The first image is a drawing/painting I did of a photograph by Sally Mann. I was experimenting with using a middle tone paper, doing a light pencil drawing and covering parts of it with washes. My image is not really true to the photograph, especially the areas I painted with white, but I like the effect. Sort of primitive and elemental. The second image, done on the same paper, is a pencil portrait of the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. This is a preliminary study. I plan to paint a couple of portraits based on this one, one in watercolor or gouache and one in acrylic. I respect and admire this woman. Listening to her audio talks and reading her books has even made me contemplate becoming a Buddhist nun at some point in my life.
I picked up from the library a book by her called When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times and an audiobook called This Moment Is The Perfect Teacher. I've read nine short chapters of the book and listened to two hours of the audiobook and, as usual, they are substantial. I wish she could be my teacher, but there is no way that is happening, except indirectly through her books and audio recordings. Still, I decided that I need some kind of guidance from an actual Buddhist teacher or two and since I live too far away to have a face to face teacher, I signed up for an online course in Buddhism in which I will have email correspondence with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and a senior student. I did this yesterday, somewhat impulsively, but not really. I had been contemplating doing something like this for a long time and the moment seemed ripe and so I went ahead and committed to it. I have to wait till I get the study guides before I can begin my dialogue with the teachers. These last couple of days I have been taking the time to meditate and I've been reflecting on Pema Chodron's instruction.
At one point in her book, she writes "Abandon hope." That sounds so dreary, so desperate, but that's not how she means it. What she means is that we are caught in a cycle between fear and hope. In abandoning hope, we get a rare chance to face our fears. Our greatest fear is that we will die and the truth is that we all will die, there is no way around that. It is a fact of life. So abandon hope that we will not die and while you're at it, abandon hope that you will someday be happy, that is that someday you will feel no more pain and discomfort because another truth is that pain and discomfort will be with us until we die. These are the hard facts that we keep trying to run away from and disguise, but once you stop and face them, they lose their power. The fact that we will surely die is a wake up call to treat every present moment as something precious. All we have is the present moment, the past and the future do not exist and yet we indoctrinate ourselves with these ideas as if they have validity. They are illusions. Then there is pain and discomfort that is necessary, like learning not to put your hand in fire or learning that the blade of a knife can make a deep cut in flesh. We need to know our limits and pain tells us what they are. But then there is unnecessary suffering such as low self esteem or fruitless anxiety and panic attacks. If we abandon hope of someday being happy and sit with the truth of our present experience, we take the blinders off our eyes. Then we can look closely at just what we do, our patterns and reactive behaviors. It takes a lot of courage to do this, but it can be done. Once we see what we do that hurts ourselves, we can begin to alter our behavior and change deeply rooted patterns of misery.
Misery sounds like such a strong word, as does the word suffering. But do you suffer? I soften it and say to myself that I feel discomfort on and off throughout the day. I shift from hopeful to fearful and back again, depending on what I happen to be doing or thinking. There is this constant moving from one thing to another, running away from either discomfort or realization of basic truths such as I cannot control life. You know, shit happens, that's life. Put that way, it's kind of funny, but when it happens to you, that unexpected bad thing, it is not funny at all. So you cannot control life, or people or even yourself in many ways. So what do you do, where do you start? There's no way around it, you have to pay attention to yourself in the present moment. If you don't, you just get swept along by various impulses. You have to be your own doctor, your own therapist, your own teacher and most especially, your own friend. Buddhists call paying attention to yourself in the present moment mindfulness or waking up. When you do this, you accept responsibility for yourself. Light awareness of your breath is a very important part of being mindful, being present, awake, aware. It can both calm and center you at the same time.
It seems as if it should be easy, just breathe and pay attention and what? everything will be okay? But it is not easy and even if you can do it, all your problems will not suddenly disappear. So why do it? Because of unnecessary suffering and a dissatisfaction with the status quo. The status quo is continually grasping at hope and pleasure and continually running away from fear and pain. It's a tiresome way to live. One of the points is to let go of hope and fear and sit with things as they are. If you are always hoping, then you are ignoring the excellent qualities of the present moment and obviously if you are afraid you are needlessly suffering. The way out of this is through it. You sit with what you are feeling and you feel it while paying light attention to your breath. You don't grasp at it or run away, you co-exist with it and as you do the hope and fear begin to dissolve and you are left with openness, peace, contentment. But, of course, that's not the end of the story, the hope and fear return again and again and so you begin your training and your practice. Pema Chodron calls this the training of the warrior. The more you train, the more you acquire the skill to lessen unnecessary suffering, the more you wake up. And as you wake up, you deepen your compassion for yourself and others.
Somehow, even though I am a beginner at all of this, I can feel the truth in what Pema Chodron and many other Buddhist teachers are trying to teach. I have moved towards and away from it repeatedly over the years. I have moved away from it because it is hard to embrace. It is hard to face the fact that I will die, sooner or later, and that I will always struggle with discomfort of one sort or another. It is also hard to sit with fear and accept it. It is hard to meditate and be mindful throughout the day and evening. It is hard to refrain from harmful behaviors and attitudes. But it is the hard things that are ultimately the most worthwhile, if you can stick with the practice and the training. This I believe.
Hope is about living for a future time, but there is no future time. There is only now.