This is the paper I wrote for my class.
In the book “When Things Fall Apart”, by Pema Chodron, the author displays her Buddhist perspective on life and how each and every one of us can use these ideals to develop a better sense of self and spiritually healthy lives. These Buddhist ideals become especially apparent when one reaches beyond themselves and extends a helping hand to others who are in need. In doing so a person has the chance to transcend the constant need to fulfill one’s own desires and develop a sense of compassion for those around you and the rest of the world. When you reach out to others, you are reaching out to the heart of Buddhism, which is eliminating desire and replacing it with loving kindness.
In my recent volunteer experience as a tutor for adults, many of Pema Chodron’s teachings became clearly apparent to me. Before even starting my experience as a volunteer the author’s philosophy of intimacy with fear towered over me. Then as I dove into the experience I began to understand the concept of maitri and having loving kindness for myself. Having this kindness for myself led me to another basic Buddhist concept which is the ideal of compassion and caring for others. Developing this sense of compassion helped me to realize the Buddha nature in all people and breakdown identifications I have labeled people with over the years.
I knew immediately that I wanted to have the experience of being a volunteer but yet I was not sure what type of volunteering I would be able to do. I suffer from a spinal chord injury so because of my disability I felt like my options were limited and would need a specific scenario due to my situation. Basically I was narrowing down my options to what I felt most comfortable and familiar with and was using my disability as an excuse to not face newer and more challenging experiences. My first instinct was to try to volunteer at the rehab hospital, talking and encouraging people who were going through the same experiences I went through when I broke my neck in July 2004. It would be in an environment that I was very familiar with, friends and support would be all around me and the subject matter involved would be one that I had complete confidence in. It was the safest approach I could possibly think of and most importantly would keep away the nasty emotion of fear, an emotion I wanted to avoid at all costs.
I was sadly mistaken however if I thought I could avoid fear for Pema Chodron states that, “Embarking on the spiritual journey is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown land’s. With whole hearted practice comes inspiration, but sooner or later we will also encounter fear.” Page 1.
I felt inspired at the thought of helping others but if I was to truly grow from the experience I would have to enter unknown territory and entering the unknown meant the inevitable rise of fear. Sure enough the unknown came upon me as I realized the rehab center was not going to work out and I once again read over the e-mail from a woman at a tutoring service called the ABLE center. An introductory meeting for new tutors would take place in two days and after reading over the e-mail more than enough times I hesitantly replied with a confirmation of my presence. With that I was on the verge of entering unknown land’s and becoming intimate with my fear.
The night before my first tutor experience my emotions consisted of heightened anticipation along with nervousness. I was telling myself that there was really no need to worry because whatever happens would not really matter in the grand scheme of things and what was the point in worrying about the unknown. I grew sick of the internal battle so instead I decided to turn and look fear right in the eye. According to Pema Chodron most human beings when encountered with the emotion of fear will do anything to try and get rid of it. They will push it deep down inside of themselves or find any way to forget about the emotion by drowning themselves in some sort of an addiction. Also many times people will simply forget about whatever it is that scares them by not doing it. But if someone truly wants to grow in spirit, facing fear and getting to know the unwanted emotion is essential to growth.
Pema Chodron’s asks, “How do we work with our minds when we meet our match? Rather than indulge or reject our experience, we can somehow let the energy of the emotion, the quality of what we’re feeling, pierce us to the heart.” Page 15.
By committing to an experience which instilled fear within me I was already physically facing my fears, but then I also had to internally face them. I did this by not labeling the uncomfortable emotion as bad or by any other label, and then truly letting my fear over come me. I silently spent time with fear, not by imagining negative outcomes which could occur in the future, but by absorbing the emotion of that very moment. This is what I believe Pema Chodron meant by intimacy with fear. Spending time with that which you usually would try and cast away and uncovering the deeper emotions which have been shunned over the years as something which does not belong. The truth is all emotions good and bad have a right to exist and as spiritual beings we should not hold on to the belief that we can pick and choose what we feel. Emotions come and go and each should be experienced as a sense of self so that the true self can be realized.
