Listening to True Happiness by Venerable Pema Chödrön, reminded me of the time I heard her teach a weekend retreat called “The Places That Scare You.” At the end of her first talk, I felt as if she had specifically designed it to help me. My friend said she imagined most people in the audience felt the same. “That’s remarkable,” I replied.
Indeed, Pema is a remarkable teacher, and True Happiness is one of her most remarkable series of teachings. (I realize that in print reviews, it’s customary to refer to teachers by their last names, but this is nearly impossible for me to do, perhaps because Pema never fails to remind us that she too is just an ordinary human being struggling to apply the dharma in her day-to-day life.)
True Happiness is an edited series of talks given during a seven-week winter retreat called “Yarne” at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. Introducing the theme and purpose of the series, Pema quotes Zen master Suzuki Roshi: “Knowing life is short, enjoy it day after day, moment after moment.” In True Happiness Pema provides listeners both an overview and a wide variety of practices whose purpose is to help us follow Suzuki Roshi’s advice.
For the overwhelming majority of us, this is a lifelong training in which we should expect to encounter many obstacles and difficulties. One of Pema’s most consistent teachings is that we should be grateful when we encounter such difficulties, because how we relate to them will determine how happy our lives will be. “I so often teach about dis-comfort, things falling apart and leaning into the sharp points. . . . My underlying intention is how can we find true, solid happiness which is unshakable.”
How do we cultivate this unshakable happiness? Pema says we need to train in opening fully to everything. “What fuels misery is we never touch pain or pleasure directly, with curiosity.” But when we do touch them directly, Pema notes, both pain and pleasure will be sharper. “The real question is how to deal with this sharpness. We often can’t. We often respond habitually. Can we be okay, compassionate with this? We need humor, kindness, support in practicing being open.”
It’s said that, over the course of his life, Shakyamuni Buddha taught 108,000 dharmas in recognition of his listeners’ different temperaments and stages of practice. I think it’s in this spirit that Pema presents dozens of practices in True Happiness. Some will be quite familiar to vipassana practitioners, such as training in the percepts and maitri (metta) practice. Some may be new to us, such as training in the Four Powers (aspiration, steadfastness, joy and moderation) and tonglen (“giving and receiving”).
Tonglen is a relatively advanced Tibetan compassion practice. Pema says she teaches it so frequently because it was the practice that most taught her how to stay open to difficult feelings. In its traditional form, tonglen involves alternately breathing in all the pain, suffering and misfortunes of others and breathing out to others all one’s health, wealth and positive karma. Pema teaches variations of this practice based on the understanding that in order to have genuine compassion for others, we first need to develop genuine compassion for ourselves by opening fully to our own suffering.
My own most profound tonglen practice came a week after a dear friend told me her doctors suspected she had multiple myeloma. I spent the week following this news in a daze. I slept poorly and stopped meditating. One day, I told myself I needed to practice tonglen. Breathing in the emotional pain evoked by my friend’s diagnosis, I felt as if my heart had been jolted by an electric cattle prod. The intensity of this sensation almost knocked me off my chair. I then tried to imagine what would allow me to take in another breath of this painful sensation. There was nothing I could imagine, so about a minute after starting the tonglen practice I stopped and stood up. Spontaneously, a wave of self-compassion arose and with it the thought, “No wonder I’m not sleeping; no wonder I’m not meditating. The pain in my heart is so powerful that I can’t imagine anything that will help me hold it.” (My friend is okay; it turns out the diagnosis was inaccurate.)
In True Happiness, Pema also teaches what she calls “on-the-spot” practices—those you can do off the cushion at any time. For example, she recommends that we become mindful of small discomforts such as waiting in line. Instead of letting the discursive mind increase our discomfort, we can simply rest in its energy. There are many other formal and on-the-spot practices Pema details in this CD series. Her ability to invent new ones and modify old ones seems boundless.
Another of Pema’s great gifts is her frequent spotlighting of our cultural proclivity to self-criticism, self-blame and feeling bad about ourselves: “The greatest obstacle to happiness is . . . a lack of respect towards yourself. This is a basic problem in the West. Its antidote is lovingkindness to oneself, which is not identical to pampering. It’s total honesty. You’ve been courageous to see it all and still have respect and love for yourself.”
If these teachings inspire you, there may be nothing better to give yourself—or someone you love—than the gift of True Happiness.