The Essence of Life

In the midst of a turbulent emotional time recently, I picked up Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart again.  It’s a book I keep coming back to when I feel like I can’t seem to step back from where I find myself.  When the ground disappears from underneath me and I don’t know where to find a foothold.

I, like almost everyone else I know, can feel too busy, too preoccupied, too frightened, quite frankly, to allow myself to really feel the true depth of my emotions sometimes.  I was not brought up understanding how to express myself clearly or cleanly.  There is so much that goes on in my body and mind that I am only just beginning to decipher.  And that is only after doing a lot of hard work, going through some dark times, sharing my story with some incredible people, having daughters of my own… and reading some amazing books.

“The essence of life is that it’s challenging.  Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter.  Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens.  Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 per cent healthy.  From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience.  There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.  To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment completely new and fresh.  To live is to be willing to die over and over again.  From the awakened point of view, that’s life.  Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together.”

This passage resonated deeply with me, because what it does is give me permission to open up to those dark places.  In fact, not only does it allow me to go there, it says to me that actually I am not truly alive if I don’t!

Anger, grief, fear, all of these emotions that so many of us are taught to lock away, hide, not deal with, put a smile on, smooth on over, suppress… these are REAL emotions! They are a part of who I am, and I know I need to acknowledge them, accept them, welcome them, even, into being.  Without them I am incomplete.  Without them I am dead.

It is hard feeling angry, sad, scared, worried, confused, groundless.  In our busy, preoccupied lives it can feel almost impossible to find that space in which to allow those emotions to surface. And yet, I can truly now say I know that this is just the point at which we can all begin again.  Each and every time.  If we choose to.

I choose to do this for myself.  And I choose to do this for my daughters.  Because I see all that rage, fear, confusion and sadness in them sometimes and I know how they feel. However hard these emotions are to deal with in the moment, I will never ask them to suppress any of them.  Because to suppress is to die, and I am just not willing to let that happen.


I’ve been aware for a while that I am looking for a teacher.  Teachers perhaps.  Guides.  Mentors.  People (women, if I’m honest) that can help me navigate my way through this sometimes calm, sometimes stormy ocean of life.  The thing is, I’ve never been very good at asking for what I need, nor necessarily always recognising things that are right there in front of me.

Pema Chodron

A good friend of mine introduced me to Pema Chrodron some time ago.  And, over the last couple of weeks I have been reading some of her books, which I am finding gentle, nurturing, enlightening and deeply inspiring.

Pema Chodron, born Deirdre Blomfeld-Brown, is an American Buddhist nun, author and teacher, and a mother.  Born in 1936, she married twice and had two children before immersing herself in the study of Tibetan Buddhism in her mid-30s, eventually becoming ordained as a novice nun in 1974.

So, not only is Pema Chodron a woman, but she has lived ‘in the world’, so to speak, and has birthed children.  She knows what it means to be married, to commit living her life alongside someone else, to raise young ones, and to live surrounded by concrete, noise, busyness and craziness in the reality of a Western world city.  As such, when I read her words, I feel like maybe she’s known some of what I have experienced in life.  Perhaps she has walked a little way in my shoes, and I in hers.  I can’t say the same about the Dalai Lama or, much as I love him, Eckhart Tolle, or indeed any of the other inspirational male spiritual ‘leaders’ that speak gentle truths of love, life and compassion.

Having been scarred by Catholic schooling for most of my youth, I am very resistant to organised religion.  I know there is rebellion in me in embracing one way of seeing the world, one way of understanding how it all works, one way of explaining what happens to us after we die.  Also, I’ve never been brilliant with rules.  I have a tendency to break them.  And, as a feminist, I know I can certainly never follow a faith system that has one male entity at its head.  It just does not work for me.  Not in this truly unbalanced world we live in, where women can still be stoned to death for having been raped, or shot at for daring to speak out about a girl’s right to education.

When people ask me “What do you believe in?” I find it hard to answer.  Quite simply, I believe in what I feel.  I believe in the beauty of the natural world and the mirrors that it constantly holds up to our faces.  I believe in the power of nature to not only show us what is going on in our lives, but to also hold a space for us to always walk into, to access the power of the land, the wind, the sea, in order that we can learn to heal ourselves.  I believe in stillness, in silence, and I believe in listening to the sound of our inner knowing.  I have experienced moments of what I can only describe as complete belonging; moments in which I know, with total assuredness, that all of us, all of this, is connected.  I believe in the power of the individual, and I believe in the power of community.  I believe in the power of sitting in circle, of talking and listening from the heart.  I believe in rites of passage to mark, honour and celebrate all the transitions we make throughout our lives.  I know I need these things in order that I can make sense of it all, and I know I am not alone in this.

Pema Chodron’s teachings have come to me at a time in my life when I feel ready to open to them.  I take great comfort in her words so full of simple wisdom that I find myself nodding, saying thank you, and wanting somehow to eat them up so that they can stay within my very core always.

