Fully Alive: A Retreat with Pema Chodron On Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change
Pema Chodron was the first North American born woman to become an ordained Bhikkhuni. She teaches in the Shambhala tradition begun by her mentor and teacher Chogyam Trungpa. Meg Wheatley, who assists her teaching on this retreat, has a Ph.D. from Harvard and has long been interested in system dynamics. She is a prolific author and has traveled to every continent to learn and teach about how human systems function properly or fail. Both women have sound instruction to offer concerning how to navigate beautifully in life — this life that can only be impermanent.
The focus of the retreat is a modern-day Hopi prophecy. Ani Pema indicated that the prophecy was requested from Hopi elders. The prophecy describes the way that all beings should expect to live for the future. My heart and mind opened to receive it, as it was read, first by Ani Pema and then by Meg Wheatly.
Here is a river, flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid;
willing to cling to the shore.
They are being torn apart and will suffer greatly.
Know, that the river has its’ destination.’
The elders say, ‘Let go of the shore.
Push our way into the middle and keep our heads above water.’
They also say, ‘See who is there with you and celebrate.
At this time in history, the time of the lone wolf is over.
Banish the word struggle from your vocabulary.
All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration;
for we are the ones we have been waiting for.
Ms. Wheatley tell us that old ways of thinking are simply outdated. Culturally, we tend to hold rigid ideas about how we should or should not react to stimuli. She discusses the differences in how we think of things. She suggests that our thinking should be be like flowing water. Our expectations often remain fixed and rigid in culturally accepted patterns, what she calls ‘rock logic’. We as humans should learn to let our patterns of thinking flow, change and adapt to circumstance. That, to her, is how we stay in the middle of the stream.
Title: Fully Alive: A Retreat with Pema Chodron.
Author: Pema Chödrön and Meg Wheatley.
Format: DVD or Audio CD
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk (4 CD set only), and Amazon.com as a 2 DVD set or as a 4 CD set.
The first thing one notices when Ani Pema speaks is the quiet joy with which she relates her message. While listening to her teaching, which I welcomed as dry soil welcomes a kind rain. My meta mind, my observer/narrator, was simply absorbing that calm joy at being where she was. Her desire to be of benefit to the world is inspiring.
It was a challenge to take in all of this teaching. The weekend was broken up into separate lessons, every one of them at once simple and complex. Once I had seen the entire recording I realized that every teaching was about the same thing from a fresh perspective. The ways to approach this prophecy are many. There are so many paths one can take to live beautifully. All who witness this will have something to take away from it depending on the experience of the practitioner. On a cautionary note, I feel some of these concepts might be overwhelming for beginners.
The most difficult lesson for me in this retreat was the charnel grounds teaching. I have read about Tibetan burial practices. The idea of meditating in the charnel ground; the place where the human remains are and where there may be ghosts and scavengers, is potentially terrifying. The viewer is asked to mentally view themselves in the most fearful place they can imagine. It is not an easy lesson. Living beautifully requires us to stay aware and open in the most challenging situations. It teaches that we must be peaceful warriors, ready to accept the suffering of the world and change it if we can, in any way we can.
The notion of remaining open and non-reactive to the things that trigger the most fear in us … well let me just say that I did well to be aware of my reaction. My first response was to wonder, Haven’t I just spent six years learning to create compassionate distance to those reactions? I believe that If I had heard this when I had just entered the beginning stages of practice, my fear response might have hindered me.
The layers of redundancy between the sessions also convey the many approaches there are to take from the core of this compelling study into our daily lives. It took me a week to watch this five hours of the retreat. I would watch an hour and simply absorb. I meditated on every section of the lesson. It simply took time and compassionate focus.
This teaching suggests that we must be open to the suffering of the world, and remain particularly aware of how difficult it can be. With the love and compassion we have learned, we are charged to do what we can to ease the suffering of the world. We must be ‘warriors’. By definition a warrior is not a reactionary. A warrior is calm, even-minded and able to love all beings while still being aware of suffering. That is the strength of the warrior.
So many teachings are about the damage done to the eternal self by continuously reacting, and getting hooked, to use Meg Wheatly’s terminology. When we fuel the embers of those alarming events or situations that trigger us it is easy to let old habits take over. We react with fear, craving or isolation. We let the ember of suffering in what ever form it presents itself, turn into conflagration by feeding it through our old patterns of response.
All of our old patterns were where we were, once; we, I, you, started somewhere. Hopefully, we can learn to love everything about what led us to now. At every point on any path that we may be, we can choose to love all beings. There seem to be only a few ways to get to that place and they all involve being fearless. They all seem to require that we learn ourselves very well. Then, when we are self-strong and loving, we must gather together as a single monolithic “us” and celebrate. We can beautifully accept, without reacting, that everything changes.
There comes a time where we must trust in our practice. We must walk or swim into the middle of the river and be available to the rest of the needy suffering world. We may share as much as we will, to let all beings know that this alternative path is available and potentially so pleasant. Once we own our suffering we can let it move through us as if we are not even here.
More than anything else, we must learn to understand that open acceptance and genial love is the thoughtful response. This is the skillful way to respond. The more we patiently and beautifully practice living always in the now, the more we encounter every moment with the understanding that it is unique and new. Compassion is the authentic response.