Pema Chödrön’s The Wisdom of No Escape
The important thing is to remember that the destination is not the important part; the journey is all that matters, and what we learn along the way. There, the hard part is out of the way. Now we can get into the really interesting parts of The Wisdom of No Escape, and perhaps understand why the most important thing about these lessons is also the hardest part to accept, and yes, it is hard.
During Pema Chödrön’s dathun at Gampo Abbey, she outlines a number of lectures designed to help increase our awareness of the world and how connected everything is, and by practice and concentration, how we can strip away our layers of defense and become fearless to our journey. But wait, we must become more aware of ourselves but less addicted to ME. And while we can only decide one path to follow on our path, we must always be mindful of being open to all other ideas and beliefs, although it is not advised to continue sampling forever, because, after all, we are impermanent. To be precise, we must concentrate on the breath, but to understand samsara, we must breathe in pain and breathe out joy, but never dwell on thoughts. We must be mindful not to wander with our thoughts, never blindly accept the truth, and accept that our threshold for experience is not the same as others.
Perhaps the trouble with accepting the core premise is that much of this sounds contradictory, even though in a broader scope, there is a rhyme and a reason for each lesson. Also important to remember is that these lectures were given during a month long dathun, part of a larger picture involving regular meditation. This is not to say that the lessons are irrelevant to the average reader, but it is fair to note that some of the context can be lost, which aids to confuse in reading.
Let’s start with the out breath and how it relates to tonglen, because I find that to be a little tricky. If precise meditation is about focusing on the out-breath and recognizing that a thought is only something fleeting, then how can I be expected to breathe in pain and breathe out joy? How can I clear my thoughts if I must attribute something to my breath? Chödrön admits that tonglen “takes a lot of courage to do”, but to cultivate fearlessness (another part I’ll discuss later) we must be willing to embrace the good and the bad, not only of the world, but of what we fear and what inhibits us from going forward. Tonglen is not so different from the out-breath when you consider that while you must attribute thought and experience to your breathing, you also let it go. This is not something easily come by, and it requires effort and a willingness to focus, and then to let it go and move forward, but breathing in pain and breathing out joy are no different from breathing in and out; let air in, and let it go. Call air pain, call air joy, but remember that to remain aware, you must always breathe.
Now, I mentioned fearlessness above. Chödrön has quite a bit to say about cultivating fearlessness, but what can get lost in the first reading are two things I think are crucial to understanding the first steps of our path. Number one, we are not always aware of what our fears are, so letting go of them can seem very confusing. After all, if “nobody else can take [my armor] off because nobody else knows where all the little locks are…”, and only I can take it off, how do I know what it is I’m taking refuge in? Knowing what it is you fear and where you feel uncomfortable is a very personal experience, and confronting that fear requires a great deal of courage. Chödrön frequently refers to this a “the warrior’s path”, and while it sounds a bit barbaric, the image of a warrior and identifying yourself as courageous makes the first dragons less overwhelming. This brings us to the second point: not everyone strips away fear at the same pace. Don’t feel discouraged that others seem more fearless than you; they still have their dragons to face, just like you. Remember that by developing envy for others, you are creating another form of fear: the fear of accomplishment. If you believe you cannot “catch up” to someone who appears much braver, you will always find excuses not to push forward. Understand that we cannot all be the same, but we’re still connected, and that no one’s practice will ever make perfect, and that’s the point. You’re learning, not racing.
Initially, I had some problems with the idea of “sticking to one boat”; after all, earlier in the book we’re told to always remain open, and not to stick to our beliefs and sleepwalk through the human experience. How can we do both? When discussing the idea of staying open, I considered the idea of a man who has only ever seen a mouse, and one day, another man shows him a rat. The first man sees what he’s used to seeing, and identifies it as a large mouse. When he’s told that this is actually not a mouse, he refuses to believe it, because he is unwilling to embrace the unknown. Surely you cannot embrace the unknown and remain devoted to your path, can you? I understand why constantly going from one belief to another can assist in a sort of arrested development, because you refuse to leave the refuge of variety, but to remain mindful of the path you choose and still remain open to the options you left behind was more difficult to me than letting go of fear. But I came to realize that one was in fact tied into the other. I feared the idea of challenging belief but not eschewing it. You can choose to believe anything you like, but don’t let it define your world for you.
I would like to talk for a moment about the story of the Tigers and impermanence, because I feel that it has, in some ways, much to do with cultivating fearlessness, and because finding joy in the midst of embracing pain and letting go can be almost as difficult a concept to grasp. Because we’re lucky to be here in the first place, we tend to want to push aside the notion that no one knows when their life is going to end for certain. The fear of death can be overwhelming; the unknown is frightening, just as darkness is frightening. What we don’t know is often a cause for fear, when, in truth, it could just as easily be something good waiting in the darkness. Because fear is the inclination we lean towards (and yes, I count myself among those in this category), looking at the bright side of life is something we must push towards. After all, as much as I would like to say that I too would eat the strawberry and enjoy my final moments of life, I cannot say that I have the strength to find the simple joys in every day, even if it is my last. This has no bearing on my ability to do it, but is rather a reflection on my current state. Impermanence is an easy concept to grasp in the abstract, because I’m still alive. Of course I could die tomorrow, a week from now, or in ten minutes. But, because I don’t know, and I can’t know for certain, I cling to life and it skews my perspective. Chödrön relates full acceptance of Impermanence to that of the gratitude of “the precious birth”, and if we cannot accept that we were born and that we will die and move on from that, then we are dominated by the fear of death every waking moment. It may seem silly to bring this in at this moment, but I am reminded of a song by The Flaming Lips called “Do You Realize???”, which is pertinent in discussing impermanence:
That happiness makes you cry?
Do you realize
That everyone you know, someday, will die?
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes
Let them know you realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
That you realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ‘round.
In order to embrace the highs and lows of samsara and to not dwell on them, we must take to heart that we cannot master life and death anymore than we could master the weather or the earth turning every day. Appreciating what we have and being willing to take the good with the bad is the lesson of impermanence.
Everything I’m saying here is interpretation. Remember, I wasn’t at Gampo Abbey in 1989, and I have no context for the overall dathun or any special insight beyond what I read. My experiences are as different and as the same as anyone else, insofar as we all were born, we’ve lived, met other people, come into contact with the unknown, and tried to take something from it. I can’t fix everything in this book that seems contradictory, but I hope that by showing you how I reacted to what Chödrön shared with her students years ago are helpful in your understanding of the book. I truly believe the important lesson to take from this book is that these lessons are not a means to an end. There is no ending, but what comes when we die. Enlightenment isn’t the goal, Truth isn’t the goal. The path isn’t there so you can get to the end first, but to realize that the ending is less important than what you learn as you travel. Keep your eyes open, don’t dwell for too long, and don’t treat your thoughts as a burden, but let them go when they get too heavy to carry. There’s a lot out there to pick up as you go, so venture fearlessly and awake, and good and bad, let it all come and go, like the rain. What more can I offer you?
I realize many of you probably haven't read the book, but any reactions or feedback you could give would be most appreciated.