This weekend was so intense and packed full of stories, I decided to write about it in three parts:
1) my interaction with Pema
2) nutrition and lifestyle musings
3) emotional and spiritual experiences/epiphanies
Part 1: Making Pema Laugh
I knew this post would be a challenge to write. So, I made sure I had a big salad to get my head clear.
How do I write about something that was 10 years in the making? How do I use my limited command of the English language to express the ineffable? I'll make the most of what I have and do my best. That's the theme for this post, in general.
So, this past weekend, I met Pema Chodron. That name may mean nothing to you, so I will tell you a bit about what it means to me.
Ten years ago, two friends saw my intense suffering over the end of my first love. They handed me a CD and a book by Pema. I listened to the CD laying under a tree one day and had to stop because I had chest pains. That was my first experience of having an anxiety attack.
A few months later, I tried reading When Things Fall Apart. It didn't penetrate because I was still so consumed in my habitual patterns and endless thoughts.
That went on for about four more years, so I will move more quickly to the a-ha moment I had in 2007. I was suffering over another break-up (different girlfriend, this time) and, as I reached for yet another Pema Chodron CD to bring me back from yet another emotional brink, I heard myself say out loud, "I need to start having a regular practice and listen to her more frequently. Not just when I'm panicking after everything goes wrong. I need to catch this shit before it gets to this point."
Boom. It's what Pema calls a flash of lightning in the dark night. The flash of bodhichitta: the inspiration to be free of my own suffering so I can help others be free of theirs.
Brilliant. Now I was really hooked.
For the next few years, I did just that. I developed a more regular habit of reading her books, listening to her CDs but still not, regrettably, having a regular seated meditation practice. That's ok. It's yet another area where I need to grow.
In addition to reading and listening to Pema more often, I also became a certified health coach. It's incredible what different food and lifestyle habits will do for one's patience and emotional stability. I'm here to testify. During the next few years, I did the VERY hard work of taking on my BIGGEST fears and overcoming my BIGGEST blocks.
I wasn't trying to win the Buddhist of The Year award. I was just trying to have less drama, tears, and suffering on a daily basis.
It worked. Or rather, it's working.
To celebrate my most recent fear-conquering life change, my then-girlfriend gifted me with a ticket to attend a retreat in Vermont where Pema would be teaching. I was going to go myself, and it took about a week for me to allow myself to receive the gift. Worthiness and gratitude, those are some intense and difficult growing edges for me this year. It makes sense, seeing as this year I'm celebrating transitioning to male--a gift I've given myself after living as a female for 34 years. The amount of courage and self-love it took to do that may look easy from a distance, perhaps. It's not easy at all.
So, we drive up there. It's damn gorgeous and I am elated to be getting away for a break for the first time this year. I feel numb to the actual reality that I'll be in the same room as Pema. I'll be in the presence of this woman who, through her work and her teachings, has provided me such wisdom and comfort for 10 years. How do I mentally and emotionally prepare for that?
How did I prepare? By focusing on where I was seated. We had arrived on time but others had filled the seats closest to the front. I succumbed to feeling dejected and frustrated and I instantly made plans to arrive earlier the next day. Great way to start a weekend about non-attachment, eh? Yeah, great. At least I noticed it. Then I sat in my seat in the back and said aloud, "I feel sad I won't be able see her very well." And then, I let it go. That's what she has taught me to do, after all. Drop the storyline and let it go. I chose to be grateful to even be there, instead of focusing on being a few feet closer to the front.
Within minutes, I was taught a profound lesson. As we finished up the morning's 50-minute meditation session (quite an intense but welcomed workout), I notice people moving in my peripheral vision off the right. Who was approaching the door, a mere 2 feet from my seat? Pema, herself. Our seats were right beside the door where she entered the shrine room, so I was greeted with her gaze and her smile not once, not twice but four times that day as she entered and exited for two teaching sessions. I took each opportunity to smile as brightly as possible and infuse as much love, compassion and gratitude as I was able to in the moment. I made the most of that incredible good fortune of seating location. And I made the most of my grasping at initially wanting to sit closer to her, and how it felt to forgive myself for wanting and needing that.
I ended up being so close, in fact, her little red shoes were right beside me.
As Pema moved to the raised platform where she'd be teaching, I was in a daze. She was here. I was here. This was really happening. All those minutes and hours and weeks and years of listening to her witty and accessible wisdom during my darkest moments of despair had led me to this moment. I was sitting here, as student in her physical presence. I was sitting there, listening to her very familiar voice and witnessing her very familiar sassy delivery of these ancient teachings about happiness, suffering and the link between the two.
So, naturally, I thought of how I could make the most of the opportunity. How could I take what was already an incredible life experience and live it out the best I could? I had been sitting with a question for so long, now was my opportunity to ask a master. I set my intention clearly to act if given the chance.
Pema called on about 6 people and when I asked a staff member if that was the limit, he replied yes. But I noticed other people getting up to the microphone. I wrestled with my discomfort when I saw that. I pondered doing the same but I decided to honor her and sit still and wait, following the advice of the staff member who said, "when she calls on more, make a big deal--wave a sign for something."
I wasn't going to make sign, but I appreciated his support and advice. I did use the time to get clear on my question. I got clear on the reasons why I wanted to ask it. I got clear---and when she designated more time for questions I shot my hand high in the air from the back of the room. Our eyes met. She smiled and pointed to me. As I stood to approach the microphone, my legs were shaking. A warmth spread all over my body. I've met many amazing and famous people in my life, and this was going to be another one of those moments.
And this time, just like all the others, it wasn't about meeting a celebrity or getting an autograph. It was about being able to share an experience with someone who chose to stand out on this planet of ours. It was about interacting with a person in this lifetime who is an inspiration to me and many others. With each encounter, I've advanced on my own path, and gained greater wisdom, so I can have a bigger impact with my work.
As I approached the mic and she got settled with a glass of water, my legs shook. After ten years of waiting, I met her gaze and smiled. I asked her a question that has been on my mind and our rapport over the next several minutes had the crowd of 300+ people roaring with laughter. I made Pema laugh. We had fun together. Does life get better than that?!
You probably want to know what I asked her. And I'll tell you, in subsequent posts.
After we shared several minutes of conversation in front of this great crowd, I thanked her and stepped away from the mic. I returned to my seat, so grateful for my courage to raise my hand and create that experience for myself. At the end of my life, I will have so many incredible memories, and each one is from my own creation or from my decision to receive opportunities presented to me. There are good memories and not so good ones. All of them are valuable and precious.
That was wisdom I gleaned from Pema, from one of my greatest teachers. We all have the opportunity each day to receive ultimate happiness, joy and freedom from suffering or to reject it.
The rest of the weekend was full of so many incredible experiences, I'll need to share them over several posts but this was the theme, the message, loud and clear. If you have an unpleasant experience, make the most of it. If it's a great opportunity, make the most of it.
Bring gratitude and compassion and love (for self and all others) into each moment the best you can.
Now, off I go to get started on that regular seated meditation of mine...