Whether we realize we are doing it or not, as human beings we constantly envision what we think the future is going to be like but it very rarely ever turns out the way we imagine. “Life is like that”, states Pema Chodron, “We don’t know anything. We call something bad, we call something good. But really we just don’t know.” Page 9.
Moments before my first tutor experience I was picturing a library setting. A few students would be sitting around circular tables with a couple of tutors, probably girls around my age. I would be paired up with a student and most likely work on some math, what I view as my worst subject. As I came out of the elevator doors on the fifth floor of the Dowd YMCA the situation of course was far different than anything my imagination had come up with.
Right in front of me was a room with glass window panes facing the hallway and I could make out some people sitting around a table. I knocked on a slightly open door and a middle-aged woman cheerfully answered as if she had known me my whole life. I entered the room and saw about six middle-aged women staring back at me. I could feel the ground fallout beneath me as I discovered the situation was nothing I thought it would be. Apparently I had entered a seminar and my demographic was much different than my fellow tutors. I began to feel even less steady as I listened to how the ABLE center operates. It was a much more advanced operation than a few students sitting around a library. “What have I got myself into?” I thought. But as time wore on and I began asking questions and feeling the situation out, I became settled with the fact that the unknown had once again sneaked up on me.
After the seminar ended most all the tutors left but I had got a taste of the unknown and survived, and I felt confident in facing it again. So I entered the lab to find me a student. I let one of the coordinators know that I was a good writer, or have been told so, and his eyes lit up with excitement. He led me to a room in the back where I was introduced to a young man trying to get his GED but was having some difficulties in the writing portion. When I first began reading some multiple-choice questions he was looking over my heart began to pound for what I was looking at was not easy. I knew failure was a possibility but by no means did I feel comfortable with this outcome. I made us both a lot more comfortable by simply getting to know him for a little while and after that the tutoring came much easier. It was an excellent experience and I feel I was able to give him some good insight. After a quick 2 1/2 hours had passed I left the tutoring lab with the weight of fear completely off my shoulders and it was instead replaced with the thrill of accomplishment as well as a cleansing sense of self developed through uprooting my fears, facing and releasing them. I would soon learn however that uprooting fear is not a onetime experience but will most likely last me lifetime.
Since my first experience as a tutor was a success I figured that each succeeding experience would be approached with confidence, holding the idea that I was fully capable of doing the job. Unfortunately the cuddly, warm feeling I had after my first day as a tutor was short lasting and I soon found myself already growing nervous when thinking about my second day as a tutor. The idea that I could walk in the lab and completely fail at the job loomed over my head and I could not get over that this possibility could occur. I began to beat myself up over how I was feeling and couldn’t understand why I could not grasp confidence in myself and my abilities.
Why could I not hold on to that confidence for longer? Why am I not better at math? Why am I nervous? What is wrong with me? These were the types of questions I was asking myself. I disliked myself for how I was feeling and disliked my limited capabilities in what I could teach. The Buddhist concept of maitri was nowhere to be found.
Pema Chodron defines maitri as “developing loving-kindness and unconditional friendship with ourselves.” She also states concerning maitri, “We’re not trying to solve a problem. We’re not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact we are giving up control altogether and letting concept and ideals fall apart.” Page 26.
Developing a sense of maitri would allow me to let go of everything I think I am supposed to be. I could allow everything I am to simply exist and not beat myself up over what I can’t accomplish at the present moment. With maitri I would have compassion for my weaknesses and an absolute sense of love for everything I am. Nothing would be labeled as good or bad and in releasing everything I think I am, I would have nothing to live up to and true liberation would be reached. I could fail completely and still I would exist. I could triumph with phenomenal success and still the same I would exist. If I could let maitri overcome my senses my identity would not be Colin who is good at writing and bad at math. I would not be Colin who is always nervous and should gain confidence in himself. I would be beyond all attachment to identity and anything which arose in my life would be embraced as a friend, not an enemy.
Now of course I have not fully realized maitri, so I am by no means liberated from suffering but the concept helped me to accept that failure is possible and quite OK. It also helped me to understand that there is no reason to beat myself up over my constant fluctuations of emotions. Just because pleasure is there for one minute and gone the next does not mean I’ve done something wrong. Each moment must be accepted as my experience and loved equally the same. Therefore with the concept of maitri in my heart I tried to walk into each tutor session with acceptance for my anxiety and acceptance that yes, things could completely fall apart, but I will still exist just the same, pleasure or pain.
