Facing what scares us is Pema Chödrön's signature topic. A glance at the book and audio titles of the most beloved female Western Buddhist teacher provides a first-aid kit for handling life: When Things Fall Apart, we have No Time to Lose so that we Start Where We Are, and go to the Places That Scare You. These slogans encapsulate Pema's heart advice. Where everybody else tells us to run away, to distract ourselves, to seek comfort, or even to retaliate, Pema Chödrön always nudges us to stay in the present moment where it hurts -- raw, naked, and uncomfortable.
The first sentence in her most successful book, When Things Fall Apart, reads: "Embarking on the spiritual journey is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown lands." Where other teachers might promise their students that meditation will make them feel better, more peaceful, and more grounded, Pema breaks the bad news (or good news, if you're fond of the truth) right at the beginning: There is no solid ground to be found, at least not in Buddhism, certainly not in her teachings, nor anywhere else.
The first time I met Pema, about ten years ago, in the Colorado mountains, she was not sitting on a stage or wearing robes. In an old pair of work pants and a worn maroon pullover, she was lounging on the wooden bench in front of the tool shed at the retreat center of her teacher Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. This is where she spends the bulk of her time now: in retreat, either in Colorado or in Nova Scotia at the monastery Gampo Abbey that she helps guide. She is probably the first American Tibetan Buddhist nun who became fully ordained and has established the Pema Chödrön Foundation to support her monastic community, yet she teaches no more than two or three public programs per year, with opportunities to meet her in person becoming exceedingly rare. In fact, she has worked hard to be left alone for most of the time and just spent another year entirely in retreat despite the urgent wish of millions to connect with her. "It is a popular notion that people choose to live in a monastery to escape or hide from the world," Pema says about life at Gampo Abbey, "In reality, the intensity and simplicity of abbey life demand that we become more intimately involved with life, a life not driven by personal concerns or habitual patterns."
Pema's teachings are a rare gift, and what I love most about her is that her success is surely also grounded in the fact that she herself embodies her own advice. "The first step is to develop unconditional friendship with yourself," she taught at a weekend in the Bay Area. "Unconditional friendship means staying open when you want to shut down, when it is just too painful, too embarrassing, too unpleasant, too hateful what you see in yourself. The first step is looking at yourself with a feeling of gentleness and kindness."
This is a precise description of Pema Chödrön herself. She is extremely easy to be with; everything is simple and straightforward around her, with no posturing necessary. I had the good fortune of spending some time with her in the mountains, which sparked the research for a chapter about her in my book Dakini Power that describes the lessons she learned when her own life fell apart, and her transformation from the Catholic elementary school teacher named Deirdre Blomfield-Brown into a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and one of the most successful Western Buddhist teachers. She is the teacher I am personally most indebted and grateful to.
She often teaches about curiosity as the key ingredient of her spiritual life, and she does indeed appear to look out on life constantly wondering, open minded, with an almost childlike curiosity. She never forgets to thank anybody who does her the smallest favor, and despite being a successful bestselling author and teacher, she has no detectable arrogance whatsoever. When I carried a few propane tanks to her retreat cabin, she gave me a color painting of a joyful nun as a gift, with one of her favorite lines from the Buddhist teachings: "Always keep only a joyful mind!" It still hangs above my desk, because it reminds me of her: Even when weighed down with back pain or other sorrows, she lives up to that slogan, keeping a joyful spirit.
With her 77th birthday approaching next month, she has made a birthday wish: practicing peace. We can`t work for peace in the world unless we practice it within ourselves, right? Pema has recorded a teaching just for this occasion for the people participating in the world wide retreat, offering advice, encouragement, and meditation instruction for anyone willing to share her birthday wish. Last year, 11.000 people participated. Her deepest hope is that this will help us plant the seed of peace in our own hearts, in our homes and in our communities Happy birthday, Pema!
An eye-twinkling comparison of Pema Chödrön with an icon from a different era
Copyright by the artist Noa P. Kaplan who offered this collage to Pema at the Smile at Fear Retreat in the Bay Area
Here is an example of her teaching on what it means to be fully alive: