I painted this portrait about two years ago and I have hung it in my living room where I can see it often. It was such a pleasure to capture a likeness of this woman who I think is a wonderful person and teacher. I look up to her as an example of the best that the human species has to offer, a person of integrity willing to go the distance to promote peace and healing here on this troubled planet.
Pema Chodron was born in July of 1936 in my hometown, New York City. She celebrated her 76th birthday this past summer. She became a Buddhist nun in 1974 after having been an elementary school teacher in New Mexico and California and after having given birth to two children. When she decided to become a nun she was still young enough to be open to the Buddhist teachings and teachers (especially her root teacher Chogyam Trungpa), but old enough to have a lot of life experience with being a wife, mother and teacher. These skills served her well as she moved from being a dedicated Buddhist student to being a Buddhist teacher in her own right.
I discovered Pema Chodron at a crucial point in my life, only a couple of months after my last psychotic break eleven years ago. I had only just decided to commit to taking the anti-psychotic medications; I mark my entry into recovery from severe mental illness from that point on. I bought a six audiotape program by Pema Chodron called Awakening Compassion: Meditation Practices For Difficult Times. I responded right away to her down to earth style, her intelligence and humor and honesty. I confess that I chose her audio program not only because she was teaching about Buddhism, which I had been interested in since before I became ill, but because she was an American woman. I needed a female role model to teach me, a mentally ill, middle aged woman, how to follow a spiritual practice that would help guide me through my symptoms and, at the same time, deepen my connection to the people I encountered in my life. She offered me a way to begin and several practices to follow in my day to day existence.
I began to collect other audio programs as well as books by Pema Chodron. During the early stages of my recovery her voice and words and the Buddhist teachings she taught on were like a lighthouse beacon when I began to get lost. She radiated both common sense and a wholesome goodness and I came to trust her overall guidance. I live in a rather isolated place that has an almost entirely Christian population with little access to Buddhist teachers or community. And so I came to rely on books, audiobooks and some information and community on the internet. More than half of my studies were devoted to Pema Chodron, but I also studied such teachers as Thich Nhat Hanh, Alan Watts, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, Ram Dass, Chogyam Trungpa and Robert Thurman. I read and listened, took notes and meditated, but more than that I took what I was learning to heart and began applying it to my life.
I thought about the value of patience as I sat waiting for my brother to finish shopping so that we could get home before dark. I thought about the value of generosity and the deep bonds it creates in friendships as I offered the use of my car to a new friend who could neither afford to repair her vehicle or to pay for the monthly insurance. I thought about the value of honesty as I continued to write and talk to myself in my audio journal, passing on what I'd learned to the people who read this blog and to the people in my life. I especially took the Tibetan Buddhist mind training slogans "Always maintain only a joyful mind" and "Be grateful to everyone" to heart.
In the moments when my spirits flagged and I was heading towards a depressed kind of circular thinking, I would pause and remember to be joyful. Just saying aloud "Always maintain only a joyful mind" made me smile with relief. It was as if I had just given myself permission to be happy, to be content with the advantages and limitations of my situation, of my life. I have a refrigerator magnet that says "Count your blessings" and when I aimed to be joyful that's what I did. I found joy in my easy breathing, in all the space around me, in the shelter of my home and the light that came in through the windows. Joy in the ability to move, in my senses, in the ticking of the clock, in the fond attention of my cats. I took and continue to take much comfort and guidance from the basic goodness of the stuff of existence. Amidst all that goodness I also felt my own essential goodness as both a witness of life and a participant in it.
What Pema Chodron has done for me is to help me believe in Buddha Nature or the essential goodness in everything inanimate and alive. I think I spent much of my youth and adulthood in the shadow of the concept of original sin even though I wasn't raised with Judeo-Christian religion at home. By the time my parents got married they were ex-Catholics and had rejected the concept of God or a higher power, but shame and guilt had unfortunately been instilled in them early on. I think I followed my mother when I began to believe that there was something wrong with me and along with that shame came a sense of guilt, too. I had too much and I didn't feel as if I had earned it and I thought that there was something wrong with not just me, but with my family.
Pema Chodron has said on many occasions that self-denigration is one of the biggest obstacles to acquiring wisdom, that and always blaming others while ignoring our own faults. And so we swing from two poles, seeing ourselves as either less than or more than others when in truth we are all on the same playing field or, as Pema likes to say, in the same boat. Much of my suffering came from believing that I was different and less qualified than other people. Because I believed this I cultivated a tendency to pull into myself and by the time I had my first nervous breakdown that pattern was deeply entrenched. It was my mysterious voices that alternately helped and tormented me into reaching out to help others in a community with very little mental health resources. To my surprise, I found that in helping others, they helped me to cut through my isolation and they gave me a warm place to occupy and some purpose. I was an odd mixture of both insanity and sanity, at times succumbing to the force of my delusions and other times keeping them hidden from others.
Before I moved away from New York City, I shamed myself; afterwards I began a relationship with someone who took my sense of shame and amplified it into a potent mixture of shame and resentment. Those two negative emotions would eventually grow into an outbreak of schizophrenia. When the voices overtook my life they quite plainly forced me to be useful in a way that I had not ever been before. They turned me upside down and there was much pain and suffering, but part of it was because I held on to the sickness that I had oddly nurtured over the years. Through Pema Chodron's wise guidance I began to see, after years of struggle, that encountering and overcoming obstacles is a spiritual path in itself and that many people are on that path; it is not just me alone.
My self imposed isolation is on the wane. I will always need a lot of time alone being creative in one way or another, but my heart has thawed out and I am including other people in my life. I realize now what I didn't believe before, that we are all interconnected in a magical web and that I've always belonged here. Pema Chodron has been for me the best of guides through the twists and turns of my mental illness always pointing out possible healthy paths to take. Pema Chodron's message is the same as Jesus' message and Buddha's message: Practice lovingkindness towards yourself and spread it out towards all others. Call it what you will, love, compassion, tolerance, generosity, gentleness, patience -- all of it is the basis for spiritual practice for any living person and a collective spiritual practice of love, preferably at all times, is the only available key to finally change the face of humanity individual by individual. I am not enlightened, but I think I am on the mend because I am more awake to the profound meaning behind Buddha Nature. Thank you Ani Pema.