Working with Chaos

Edited excerpt from Lions Roar postThree methods for Working with Chaos” by Pema Chodron. 

When we feel squeezed, there’s a tendency for mind to become small. We feel miserable, like a victim, like a pathetic, hopeless case. Yet believe it or not, at that moment of hassle or bewilderment or embarrassment, our minds could become bigger.

This place of the squeeze is the very point in our meditation and in our lives where we can really learn something. The next time there’s no ground to stand on, don’t consider it an obstacle. Consider it a remarkable stroke of luck. We are given changes all the time. We can either cling to security, or we can let ourselves feel exposed, as if we had just been born, as if we had just popped out into the brightness of life and were completely naked. Right there in the uncertainty of everyday chaos is our own wisdom mind.

Go to the Places that Scare You

When we sit down to meditate, whatever arises in our minds we look at directly, call it “thinking,” and go back to the simplicity and immediacy of the breath. Again and again, we return to pristine awareness free from concepts. Meditation practice is how we stop fighting with ourselves, how we stop struggling with circumstances, emotions or moods. This basic instruction is a tool that we can use to train in our practice and in our lives. Whatever arises, we can look at it with a nonjudgmental attitude.

This is the primary method for working with painful situations—global pain, domestic pain, any pain at all. We can stop struggling with what occurs and see its true face without calling it the enemy. It helps to remember that our practice is not about accomplishing anything—not about winning or losing—but about ceasing to struggle and relaxing as it is. That is what we are doing when we sit down to meditate. That attitude spreads into the rest of our lives.

Use Poison as Medicine

We can use difficult situations—poison—as fuel for waking up. In general, this idea is introduced to us with the tonglen meditation practice of taking in pain and sending out positive energy. When anything difficult arises—any kind of conflict, any notion of unworthiness, anything that feels distasteful, embarrassing, or painful—instead of pushing it away or running from it, we breathe in and connect with it fully.

The three poisons are passion (this includes craving or addiction), aggression, and ignorance (which includes denial or the tendency to shut down and close out). When suffering arises, the tonglen instruction is to let the story line go and breathe it in—not just the anger, resentment or loneliness that we might be feeling, but the identical pain of others who in this very moment are also feeling rage, bitterness, or isolation. We breathe it in for everybody.

This poison is not just our personal misfortune, our fault, our blemish, our shame—it’s part of the human condition. It’s our kinship with all living things, the material we need in order to understand what it’s like to stand in another person’s shoes.

Regard What Arises as Awakened Energy

Everything that occurs is not only usable and workable but is actually the path itself. We can use everything that happens to us as the means for waking up.

We’re trying to learn not to split ourselves between our “good side” and our “bad side,” between our “pure side” and our “impure side.” The elemental struggle is with our feeling of being wrong, with our guilt and shame at what we are. That’s what we have to befriend. The point is that we can dissolve the sense of dualism between us and them, between this and that, between here and there, by moving toward what we find difficult and wish to push away.

Regarding what arises as awakened energy reverses our fundamental habitual pattern of trying to avoid conflict, trying to make ourselves better than we are, trying to smooth things out and pretty them up, trying to prove that pain is a mistake and would not exist in our lives if only we did all the right things. This view turns that particular pattern completely around, encouraging us to become interested in looking at the uncertainty of everyday chaos as the working basis for attaining enlightenment.

  1. No more struggle: “Whatever arises, train again and again in seeing it for what it is. The innermost essence of mind is without bias. Things arise and things dissolve forever and ever. Whatever happens, we can look at it with a nonjudgmental attitude. This is the primary method for working with painful situations.”
  2. Using poison as medicine: “When suffering arises, we breathe it in for everybody. This poison is not just our personal misfortune. It’s our kinship with all living things, the seed of compassion and openness. Instead of pushing it away or running from it, we breathe in and connect with it fully. We do this with the wish that all of us could be free of suffering.”
  3. Regarding whatever arises as awakened energy: “This reverses our habitual pattern of trying to avoid conflict, trying to smooth things out, trying to prove that pain is a mistake that would not exist in our lives if only we did the right things. This view encourages us to look at the charnel ground of our lives as the working basis for attaining enlightenment.”

About Still Water Sangha of MN

We are a community, formed with enthusiasm and joy, practicing Mindfulness and Meditation together in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. We meet on Monday nights from 7-8:30pm in a private home in Stillwater, Minnesota.
This entry was posted in awareness of suffering, insight, letting go, meditation. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Working with Chaos

  1. Steve Streitz says:

    This is an important teaching and I appreciate how it makes perfect sense. Thank you

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