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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Oprah Talks to Pema Chodron

October 14, 2008

The Oprah Magazine
October 13, 2008

Buddhism has been described as a religion, philosophy, ideology and a
way of life. Pema Chödrön, one of the first Western women to become
fully ordained as a Buddhist monastic and author of When Things Fall
Apart, talks to Oprah about learning from pain and what it means to
be a Buddhist.

Listen in on Pema and Oprah's conversation.

Oprah: How did you end up following this path, taking this path? Were
you always a Buddhist?

Pema: No, no, I was not always a Buddhist. I got involved in this
path in a way that's very appealing to a lot of people, because of
the fact that their lives fall apart. And that's what happened to me.
I was about, oh, 34 years old, something like that, not a Buddhist.
And my second marriage broke up. And it broke up in a way that for
some reason just floored me, pulled the rug out. I was in what I
would say now is quite a severe depression.

Oprah: Um hm.

Pema: But I had some kind of fundamental sanity that kept saying to
myself, there's something in this that's trying—that will teach you
something. Something very profound that will bring you to a much
deeper level. And so I started looking. I looked at every therapy, I
looked at, you know, anything you can imagine in that time, the 70's,
that was available. And then I came across an article by the man that
became my teacher, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master named Chogyam
Trumpa. And I knew nothing about Buddhism or about him. But the
article was called "Working with Negativity." And its first line was,
there's nothing wrong basically with what you feel, like the
negativity in this case; the problem is that you don't stay with the
underlying emotion. You don't stay with the feeling, you spin off and
try to escape it in some kind of way. And in that way, all the, you
know, suffering for yourself and for other people comes from the
spin-off. But if you could stay present, then you'd really learn
something. And I don't know, it just—everything else who kind of
looked towards the higher good or something like this, and—

Oprah: Right.

Pema: --this just said, stay with your experience, very direct. And
that's how I got into the whole--

Oprah: And that's--

Pema: -- that's how I started looking for a teacher. And that's how it started.

Oprah: And that's what you advise we do when things fall apart?

Pema: Get in touch with the basic feeling.

Oprah: Right.

Pema: Yeah, I mean the problem is, I think for people is that we have
so little tolerance for uncomfortable feelings. I'm not even talking
about unpleasant outer circumstances but for that feeling in your
stomach that—or heart—that I don't want this to be happening.

Oprah: Right.

Pema: And if somehow you could touch the rawness of the experience,
touch the heart of the rawness of the experience—

Oprah: Meaning don't run from it. Don't run from it.

Pema: Don't run from it, yeah.

Oprah: What should you be saying to yourself, when you say touch the
rawness and feel? Feel what? I'm already feeling, I'm sure people are
thinking, I'm feeling pain, I'm feeling discomfort, I'm feeling I
don't want to have to deal with this.

Pema: Well let me give you what I think is --for -- seems to be for
people the most accessible thing is that if you can—for instance,
just go to your body at that point—

Oprah: Um hm.

Pema: and connect with the sensation.

Oprah: And the sensation--

Pema: Of what it feels like, which is always -- feels really bad, and
it's usually in the throat or the heart or the solar plexus. And it
feels like a tightening. If you can stay with that feeling and
breathe very deeply in and very deeply out, and say to yourself,
millions of people all over the world share this kind of fear,
discomfort what—I don't even have to call it anything—they share this
not wanting things to be this way. And it's my link with humanity.
And why—and it gives birth to a chain reaction which causes people to
strike out and hurt other people or self-destruct. In other words,
not staying with the feeling cuts you off from your compassion for
others, your empathy for others, and also from the largeness of your
own heart and mind. So somehow it seems to me with the people that
I've been working with, if they can connect with the idea that this
moment in time is shared by -- it's sort of a shared experience all
over the world. And not staying with it gives birth to a lot of pain
and a lot of destruction that we see in the world today. And so then
what do you do? How do you stay with it? And I think the most
straightforward way is to breathe in very deeply, try to connect with
the feeling. And then just relax on the out breath. And breathe in
very deeply and connect with the feeling, and breathe out on the out
breath. And I call it compassionate abiding. Because it's staying
with yourself when for your whole lifetime you've always run away at
that point.

Oprah: Well yes, it's like you say in When Things Fall Apart, that
every moment is the perfect teacher.

