Pema Chodron Meditation

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The Importance of Knowing Ourselves

Meditation practice awakens our trust that the wisdom and compassion that we need are already within us. It’s vital to help know ourselves: Our rough parts and our smooth parts, our passion, aggression, ignorance, and wisdom. The reason that people harm other people, the reason that the planet is polluted and people and animals are not doing so well these days is that individuals don’t know, trust or love themselves enough. The technique of sitting meditation called shamatha-vipashyana (‘tranquility-insight’) is like a golden key that helps us to know ourselves.

Breath Awareness

In shamatha-vipashyana meditation, we sit upright with legs crossed and eyes open, hands resting on our thighs. Then we simply become aware of our breath as it goes out. It requires precision to be right there with that breath. On the other hand, it’s extremely relaxed and soft. Saying, “Be right there with the breath as it goes out,” is the same thing as saying, “Be fully present.” Be right here with whatever is going on.

Labeling Thoughts

But being with the breath is only part of the technique. These thoughts that run through our minds continually are the other part. We sit here talking to ourselves. The instruction is that when you realize you’ve been thinking, you label it ‘thinking.’ When your mind wanders off, you say to yourself, ‘thinking.’

Whether your thoughts are violent or passionate or full of ignorance and denial; whether your thoughts are worried or fearful; whether your thoughts are spiritual thoughts, pleasing thoughts of how well you’re doing, comforting thoughts, uplifting thoughts, whatever they are—without judgment or harshness, simply label it all ‘thinking,’ and do that with honesty and gentleness.

Gentle Touch

The touch on the breath is light: only about 25 percent of the awareness is on the breath. You’re not grasping and fixating on it. You’re opening, letting the breath mix with the space of the room, letting your breath just go out into space. Then there’s something like a pause, a gap until the next breath goes out again. While you’re breathing in, there could be some sense of just opening and waiting.

Self-Compassion

It’s important to be faithful to the technique. If you find that your labeling has a harsh, negative tone to it, as if you were saying, “dammit!” that you’re giving yourself a hard time, say it again and lighten up. It’s not like trying to shoot down the thoughts as if they were clay pigeons. Instead, be gentle. Use the labeling part of the technique as an opportunity to develop softness and compassion for yourself. Anything that comes up is okay in the arena of meditation. The point is, you can see it honestly and make friends with it. Although it is embarrassing and painful, it is very healing to stop hiding from yourself.

Knowing Yourself

It is healing to know all the ways that you’re sneaky, all the ways that you hide out, all the ways that you shut down, deny, close off, criticize people; all your weird little ways. You can know all of that with some sense of humor and kindness.

By knowing yourself, you’re coming to know humanness altogether. We are all up against these things. So when you realize that you’re talking to yourself, label it ‘thinking’ and notice your tone of voice. Let it be compassionate and gentle and humorous. Then you’ll be changing old stuck patterns that are shared by the whole human race. Compassion for others begins with kindness to ourselves.

If meditation was just about feeling good (and I think all of us secretly hope that is what it’s about), we would often feel like we must be doing it wrong. Because at times, meditation can be such a difficult experience. A very common experience of the meditator, in a typical day or on a typical retreat, is the experience of boredom, restlessness, a hurting back, pain in the knees—even the mind might be hurting—so many “not feeling good” experiences. Instead, meditation is about a compassionate openness and the ability to be with oneself and one’s situation through all kinds of experiences. In meditation, you’re open to whatever life presents you with. It’s about touching the earth and coming back to being right here. While some kinds of meditation are more about achieving special states and somehow transcending or rising above the difficulties of life, the kind of meditation that I’ve trained in and that I am talking about here is about awakening fully to our life. It’s about opening the heart and mind to the difficulties and the joys of life—just as it is. And the fruits of this kind of meditation are boundless.

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