On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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Pema Chödrön directs the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada, and is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Practicing Peace in Times of War, and The Places That Scare You.
If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.
In fact, one’s whole attitude toward pain can change. Instead of fending it off and hiding from it, one could open one’s heart and allow oneself to feel that pain, feel it as something that will soften and purify us and make us far more loving and kind.
The Buddha taught that there are three principal characteristics of human existence: impermanence, egolessness, and suffering or dissatisfaction. According to the Buddha, the lives of all beings are marked by these three qualities. Recognizing these qualities to be real and true in our own experience helps us to relax with things as they are.
War and peace start in the hearts of individuals. Strangely enough, even though all beings would like to live in peace, our method for obtaining peace over the generations seems not to be very effective: we seek peace and happiness by going to war. This can occur at the level of our domestic situation, in our relationships with those close to us.
In Taoism there’s a famous saying that goes, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the ultimate Tao.” Another way you could say that, although I’ve never seen it translated this way, is “As soon as you begin to believe in something, you can no longer see anything else.”
Gampo Abbey is a vast place where the sea and the sky melt into each other. The horizon extends infinitely, and in this vast space float seagulls and ravens. The setting is like a huge mirror that exaggerates the sense of there being nowhere to hide. Also, since it is a monastery, there are very few means of escape — no lying, no stealing, no alcohol, no sex, no exit.