Developing maitri and having love and compassion for oneself is the first step towards having love and compassion for others. Maitri is closely related to the Buddhist concept of emptiness, which Pema Chodron defines as not fixating or holding on to anything. It is to enter a nonjudgmental space where we can acknowledge what we are feeling and not get caught up in our own version of reality. If we love ourselves, we are not trying to constantly fix things about us, and this allows us to enter a reality where it’s not always about your self. Suddenly a huge amount of space opens up which can be filled with compassion and love for others.
“Compassion and emptiness don’t mean much until we start cultivating our innate ability simply to be there with pain with an open heart and the willingness not to instantly try to get ground under our feet.” Pema Chodron, page 81.
During my tutor sessions, if I sit with a student constantly wrapped up in my own fear of failure and always engulfed within my own insecurities, this doesn’t leave much room for compassion for someone else. But if I’m able to accept my insecurities with loving kindness (maitri) and let go of my idea of how I want the unknown to be (emptiness), I then can embrace a reality which does not revolve around me. Entering this world allows me to properly communicate with someone from the heart instead of having to filter my way through all of the self-centered labels and ideas. Creativity and a deeper connection with someone else blossoms and I found that once this connection was reached, productivity in what we were trying to accomplish skyrocketed.
During one tutor session I can remember from the moment I entered the lab I was completely wrapped up in myself. I didn’t want to be there and the only thing I was worried about was increasing the amount of volunteer hours I had gained so far. I then was paired up with a student who was working on math, percentages nonetheless, and I immediately identified myself as someone who could not help this person. But I sat with him nonetheless and spent more time looking at the clock then trying to discover how to solve the problems. It was the worst tutor experience I had had yet, the only bad experience really, and I believe it was totally due to the fact that I was wrapped up in my own world of ego, and refused to step outside of myself and enter emptiness. If I had done this, failure to help the student may have still been the result, but at least I would known that I tried my hardest and went beyond my insecurities to hopefully a level of peace with failure.
In almost all of my tutor experiences, I believe I was able to tap into at least a portion of my true self which ultimately helped to create a comfortable one-on-one connection with another human being. This true self of which I speak can also be described as Buddha nature which can plainly be described as the nature that Buddha himself was immersed within. Buddha nature is something so divine and perfect that it cannot be described in words, but can only be experienced. This is why all Buddhists will say that you must look within yourself for the truth and truly experience it rather than gain it through knowledge.
I cannot accurately describe what it feels like when I myself tap into Buddha nature but I most certainly know when I do because I feel it within me. The times during my tutor experience when I was able to see past who I think I am and simply be, I also feel like I was able to sense it in others. Part of being at peace with oneself requires to realize the divine presence in all of mankind. In my life I have developed many stereotypes of people, consciously or subconsciously, and unfortunately many of these labels have been attached to race. Through my experience as a tutor I was able to see past my surface level ideas of who people are and personally connect with their Buddha nature. This is a wonderful progression for my spiritual development because this further allows me to realize the interconnection we all share, an intertwined web of divine souls which is permeated with Buddha nature or pure spirit. As I approached certain students I found myself subconsciously labeling them but after escaping my own delusions I soon found my “self” within each of them, a “self” being much more than a name, talent, skill, or possession. A “self” Christians call the holy spirit, Hindus call God, Taoists call the Tao and Buddhists call Buddha nature. Whatever name you give it, it is the presence which binds our souls and allows life to be possible.
During my volunteer experience I was completely unable to escape Pema Chodron’s teachings. Buddhism is one avenue which can be taken by anyone who wishes to explore the deeper self. It is a journey which may shake the grounds of your foundation and may require facing fears you never knew existed. But it is a noble path of compassion, a path which can turn darkness into light, and shed the essence of purity into this world. This requires not simply understanding the concepts but experiencing them within your self through observation and absolute honesty. Deep beneath the layers, that which cannot be described, is found.