[Shambhala Publications, Inc., 192 pages]
Awakening Loving-Kindness was published in September 2017 and is a transcript of talks the author shared with participants during a month-long practice period—known as a dathun—that took place in 1989 at the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada, for which she is the Director.
Born in New York in 1936, Pema Chödrön is a Tibetan Buddhist, a disciple of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and an ordained nun. Having written several books based on her experiences, Chödrön’s Awakening Loving-Kindness offers many insights on living a spiritual life.
The talks featured within took place during both sitting and walking meditations, and participants were obligated to help with food preparation and maintenance of the Abbey during their stay. They were also expected to keep the five monastic vows:
- Do not lie
- Do not steal
- Do not engage in sexual relations
- Do not take the life of another
- Do not use drugs or alcohol
These talks were shared as a way to encourage participants to live wholeheartedly and appreciate the abundance found in everyday life. Chödrön covered many inspirational topics, including finding our own true nature, being kind to ourselves and letting go, as well as providing meditative techniques to help us with our spiritual practices.
We must accept ourselves as we are
We’re often very hard on ourselves, and many of us are constantly striving to be better people or to improve unwanted habits or behaviours. Our neurotic thinking tells us that once we achieve these goals, we’ll find happiness.
However, Chödrön explains that to find contentedness and meaning, we must accept ourselves as we are, right now, today. We must become friends with that person so we can “wake up” from the restrictive thinking that keeps us in a spiritual state of sleep. Through meditation, we can get to know ourselves and our basic energy, and treat ourselves as we would a close friend: with kindness and love. And with this self-acceptance comes the ability to see things as they are, to let go of our judgment and simply be present.
Insights from Tonglen meditation
Chödrön also shares some insights from the practice of Tonglen meditation, which is about bodhicitta—the awakening of the heart. With Tonglen, the focus is on both the in and out breaths, which helps practitioners cultivate fearlessness.
Fear causes us to want to protect our hearts, but by breathing in all the bad and frightening elements of our lives and breathing out love and compassion, we enable ourselves to open our hearts. It’s through this practice that we can become comfortable in the presence of our fears.
Obstacles and everyday challenges are a natural part of our life’s journey. And in her talks, Chödrön explains that when we try to avoid difficult situations, we continually add armour to protect our hearts, which causes us to hold back our full potential for a meaningful life.
To open our hearts in challenging times, we must strip ourselves of this armour one piece at a time. This is an inside job that we must do alone, as we’re the only ones who can unlock the prisons we’ve put ourselves in by keeping our hearts protected.
Our lives aren’t fundamentally about making money or cultivating prestige. Our purpose is to let go, open up and awaken by using our current situations as vehicles, whatever our occupations or activities may be.
The importance of equanimity
In Awakening Loving-Kindness, Chödrön cites a definition given by Trungpa Rinpoche, her mentor, which gives the reader clarity in regard to the subject of spiritual refuge:
Since all things are naked, clear from obscurations, there is nothing to attain or realize. The everyday practice is simply to develop a complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions and all people. A complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions to all people, experiencing everything totally without reservations or blockages, so that one never withdraws or centralizes into oneself.
Chödrön finishes with the traditional four reminders that act as foundational reasons why we should strive to return to the present moment, when we find ourselves straying into neurotic thinking about yesterday or tomorrow:
- The preciousness of our births;
- The truth of impermanence;
- The law of karma (what is put in is what comes out); and
- The futile act of continuing to return to a state of samsara—the suffering associated with focusing on the eternal cycle of birth and death.
As a whole, Awakening Loving-Kindness is a very peaceful read, and an excellent reminder of why it’s so important to be loving and kind to ourselves and to strive to live our lives in equanimity.
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