfaction doesn’t need to keep escalating. In fact it becomes the seed of compassion, the seed of loving kindness.

Alice Walker: I was surprised how the heart literally responds to this practice. You can feel it responding physically. 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.

Pema Chödrön: When we start out on a spiritual path we often have ideals we think we’re supposed to live up to. We feel we’re supposed to be better than we are in some way. But with this practice you take yourself completely as you are. Then ironically, taking in pain—breathing it in for yourself and all others in the same boat as you are—heightens your awareness of exactly where you’re stuck. Instead of feeling you need some magic makeover so you can suddenly become some great person, there’s much more emotional honesty about where you’re stuck.

Alice Walker: Exactly. You see that the work is right ahead of you all the time.

Pema Chödrön: There is a kind of unstuckness that starts to happen. You develop loving kindness and compassion for this self that is stuck, which is called maitri. And since you have a sense of all the other sentient beings stuck just like you, it also awakens compassion.

Alice Walker: I remember the day I really got it that we’re not connected as human beings because of our perfection, but because of our flaws. That was such a relief.

Pema Chödrön: Rumi wrote a poem called “Night Travelers,” It’s about how all the darkness of human beings is a shared thing from the beginning of time, and how understanding that opens up your heart and opens up your world. You begin to think bigger. Rather than depressing you, it makes you feel part of the whole.

Alice Walker: I like what you say about understanding that the darkness represents our wealth, because that’s true. There’s so much fixation on the light, as if the darkness can be dispensed with, but of course it cannot. After all, there is night, there is earth; so this is a wonderful acknowledgment of richness. You do recognize that everybody is in that boat sooner or later, in one form or other. It’s good to feel that you’re not alone.

Pema Chödrön: I want to ask you about joy. It’s all very well to talk about poison as medicine and breathing in the suffering and sending out relief and so forth, but did you find any joy coming out of this?

Alice Walker: Oh Yes! Even just not being so miserable. Part of the joyousness was knowing we have help. It was great to know that this wisdom is so old. That means people have had this pain for a long time, they’ve been dealing with it, and they had the foresight to leave these practices for us to use. I’m always supported by spirits and ancestors and people in my tribe, whoever they’ve been and however long ago they lived. So it was like having another tribe of people, of ancestors, come to the rescue with this wisdom that came through you and your way of teaching. (full text/source)