“If we don’t find some way to make friends with groundlessness and the ever-changing energy of life, then we’ll always be struggling to find stability in a shifting world”
— Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change
Life, like a fierce wind, can be unpredictable, and we must be open to whatever direction it blows us in. When we fight it, we only feel frustrated and unstable — instead, we must learn to embrace it and understand that sometimes, it will move us wherever it wants to. Pema Chödrön defines the “groundlessness of being human” a bit like my wind metaphor. She writes, “contacting the fundamental ambiguity of being human provides… the opportunity to experience the freedom of life without a story line.”
Without context, I resisted the idea of dropping the story line — as a lover of storytelling, that’s one of the things that gives life meaning and depth for me! But some of Chödrön’s more daunting ideas like letting go of story lines are balanced with accessible tips, like ways to practice interrupting the momentum of your thoughts when they start to carry you away. She applies this specifically to meditation, asking us to “let the thoughts go — or to label them ‘thinking’ — and stay with the immediacy of your experience.”
The structure of the book outlines the Tibetan Buddhist teachings of the “Three Commitments”: committing to not cause harm, committing to take care of one another, and committing to embrace the world just as it is. For someone like me who doesn’t know much about Buddhism, the book was a nice overview of basic Buddhist ideas like the three commitments, the eight worldly concerns, the practice of “tonglen” (Tibetan for “sending and receiving” and characterized by breathing in other people’s suffering and breathing out compassion for them), and the “charnel ground” practice, which asks us to meet our most terrifying and intense thoughts with acceptance and presence.
Chödrön presents these ideas in a kind and friendly way that is accessible for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Although the book is not very long, it’s deep. I found myself continually going back and re-reading parts to experience her brilliant writing a second time.
I have to highlight a few of my favorite moments and ideas:
- what Chödrön calls “the 90-second thing” from My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor — this references the speaker from one of my favorite TED talks and the idea that emotions are so fleeting that if we could just let them pass and stop re-igniting them, they would only last for a mere minute and a half
- Chödrön’s excellent instruction on the six points of good posture in meditation: the seat, the legs, the torso, the hands, the eyes, the mouth
- the fact that Chödrön immediately challenges the idea of a “fixed identity” or “ego-clinging” — this is something that I am actively working on!
I think the biggest difference between Pema Chödrön’s philosophy and mine is that while I am open to embracing the groundlessness of life, I’m not at a point were I can embrace it unquestioningly. Because if life blows me in an unexpected direction and it starts to make me unhappy… I would want to do something about it! To some extent, we have to take ownership of our happiness and empower ourselves to make positive change when needed. That said, I hear what Chödrön is saying here: learning to “live beautifully” is a process. And in this book, she’s just asking us to make the first step.
Are you a fan of Pema Chödrön? I’d love to hear recommendations for her other books, meditations… anything! I borrowed Living Beautifully from my friend Jackie and it was my first introduction to Chödrön’s writing. I enjoyed it so much that I might have to buy it for my library!