The Space Between the Words
Once an elementary school teacher by the name of Deirdre Blomfield-Brown, today Pema Chodron is better known as one of the most insightful teachers of Buddhism. Her books and talks are read and listened to by millions trying to find a way out of the insanity of their lives. Chodron is perhaps more accessible than most teachers because of her willingness to explore and talk about her own difficult journey from a depressed, divorced housewife to the place she inhabits now. That journey involved the very thing she stresses above all---the need to experience our feelings fully in order to know who we are. It is because of this that our many modern escape routes—including our addictions to food, medication and electronic diversions---trouble her. That is because she believes that our incessant attempts to escape the fear, the rejection, the feeling of worthlessness, the hopelessness and other negative emotions create the very hell we are trying to avoid. Instead, Chodron would have us experiencing these emotions fully in the body, without labels, without judgement. To do so, however, requires practice and a certain fearlessness on our parts. It also requires us to be connected to our bodies in a way that is not easy for our mind-dominated lives.
Chodron tells of one time when she was feeling all sorts of negativity towards a fellow participant during a spiritual retreat. This unsettled her greatly because she did not know not why she was feeling that way. She sat all night with the feeling to find out. To do so she had to cut the story line from her head, the story that runs like this ---Ruth is this and Ruth did that and Ruth makes me so and so. She began by bringing space into those thoughts, by eliminating anything but the Ruth so that slowly her thoughts whittled down to Ruth.....Ruth....Ruth. Eventually, after many hours of sitting with the feeling and feeling it (that is, accessing the inner body and gently feeling what was there) an insight in the way of an image popped up. She saw herself sitting on a chair as a small child and feeling the same way she was feeling towards Ruth now. She realized, then, that the feeling was one of fear of not being loved enough and a need to please others in order to secure that love. This realization may seem very small but it actually allowed her to depotentiate a habit that was causing great pain in her life and probably causing great pain to others as well.
The notion that our bodies contain all our truths is repeated by many authors far and wide. The thoughts and emotions generated by our minds to prevent us from feeling what is going deep inside is the greatest generator of unhappiness there is and yet is so entrenched it is sometimes hard to see how to get out of its grasp. Pema Chodron suggests the only way is to practice watching the thoughts go by and letting go of the judgement and the words associated with them. The brain is like a CD, she says, and whenever you explode in anger or fall to self-defeat, the groove of that emotion engraves itself deeper and deeper inside. It is only by practicing some form of mindfulness that the groove is erased.
Chodron also points out that there is no greater fear in the west than the fear of feeling any form of emotional or physical pain. The various opiates we use to disengage---from television, to Apple gadgets to medications and food---only serve to exacerbate our pain. By escaping, we avoid learning the lessons that lie beyond the scripts of “Ruth....” and this is not only a pity, it is damaging to our health. And yet our feelings of pain are very much conditioned by the associations we make. We will drive ourselves ruthlessly in order to run a marathon, for example, but then complain of a nagging ache we get from sitting too long in a chair at work. In the one situation we are willing to experience the pain because it is associated as “good” pain and in the other, we fall apart.
Asked about enlightenment, Chodron points outs that the only enlightenment possible is the moment to moment awareness that allows us to find the gaps and spaces between the words. To do that we must go into every dark emotion and stay with it without generating a story, or labelling it good or bad. Thinking makes things so. Shakespeare said it, Joseph Campbell underscored it and Plato made the same point a long, long time ago.
In an article in the Shambhala Sun, Chodron put it this way: “There is nothing wrong with negativity per se; the problem is that we never see it, we never honour it, we never look into its heart. We don't taste our negativity, smell it, get to know it. Instead, we are always trying to get rid of it by punching someone in the face, by slandering someone, by punishing ourselves, or by repressing our feelings. In between repression and acting out, however, there is something wise and profound and timeless. If we just try to get rid of negative feelings, we don't realize that those feelings are our wisdom. The transmutation comes from the willingness to hold our seat with the feeling, to let the words go, to let the justification go. We don't have to have resolution. Curiously enough, this journey of transmutation is one of tremendous joy. We usually seek joy in the wrong places, by trying to avoid feeling whole parts of the human condition. We seek happiness by believing that whole parts of what it is to be human are unacceptable. We feel that something has to change in ourselves. However, unconditional joy comes about through some kind of intelligence in which we allow ourselves to see clearly what we do with great honesty, combined with a tremendous kindness and gentleness. This combination of honesty, or clear-seeing, and kindness is the essence of maitri—unconditional friendship with ourselves.”
The key is to go through things and not avoid them, to feel the feelings as they arise and stay with them even if they feel uncomfortable at first. Take a moment today to go deep inside and feel the gaps, the spaces between the words. It is in those spaces that freedom can be found.