Sometimes, the perfect book comes along exactly when you need it.
In this case, the book is re-appearing, as I’ve read it before. And it’s been sitting on my bookshelf for several months before I decided to pick it up again. Nonetheless, it’s perfect.
I’ve read the work of Pema Chodron many times. Referred to me by friends and loved ones, her no-nonsense approach to compassion, fearlessness, and seeking the heart truth speaks to me on many levels. I’ve studied her words, listened to her teaching, and tried to live by her example. It’s not always easy, but it is always worth the effort.
I’ve mentioned before that my partner is having some significant health issues. I mention it again because, when someone we love has their whole world turned upside down, it affects our world, too. Where I once lived in a house of partnership and equal work, I now find myself shouldering significant responsibility, including parenting two teenagers. It took me a while to realize it, but I was living moment-to-moment, and NOT in the Zen way. I was scared, and feeling alone, and uncertain of what each day could bring.
I went out of town for a weekend, the first time leaving my partner home since his illness became so severe. I tried to cancel, but he refused me that option, saying the family would be okay. And they were, with some challenges. But being gone, and then coming home, made me realize how much I had been struggling. So I went to the bookshelf and pulled down Comfortable with Uncertainty.
If you’ve never read anything by Pema Chodron, this book is a great place to start. A collection of 108 short teachings (each less than two pages), the book is designed to share digestible teachings from a woman who is human first, Buddhist second. Chodron wasn’t always a Buddhist Nun, and she often tells the story of her husband telling her he was leaving, and her throwing a coffee cup at his head. But even with her “human” upbringing, Pema Chodron encourages us to seek the Divine within our own hearts and within the world.
This book opens with a blessing:
May all sentient beings enjoy happiness
and the root of happiness.
May we be free from suffering
and the root of suffering.
May we not be separated from the great
happiness devoid of suffering.
May we dwell in the great equanimity free
from passion, aggression, and prejudice.
From here, Comfortable with Uncertainty continues to teach the reader about bodhichitta, the concept of the awakened heart, and about maitri, loving-kindness. With these two concepts, we can begin to see more about ourselves and others in the world. And we can learn to find some comfort in unknown or unfamiliar situations.
One of my favorite chapters in the book is #74: Letting the World Speak for Itself (“Don’t Misinterpret”). In this section, we are reminded to refrain from imposing our own opinions, notions, and ideas of what something is onto an emotion, situation, or encounter. Chodron writes:
“Clarity and decisiveness come from the willingness to slow down, to listen to and look at what’s happening. They come from opening your heart and not running away.”
These teachings aren’t specifically religious, though they are taught in many religions. These teachings aren’t just Buddhist, but they are important to all people who want to open to the world and connect with others on a deeper level. Whether you read one a day, a few each month, or all in one sitting, I don’t think you can read any of this book without changing.
The ideas, the concepts, the potential for deeper connection and healing is here, if you’re willing.
My situation hasn’t changed any. My partner is still very ill, and my life is still pretty chaotic. But since I picked this book up again, having read it nearly ten years ago, I feel like I can handle the chaos a little bit better. I may not always act from a place of love and compassion (especially when it comes to people driving recklessly), but I have strength inside me that I had forgotten. I’m connecting better with my communities, and I’m not so scared all the time. If this is all I receive from reading Pema Chodron — living with less fear — I am forever grateful.
I’m curious: What book or teaching do you turn to when life sends chaos your way?