“Now is the only time. How we relate to it creates the future. In other words, if we’re going to be more cheerful in the future, it’s because of our aspirations and exertion to be cheerful in the present. What we do accumulates; the future is the result of what we do right now.”
— Pema Chödrön
Earlier this year as I categorized the books in my library, a particular book caught my attention: When Things Fall Apart—Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön. I recalled a friend sharing this book when I was facing a significant life crossroad. Memories coursed through me as I paused to leaf through the yellow highlighted pages and handwritten notes. A specific chapter reached out to me: This Very Moment Is the Perfect Teacher.
I reflected on its rich teachings and wanted to share Pema’s wisdom. Her message may be a very different notion for you to try on, let alone agree with, so I’ll simply state: Trust an open mind.
She begins Chapter 3 with,
“Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors—people who have a certain hunger to know what is true—feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealously, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.
Each day, we’re given many opportunities to open up or shut down. The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening. It’s too much. It’s gone too far. We feel bad about ourselves. There’s no way we can manipulate the situation to make ourselves look good. No matter how hard we try, it just won’t work. Basically, life has just nailed us.
It’s as if you just looked at yourself in the mirror, and you saw a gorilla. The mirror’s there; it’s showing you, and what you see looks bad. You try to angle the mirror so you will look a little better, but no matter what you do, you still look like a gorilla. That’s being nailed by life, the place where you have no choice except to embrace what’s happening or push it away.” (When Things Fall Apart—Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön)
Many years ago, I found myself avoiding, running away, sticking my end in the sand – basically being unconscious to the “bad life stuff” that happened to me. I didn’t know how to see these experiences as teachings. I typically saw the other person as being wrong—totally disagreeing with what they did or said to me. I’d think, “How dare they!” Then, I’d call a friend who would agree with me and say, “Yes, he or she is a jerk. You’re absolutely right!”
Notice how we give plenty of attention to the negative thought patterns that seek us out day in and day out. Try as we may, that voice in our head won’t let us eliminate these thoughts. It has a power all its own and we can’t seem to quiet it. We want to ease the pain…and right now, please! We are being human – it’s what we do when on automatic pilot. Pema, however, invites us to take a different perspective: to be open, relax, and lean in.
So, how do we work with our minds when we are “being nailed by life?” First of all—notice that you don’t really want to. However, let your emotions feel what they feel. I remember once telling someone, “I can’t feel this way!” This person said, “Well you do anyway, so go ahead and feel them.” In other words, don’t just reject or deny it. Rather than look for escape, move toward the pain as best as you can. To quote Pema: “Let it pierce you to the heart.”
Pema shares an arrow and flower metaphor and concept that I found intriguing and now successfully apply it in my life. All of us have felt emotionally attacked in one way or other, perhaps betrayed, or confused. You may have found yourself in a situation that felt unbearable or unacceptable. Now, imagine that someone has just struck you with an arrow. The arrow represents the attack, be it betrayal, unkind words, disappointment, or something similar.
The arrow strikes and pierces your heart. Now, rather than strike back in counterattack, with an equal attack, you remove the arrow and allow it to change into a flower. The arrow represents pain and the flower represents openness. With this openness you become curious and aware of what’s happening within the scene. You ask:
- What can I learn from this pain?
- Has this happened to me before?
- What is life asking me to do differently?
- What’s my role in this?
- What is the truth here?
- How can I best let go?
In my personal life, I have learned to lean into the pain, get accustomed to it, make friends with it. I was able to see how I was a player in the drama and how I was keeping it alive. I took my attention off the other person, or the situation, and focused on what I could learn. I paused to answer poignant questions, like those above, which created the time and space to work through what I needed to process. I changed the pain of the arrow (metaphorically speaking) into a flower, seeing the many gifts each situation represented.
Was this easy? Absolutely not! A friend and I were talking the other day and he commented on what is easy in life. Not going to work out is easy. Not drinking eight glasses of water each day is easy. Not saying I love you and thank you enough is easy.
What is not easy is to live in truth.
I get knocked down and it hurts. However, I don’t get knocked down very often now and when I do, I don’t stay down very long. And I get stronger. Remember these three words: frequency, duration, and intensity. Strive for knock-down life events to be infrequent (your thinking determines how you view them). Limit the time the negative thoughts occupy your mind and heart. Notice you are at choice for how intense you allow them to become.
I have come to understand that life is about death, right here, every day on this planet. The word death, like sex, money, and politics, is a one of those charged words. But I think it describes perfectly what has to happen inside us – the death-of-thoughts that reflect negative conditioning and beliefs that do not serve us. Every day we can, indeed we must, choose the thoughts we let in and the ones we keep out. Rather than dwell on painful thoughts, we can use them as a way to awaken us, to make friends with our hopes and fears, again and again. To be more awake in the midst of chaos.
A good friend made a remarkable comment. She said, “It’s okay to be angry in your mind. It’s not okay to be angry in your heart.” When anger hits the heart, it becomes very destructive. At that point, forgiveness is impossible.
This very moment is the perfect teacher, and it’s always with you.
You can choose the arrow or the flower. I’ve changed many arrows into flowers and will do that for the rest of my life! For me, that is the only choice!