Pema: Yeah. Yeah. That's right.

Oprah: One of the things I've learned to ask, especially in difficult
situations, and the bigger the crises or difficulty, the question I
immediately ask always is, what is this here to teach me?

Pema: Yeah. Yeah, that's a very helpful thing. What is this here to
teach me? That's a very powerful way to look at it. I think people—my
feeling is that when people's lives do fall apart and they're in a
tough situation, their ears are really open for looking for good
medicine, you know. And spirituality often is really heard and used
like medicine when someone's hurting rather than just the latest
thing to do, you know. And so then people start coming up with their
own ways of expressing it, like you just did there, you know—

Oprah: Um hm.

Pema: -- what is this situation trying to teach me? All the religions
point to the fact that if you're fully present, it's the only place
that you can wake up. You don't wake up, you know, by zoning out or
somehow leaving. You wake up in the present moment. And so you have
to find your own simple grounded language about how to say that to
yourself. And that's a beautiful way to say it. What is this
moment—or what is this situation or this person got to teach me, you
know? Another thing I love, which I've learned from someone over the
years, was, you know, this is a unique moment. This encounter, as
unpleasant as I'm finding it, is unique. It's never going to happen
again in exactly this way. And maybe I'm glad of that but I don't
want to waste this moment because it's never going to happen again,
just like this. You know, this is -- this is the only time I'm ever
going to experience this. So let's taste it, smell it.

Oprah: Why do Buddhists always seem so peaceful?

Pema: I don't know that they're always so peaceful, you know. It's so
funny, you know, like does it seem to you that Buddhists are always
so peaceful?

Oprah: Yes, it does. I've never met a Buddhist -- well, all of my
encounters, you know, I define myself as Christian, and I've met a
lot of Christians who weren't so peaceful. But I've never met a
Buddhist who, you know, introduced themselves to me as a Buddhist or
I happened to know is Buddhist and they didn't, you know, weren't
actively seeking peace.

Pema: Yeah.

Oprah: And I'm sure not all practicing Buddhists are as good as maybe
some of the Buddhists that I know. But it seems that there's
something very calming about the practice or—I don't know, do you
call—is it—it's a religion, it's a philosophy, it's a way of life—

Pema: Yeah, you -- when you did your introduction, you talked about
it as philosophy and way of life. I think that's, you know, a very
helpful way to think of it. And if there is a reason for the
calmness, I think it has to do with because you're keeping your mind
open, you're training and keeping your mind and heart open rather
than closed. So it's like—in my own experience, my 71 years, you
know, or I haven't been practicing for 71 years, but whatever amount
of years it is that I've been practicing, when you train in actually
being curious and open and receptive to whatever is occurring,
obviously less and less things throw you for a loop and provoke you.
And when they do, then you're just curious about that. You see what I'm saying?

Oprah: Yes. And what does it mean to be a Buddhist?

Pema: What does it mean to be a Buddhist?

Oprah: Yes.

Pema: Well, a lot of people might say different things about that,
but in my opinion, the essence of it is trusting that the nature of
your mind and heart is limitless, boundless, openness, free of
prejudice, free of bias, and you could stay in that space and open
your eyes and your ears and all your sense perceptions to what's
happening without narrowing down into a prejudice or a bias or a
view, a kind of solid view that says, no, no, it can't be like that,
it has to be like this. So somehow that seems to lead to seeing the
humanity of even the worst people and seeing—

Oprah: That's why Buddhists are always so calm.

Pema: Maybe so.

Oprah: Yeah.

Pema: But on the other hand, how many Buddhist people who actually
call themselves Buddhists really practice this, you know. You don't
really have to be a Buddhist to practice this.

Oprah: No.

Pema: That's something I know for sure. Buddhism sort of gives a lot
of time to this particular idea, you know. But definitely, if you
look at all the really wise people throughout history, it seems to me
this is what they've practiced is the unprejudiced, unbiased mind,
the ability to stand in someone else's shoes. Or like Martin Luther
King, talking about the beloved community and until we're all healed
nobody is healed.

Oprah: Right.

Pema: That's -- and caring more about everybody being healed -- than
getting it to work out a certain way.

Oprah: Sounds like a beautiful way to live.

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