And then, just a few weeks ago, our Canadian friend (and soon-to-be neighbour) pointed out that the abbey Pema Chodron is the resident teacher at, Gampo Abbey, is “just down the coast” from where we’ll be living in Cape Breton come mid-July.  For me, who trusts in the natural ebb and flow of life, who struggles when it feels like things are not moving along easily, that things are being forced into being, this discovery felt like nothing less than serendipity.  Her own words about the abbey only serve to strengthen my resolve to spend some time there if I possibly can:

Gampo Abbey is a vast place where the sea and sky melt into each other.  The horizon extends infinitely, and in this vast space float seagulls and ravens.  The setting is like a huge mirror that exaggerates the sense of there being nowhere to hide.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Over the last couple of weeks I have been meditating on the question “What or who are you resisting in your life right now?”  I know now that the “who” in this question is myself.  And, I feel ready to come out of hiding.

I also believe Pema Chodron may be one of the teachers I have been waiting for to help me do this.






Breathing in… Breathing out…

Parenting will call into question virtually everything we think we know, beginning with who we think we are. (We’re not!) Children have an extraordinary talent for breaking apart our roles, demanding again and again that we meet them right in the moment, meet our lives, meet difficulty, moment by moment meet and resolve the extraordinary mystery of ‘the other’.  To do this we must time and again lose our precious adult facades and have recall or regain access to the mysterious and creative core that has no name, the source, that we brush again and again in meditation.

Susan Murphy, in Buddhism for Mothers

“I cant meditate.”  That’s the recurrent message I’ve played out for, hmm, about 15 years – the period of time since I first seriously tried meditating, at a vipassana meditation centre in Chiang Mai, back in my good old footloose hippy days.  I lasted 4 days out of a 10 day retreat, telling myself, as I pulled my various shades and layers of tie dyed clothing back on, “I’ve learned all I need to.” Nothing to do with the lack of food, sleep, interpersonal communication, colourful attire, or my inability to sit still for THAT long then?  No, nothing at all.

So, the fact that I have now been meditating regularly for two and a half months comes as a little surprise to me every now and then.  I know many Buddhists would balk at the idea of it, but for practical reasons, I’m doing it the 21st century way (through an app on my new iPad – Headspace, check it out), and it’s really working for me.  Now that my children are old enough to not need something from me every 10 minutes (unless I’m on the phone or toilet of course), I have the space and time to give this to myself almost every single morning.  And I’m loving it.

Ok, so often my practice looks a little like this:

“Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out… Gosh my breathing sounds loud today!  I wonder why.  Funny how my breathing sounds different one day to the next.  Oh yes… Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out…  Is that a mouse I can hear in the rafters?  Ooh sounds bigger than a mouse.  A rat?  What’s it eating?  Maybe it’s just a bird on the roof after all.  Oops… Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out… Is that K getting up? On her own? Hooray!  Oh, maybe it’s the cat.  She’d better not have brought in another bloody rabbit and left it to half fester under our bed again.  Aargh that cat!  Ahem… Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out…  Hmm what shall I write my next blog post about?  Haha, I know, I could write about meditating.  Oh lord, what a joke… COME BACK TO YOUR BREATH WOMAN!!  Breathing in… Breathing out…”

(Yes… I realise I’ve a way to go before nirvana becomes more than just a few graphemes put together in an interesting way…)

BUT I do believe that those tiny moments of bliss I experienced in the first few weeks of meditating are genuinely growing.  And I’m seeing myself, in a detached, interested, reflective kind of way, in how I deal with things the kids throw at me in particular.  A common one is: “Why did I just respond like that?  That was unnecessary.”  Because it’s a learned REaction, rather than a conscious response, that’s why.  And it’s time to change direction.

I know I have weeks, months, YEARS of practice ahead of me before some of these neurological habits are shifted onto other clearer, cleaner, calmer pathways.  AND I know it must be doing something good already, because I look forward each morning to starting my day in this way.  I’ve had glimpses into what that clearer, cleaner, calmer mind looks like.

I’m learning a LOT about how and why my mind works as it does and that, actually, what is crucial is not so much about WHAT is happening but HOW I choose to run with it.  I could let all these (quite frankly unimportant) thoughts rampage round and round my head, distracting me from what I’m doing here and now, OR I could learn to simply acknowledge them as mere thoughts and bring myself back to the (much more interesting) present.

After all, the present is where life’s really happening.  It’s where the kids reside every single minute of their tiny, beautiful, inspiring, innocent lives.  And it’s where they constantly drag me back to when my mind is wandering off in other (deceivingly seemingly more enticing) lands.  They’re a relentless wake up call to live life HERE and NOW.

Ah yes indeed, “children are the most demanding and merciless of spiritual teachers” (Sarah Napthali, Buddhism for Mothers).  I’ve known this on some level or other these past 9 years I’ve been mothering, of course.  Now I’m trying really hard to pay deep and close attention to what they’re actually trying to teach me.