Running at the challenge
Linda: In her book, When things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron describes an incident having to do with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Master who brought the Buddhist teachings to America in the sixties. Rinpoche had been in Tibet after the Chinese takeover and was traveling with his attendants, to a monastery that he’d never visited before. As they approached the gate of the monastery he saw a ferocious guard dog with huge teeth and red eyes. It was growling ferociously and struggling fiercely to get free from it’s restraining chain. The dog seemed desperate to attack them. As Rinpoche got closer her could see the details of the dog’s tongue and the spittle spraying from its mouth. He and his attendants walked past the dog and entered the gate. Suddenly the chain broke and the dog rushed at them. The attendants screamed and froze in terror. Rinpoche turned and ran as fast as he could… straight at the dog! The dog was so surprised that he ran off in the opposite direction.
The journey of awakening is not about avoiding the raging beasts of our lives, whether they show up literally as the dog in this story or figuratively, as in a mind filled with desperation, rage, or grief. We don’t have to worry about getting enough excitement. Just being alive and dealing with the unexpected challenges and surprises that present themselves provides plenty of drama. Sometimes we create “predictable” patterns in our relationships in order to feel more in control and less at the mercy of forces outside of our influence. The price that we pay for this kind of “security” is a kind of dullness and flatness that characterizes our general experience, and in the extreme can lead to feelings of depression and despair.
These are the feelings that we live with when our primary stance in life is one of protection rather than openness. When we do hit the inevitable challenges, if we haven’t had much experience practicing openness, we’re likely to freeze and find both our bodies and minds stuck or even immobilized by fear or confusion.
In learning to live in integrity with the truth of our experience rather than from a commitment to protection, we begin to cultivate the kinds of qualities that allow us to make creative and life-affirming responses to the crises and mini-crises that characterize life on the planet. Instead of collecting an arsenal of weapons that are designed to keep us in control of all possible eventualities, we cultivate virtues like honesty, compassion, creativity, humility, courage, diligence, and discernment that hold us in good stead when the inevitable breakdowns occur.
The strength and wisdom that are developed out of our commitment to face life directly equips us with the inner resources that are necessary to meet the challenges that present themselves to us, whether that may be a life-threatening diagnosis, or an argument at work.
Doing our own work doesn’t mean that we operate independently of others’ support, quite the contrary. In being open to our own truth we are able to touch others with a spirit of authenticity that invites responsible support and shared commitment. In opening ourselves to the unfolding truth of each moment we invite the world to provide the information and resources that our journey requires at the moment. As we receive this supportive input, our faith in ourselves, in our world and in the sufficiency of the truth deepens and grows. We can become more creative, playful and resourceful and simultaneously, more caring, loving and receptive to others.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and includes many wanted and unwanted companions, from raging guard dogs to divine beings. As we cultivate the practice of openness along the way, we learn to respond from the wisdom inherent in each moment, rather than to react from the imbedded program of our defensive conditioning. These responses help us to deepen our awareness that all our companions are potential teachers and allies, regardless of how dangerous and adversarial they may at first appear to be.
Einstein once said that the most important question that a person has to answer in this life is whether the universe is a friendly or an unfriendly place. What he did not say is that it is we, not the “others” of our lives that determine the answer to this question.
We can make the choice to see what it’s like to relate to our companions on the path as teachers rather than as adversaries. The gift that will come from this experiment will enhance our own life as well as the lives of many others. One of the greatest of all gifts may be the realization that we have the power to transform a wild beast to a harmless creature and a raging mind to an oasis of serenity.