Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears

by Pema Chӧdrӧn

Pema Chӧdrӧn is a Buddhist nun. She writes about “unhooking” ourselves from negative thoughts and emotions.

She tells a story about a Native American grandfather who explains to his grandson the catalyst for violence and cruelty in the world. “He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind. The young man asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. And the grandfather answered, ‘The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed.’” The author explains that emotions have very short natural lifespan, but we extend that “by feeding it with an internal conversation about how another person is the source of our discomfort… This is a very ancient habit.”

This first step is to recognize when this is happening. The Tibetan word shenpa is traditionally translated as attachment. “An Alternate translation might be hooked… Shenpa is preverbal, but it breeds thoughts and emotions very quickly.”

The next step is to pause. “When we’re in a tight spot, we can experiment with not strengthening the aggression habit and see what happens. Pausing is very helpful in this process. It creates a momentary contrast between being completely self-absorbed and being awake and present.”

“The primary focus of this path of choosing wisely, of this training to de-escalate aggression, is learning to stay present… The truth is, anyone who’s ever tried meditation learns really quickly that we are almost never fully present.”

“One way to practice staying present is to pause, look out, and take three deep breaths… Just allow for a gap in your discursive mind… We can learn to accept the present moment as if we had invited it, and work with it instead of against it.”

“We contact whatever we’re experiencing and go beyond liking or disliking by breathing in and opening. Then we breathe out and relax…  This process has a leaning-in quality. Breathing in and leaning in are very much the same. We touch the experience, feeling it in the body if that helps, and we breathe it in.”

“Instead of blaming our discomfort on outer circumstances or on our own weakness, we can choose to stay present and awake to our experience, not rejecting it, not grasping it, not buying the stories that we endlessly tell ourselves. This is priceless advice that addresses the true cause of suffering—yours, mine, and that of all living beings.”

“The next time you’re getting worked up, experiment with looking at the sky… We’re so engrossed in our storyline that we lose our perspective… Being open and receptive to whatever is happening is always more important than getting worked up and adding further aggression to the planet, adding further pollution to the atmosphere… This is the spirit of delighting in what we see rather than despairing in what we see. It’s the spirit of letting compassionate self-reflection build confidence rather than becoming a cause for depression.”

Chӧdrӧn notes that when we recognize ourselves getting hooked “our usual tendency is to use that as a reason to get discouraged, a reason to feel really bad about ourselves. Instead, we could realize how remarkable it is that we actually have the capacity to see ourselves honestly, and that doing this takes courage… This involves, fundamentally, learning to stay present, but learning to stay with a sense of humor, learning to stay with loving kindness toward ourselves and with the outer situation, learning to take joy in the magic ingredient of honest self-reflection. Chӧgyam Trunpa called this ‘making friends with ourselves.’”

“We’re in this interesting middle state, somewhere between not always caught and not always able to resist biting the hook. This is called ‘the spiritual path.’ In fact, this path is all there is. How we relate moment by moment to what is happening on the spot is all there really is.”

“Natural intelligence is always accessible to us. When we’re not caught in the trap of hope and fear, we intuitively know what’s the right thing to do… The wisdom, the strength, the confidence, the awakened heart and mind are always accessible, here, now, always. We are just uncovering them… We are not inventing them.”

Chödrön, Pema. Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, 2009. Buy from Amazon.com

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