Why meditate (Part 1)? Extracts from Pema Chödrön's 'When Things Fall Apart'

Born in 1936, US American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön is almost precisely twice my age. I've read several of her very accessible books about being. Here are some extracts that resonated with me from her 'When Things Fall Apart':

'The only time we ever know what's really going on is when the rug's been pulled out and we can't find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep.'

'The safest and most nurturing way to begin... is... formal meditation... We begin to get the hang of not indulging or repressing and of what it feels like to let the energy just be there. That is why it's so good to meditate every single day... This sows the seeds that enable us to be more awake in the midst of everyday chaos. It's a gradual awakening and it's cumulative, but that's what actually happens. We don't sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we'll be more awake in our lives.'

'In practising meditation, we're not trying to live up to some kind of ideal - quite the opposite. We're just being with our experience, whatever it is.'

'If you find that thoughts have carried you away, don't worry about it. Simply say to yourself 'thinking', and come back to the openness and relaxation of the out-breath. Again and again just come back to being right where you are.'

'In the beginning people sometimes find this meditation exciting. It's like a new project... But after a while the sense of project wears out. You just find time each day, and you sit down with yourself. You come back to that breath, over and over, through boredom, edginess, fear and well-being. This perseverance and repetition - when done with honesty, a light touch, humour and kindness - is its own reward.'

'It's a lifetime's journey to relate honestly to the immediacy of our experience and to respect ourselves enough not to judge it.'

'It comes as quite a shock to realise how much we've blinded ourselves to some of the ways we cause harm. Our style is so ingrained that we can't hear when people try to tell us, either kindly or rudely, that maybe we're causing some harm by the way we are or the way we relate to others. We've come so use to the way we do things that somehow we think others are used to it too.'

'Through refraining - not habitually acting out impulsively - we see that there's something between the arising of the craving (or aggression or loneliness or whatever) and whatever action we take as a result. There's something there that we don't want to experience, and we never do experience, because we're so quick to act.'

'It's a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness.'

'Not causing harm requires staying awake. Part of being awake is slowing down enough to notice what we say and do. The more we witness our emotional chain reactions and understand how they work, the easier it is to refrain. It becomes a way of life to stay awake, slow down, and notice.'

'Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there's a hand to hold... Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves. Theism is an addiction. We're all addicted to hope - hope that the doubt and mystery will go away... a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.'

'This is where renunciation enters the picture - renunciation of the hope that our experience could be different... that we could be better.'

'In meditation we can notice how emotions and moods are connected to having lost or gained something, having been praised or blamed, and so forth... What begins as a simple thought, quickly blossoms into full-blown pleasure and pain.'

'The experience of certain feelings can seem particularly pregnant with desire for resolution: loneliness, boredom, anxiety. Unless we can relax with these feelings it's very hard to stay in the middle when we experience them.'

'Unnecessary activity... is a way of keeping ourselves busy so we don't have to feel any pain.'

'We don't have to cultivate loneliness. It's how things really are. We are fundamentally alone, and there is nothing anywhere to hold onto. Moreover, this is not a problem. Cool loneliness allows us to look honestly and without aggression at our own minds. We can gradually drop our ideals of who we think we ought to be, or who we think we want to be, or who we think other people think we want or ought to be. We give it up and just look directly with compassion and humour at who we are.'

'Pain is not a punishment, pleasure is not a reward.'

'When we recognise impermanence as impermanence, we can also notice what our reaction to impermanence is. This is called mindfulness, awareness, curiosity, inquisitiveness, paying attention. Whatever we call it, it's a very helpful practice, the practice of coming to know ourselves completely.'

'We can just look at the whole thing. Meditation gives us the method... How we regard what arises in meditation is training for how we regard whatever arises in the rest of our lives... We're not just talking about our individual liberation, but how to help the community we live in, our families, our country... not to mention the whole world.'

'The more we relate with others, the more quickly we discover where we are blocked, where we are unkind, afraid, shut down. Seeing this is helpful, but it is also painful. (see also Welwood) There's nothing more advanced than relating with others - than compassionate communication.'

'That's the beginning of growing up. As long as we don't want to be honest and kind with ourselves, then we are always going to be infants.'

'If we find ourselves unworkable and give up on ourselves, then we'll find others unworkable and give up on them. What we hate in ourselves we'll hate in others. To the degree that we have compassion for ourselves, we'll have compassion for others. Compassion isn't some kind of self-improvement project or ideal that we're trying to live up to.'

'The whole right and wrong business closes us down and makes our world smaller. Wanting situations and relationships to be solid, permanent, and graspable obscures the pith of the matter, which that things are fundamentally groundless.'

'We start to contemplate... that there is a more tender, shaky kind of place where we could live.... As we begin to have a sense of celebrating the aspects of ourselves that we found so impossible before, something will shift in us. Something will shift permanently in us. Our ancient habitual patterns will begin to soften, and we'll begin to see the faces and hear the words of people who are talking to us.'

'Rumi writes of night travellers who search the darkness instead of running from it, a companionship of people willing to know their own fear.'

'The real transformation takes place when we let go of our attachment and give away what we think we can't.'

'The best example (of discipline/structure) is the meditation technique. We sit down and are as faithful to the technique as possible. We simply put light attention on the out-breath over and over, through mood swings, memories, dramas and boredom. This simple repetitive process is like inviting basic richness into our lives. So we follow the instructions just as centuries of meditators have done before.'

'After we've practised meditation for a while, our minds become stiller. We begin to notice everything more. We notice that we're churning out thoughts all the time and that there are also gaps in all that chatter. We begin to be attuned to our habitual patterns... holding ourselves together with opinions and ideas about things.'

'A piece of advice Don Juan gave to Carlos Casteneda was to do everything as if it were the only thing in the world that mattered, while all the time knowing that it doesn't matter at all.'

'We liked meditation... when we felt inspired and in touch with ourselves and on the right path. But what about when it begins to feel like a burden, and it's not living up to our expectations at all? This place of the squeeze is the very point that our meditation where we can really learn something... We could be there, feeling off-guard, not knowing what to do, just hanging out there with the raw and tender energy of the moment. This is the place where we begin to learn the meaning behind the concepts.'

'Meditation is how we stop fighting with ourselves, how we stop struggling with circumstances, emotions and moods. The main point of these methods is to dissolve the dualistic struggle, our habitual tendency to struggle against what's happening to us or in us. These methods instruct us to move toward difficulties rather than backing away. We don't get this kind of encouragement very often.'

'Every time we sit down to meditate we can think of it as training to lighten up, have a sense of humour, relax. As one student said, 'lower your standards and relax as it is'.'

'Thinking we have ample time to do things later is the greatest myth.'

'At first the meditation instruction is all we have to keep us from dissociating from our body, speech, and mind. We just keep practising coming back to our experience of being in the present moment.'

'Some of us can accept others right where they are a lot more easily than we can accept ourselves. We feel that compassion is reserved for someone else, and it never occurs to us to feel it for ourselves.' (see also Barker)

Part 2 is here.