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I was staying in close quarters with a friend who was really angry at
me. It was the equivalent of being trapped on a Greyhound bus for a
couple of months together—me, my friend, her anger, and my feelings of
inadequacy. I tried everything to get her to like me again, but she just
became angrier and angrier until she refused to talk altogether. That’s
one of the most uncomfortable places to end up in with someone you are
trying to get to like you again, because you’re getting nothing back.
This situation intensified to the point where I realized that my whole
personality, everything I did, the whole way I related to people, was
based entirely on avoiding feeling bad about myself. I strove to live
behind a mask that others would love and would therefore cause me to
love myself. That plan did not work.
was a powerful revelation to see that all my habits and approaches to
life were coming from this deep hiding and avoidance. It was
exhilarating in some way, but then I realized that my friend and I were
still on the bus together, and work remained to be done. Life is like
that. You have your insights, but the challenge remains.
had heard the phrases “unconditional friendship” and “genuine heart of
sadness” before, but at that point they began to make real sense to me.
What produces a genuine person, I realized, is being open to not feeling
okay. It means to be open to everything—to all the horrors as well as
the beauties of life, to the whole extraordinary variety of life. I
began to realize that this whole mess the human race is in—the fact that
we don’t take care of the planet and we don’t take care of each other,
the wars, the hatred, the fundamentalism—all actually come from running
away. Individually, collectively we are trying to avoid feeling bad
you start to look at it this way, to smile a bit about this fear
instead of letting it escalate, you realize that going about things this
way is a bunch of bullshit. Wait a minute here, you might think, what’s
going on? Seemingly, it’s just me. But me seems to be being pretty hard
on me. What’s up with that? When I was stuck with my friend, I started
to see behind it all. A smile crossed my face. If I allow myself to look
at what hurts, I find a genuine, open heart. The business of avoiding
who we are is a game that never needed to begin in the first place.
That’s worth a smile. It was a very fortunate bus ride.
companion never did really like me, but in that situation she became my
teacher. When none of my cute words and jokes and compliments worked, I
had to deal with what was under all of that—someone being harsh with
themselves for no good reason. It takes guts to get to that place. I
can’t say that I did it willingly, and I’m not sure that anyone would do
it willingly, but situations like that can help us to see why we need
to look into our fear.
not so easy to do, but fortunately we have a method that can help us
discover the courage to smile at fear. Meditation practice is a method
for being with ourselves fully and completely, allowing the time and
space to see it all with gentleness, kindness, and dead honesty. It is
the safest environment within which to undertake this mission
impossible. And when meditation practice has helped us to be honest and
courageous enough to know ourselves in a deep way, we can begin to
extend out and help others, because the things outside of us that appear
threatening seem that way because of the fear within, the fear we have
been reluctant to look at. The things that unnerve us, that trigger
feelings of inadequacy, that make us feel that we can’t handle it, that
we are not good enough, lose their power over us when we learn to smile
not a one-shot deal, as Trungpa Rinpoche was fond of saying. There are
many reruns. We go through it again and again. We feel uncertain, we
busy ourselves, we become frozen, we are lazy, our fear escalates. But
our practice also makes it possible for us to notice it happening again
and again, and to allow fearlessness and genuineness to emerge from the
very act of going into our fear.
fearlessness may be our goal, so to speak, the basis of fearlessness is
knowing fear, and that knowing takes place over and over again.
Fearlessness and the compassion that arises from it are not solid and
permanent. They emerge when your fears are triggered. I’m sure that if I
had to go on the bus with that same lady tomorrow, it would be a very
different experience, yet I would still be uncomfortable. But when my
fear was inevitably triggered, warriorship would be triggered as well.
And a smile might more easily cross my face.
you touch the fear instead of running from it, you find tenderness,
vulnerability, and sometimes a sense of sadness. This tender-heartedness
happens naturally when you start to be brave enough to stay present,
because instead of armoring yourself, instead of turning to anger,
self-denigration, and iron-heartedness, you keep your eyes open and you
begin, as Trungpa Rinpoche said, to see the blueness of an iris, the
wetness of water, the movement of the wind. Becoming more in touch with
ourselves gives birth to enormous appreciation for the world and for
other people. It can sound corny, but you feel grateful for the beauty
of the world. It’s a very special way to live. Your heart is filled with
gratitude, appreciation, compassion, and caring for other people. And
it all comes from touching that shakiness within and being willing to be
present with it.
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Pema Chödrön is one of the most prominent women teachers of Buddhism. She is resident director at Gampo Abbey monastery in Nova Scotia and the author of several books, including The Wisdom of No Escape, When Things Fall Apart, The Places That Scare You, and No Time to Lose. The Shambhala Sun offers the best selection of her teachings available on the web.
A collection of teachings from the pioneering Tibetan Buddhist
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About the illustration at the top of this page:
This takeoff on the famous "Rosie the Riveter" poster from the Second World War delighted Pema Chodron when it was given to her at the Smile at Fear teachings in Richmond, which is home to the Rosie the Riveter memorial.
It has now been turned into a print
ready to display as-is or framed, in a variety of sizes, signed or
unsigned. All profits from the sale of these prints will go to the Pema
Chödrön Foundation. To order, visit our online store.