Pema’s Dharma Talk on Familiarization: But anyway, the commitment, or the strong determination, is to just even ask yourself

that question: am I willing to use this as path? Then it brings us to the second one—familiarization. Because if you say, yes, I am willing, but then you feel like you’re not quite sure what to do, how to reside, then we come to the power or the strength that comes to us from taking the teachings to heart—teaching them to ourselves, using them again and again and again. So in your life, when you wake up in the morning, and you go forward into your bodhisattva day of training, the training of a gentle warrior, the training in awakening—what’s going to be your material? Well, just your usual, lousy day! It’s not going to suddenly all go your way. Sometimes it’s a good day, sometimes a bad day, sometimes good morning, bad afternoon—good from 9-10, bad from 10-11 . . . you know how it is. And it changes. So you’re just going forward into . . . that’s as unknown as death—what’s going to happen today? What’s going to happen even when I go down to breakfast, or up to breakfast, or out to breakfast, or walk down the block? So that’s kind of the spirit and that’s the commitment or the strong determination, it’s a kind of curiosity to use what happens, particularly when there’s pain—when we “meet the limits of our openmindedness.” The pain is like: I don’t want to go there. So then familiarization is taking these practices. Currently, we are working with tonglen, we are working with slogans, a slogan of the day or another slogan that is really powerful for you—becoming so familiar with them, not just by studying, but actually applying them, on the spot, in your life, and especially when things are tough. So breathing in—this week, the assignment was: if it’s painful, breath it in, and just acknowledge that other people feel this, becoming so familiar with doing that, that as you are dying, and there is physical pain and fear, you would think of all the other people, and right away, it opens it up, it makes it so much vaster, it gives it meaning. Because why—why would that occur at the moment of your death, even if it’s a very sudden death? Because you’ve been familiarizing yourself with it, day in and day out, throughout your whole life. Becoming familiar. So familiarization—and I want to talk a little bit about this, at this point. Because I feel a very strong commitment myself to practicing in a certain way, and I have been pointing to this, in this retreat, but I’d like to be a little more explicit at this point. And this is to say that, my personal practice, and the practice of a lot of other people I know, is to notice, in the time of suffering, to notice how the habitual reaction is to point ourselves away from the suffering, to try to get out of that spot.

And so the practice that I am committed to is to go right into that spot. Well, this week, I had an experience. It wasn’t really a big deal, but it actually felt like a big deal. And this was that I had the pleasure of going to a beautiful place to go swimming. And there was nobody there, it was just a lovely swimming pool in the country. And I had been going there on different days. But this day just before I went, I got a letter, and so when I got there, sitting in my car, I read the letter. Now, it was a very simple letter—a very sweet letter—but it was saying, it pointed out to me, that I had neglected to tell the right people about things, and I had basically just not told the person in charge of something, and had asked this other person to do something, and it had caused a lot of confusion and it was going to cause tremendous disappointment for this person, and it was just causing confusion. So that’s really all I need to say. But for some reason, it brought up such deep pain for me. I just couldn’t believe how strong it was. It was a feeling of, just a deep feeling of excruciating pain. And I’ve been working with the idea of getting in touch with core fear, or core shame, or core negatively held beliefs, and I thought, whew—I think I’m in it. And at that point, I said to myself, I shouldn’t be asking people to do this kind of practice, because this is scary and it’s hard. And at that point, I thought, I am not up to this—because everything in me wanted to exit. Well, before I even got to that level of awareness, I was already exiting by blaming—it was somebody else’s fault that this happened. And actually it was the blame—I got my pen out and started writing a letter to this person whose fault it was that this had occurred—and it was the realness of me putting it down there on paper—blame. I practice with, when I start blaming others—it’s not that everyone else is blameless, but blame is a major way that I point myself away from residing with pain, going deeply into it so that some transformation can happen. So in other words, for me, blaming another person is a major method of just pointing away, and then the barriers come up—me against them—in other words, I’m just rapidly running in the other direction. So I got out of the car and I walked and I sat down next to the pool, and I was in so much pain—physical, mental, I just didn’t want to go into this, but on the other hand, I have this strong commitment. Because in my case, which will not be the case for all of you (yet), I know that that’s where happiness lies. I know that unhappiness lies with all this exiting—pointing myself away. And I’ve done it enough to know that this is true. But at this point, it was so strong, and so basically I forgot all about tonglen and I forgot all about these teachings, but I was trying anything, so I was saying to myself: I am more than my thoughts and emotions. I am more than this.

That was one thing I was saying. I was also listening to my thoughts. I was acknowledging my thoughts. That’s something I practice sometimes at these times, listening to what I was saying abo ut myself and about others, and just acknowledging my thoughts. So I was trying these different things—and, nothing. No transformation was happening. Absolutely none. So finally, I just got into the swimming pool, and I started to swim lengths, and after I had swum back and forth about six times, I got to the end of the pool and I just put my elbows on the side of the pool and I just started to weep. And at that point, there came this overwhelming feeling of how we suffer as human beings. And then, not because I was trying to practice lojong, or bodhichitta or anything, but somehow in that moment—I’m sure based on lots of familiarization with this kind of thinking, just spontaneously, seemingly out of nowhere came up this reservoir of empathy. It was just available to me, and I really felt it, for my brothers and sisters in a way that was not overwhelming, in a way that connected me. And I felt a lot of love for people, and how hard it is to do this kind of work, and how no one ever gets told to do this kind of work, and what it is to be a human being on this planet at this time. And then I swam back and forth and back and forth, and afterwards I thought: actually, all I had done there, sitting by the pool, was stay somehow. I was trying to teach myself the dharma—I just—I thought it really didn’t matter what I did, there is not a formula, really. Because right then and there, if I had breathed in and acknowledged the pain on behalf of all the others, I’m sure right then and there, nothing would have shifted. But by willingness to stay, you allow the possibility of transformation to happen, you allow a process to occur, you allow for the reservoir of goodness that is in us to emerge. Now I’ve practiced this way a lot in my life, and I have to tell you that you don’t always get results. I have had many a time of sitting still with the pain of it, where nothing moved at all—ever. And I’m saying: why am I doing this? And then I’m also thinking: I have to tell people that this happens, because otherwise, you’re always looking for the reward. Frequently, you get no reward. Except that, in your life in general, it’s not linear—it’s not like this leads to that—but somehow you begin to feel lighter, and the reservoir of goodness is more and more accessible to you. So it’s hard work, it’s the work of pointing yourself into it or toward it, and how you do that—well, all I can say is—become familiar with these practices, apply them in your life, even when they feel wooden.

In the traffic jam, in the elevator, when in conflict with somebody—relationship, whenever you are in relationship—just keep thinking—making other people human to you, in whatever way feels genuine. By doing formal tonglen on the spot, by just acknowledging your pain and how it’s shared, or sending out the pleasure, or sitting in a crowded place and looking at people—or anything that you come up with that allows you to stay there. Because by the side of the pool, I forgot all of the lojong instructions—I wasn’t doing the habitual thing. I was not blaming this other person—I was looking at my thoughts. You see, I was just being a little, brave person there. And I felt completely helpless at that time, and kind of hopeless as well. But I realized in retrospect that it’s just turning yourself in that kind of direction, and it’s nothing about getting it right. So that’s the importance of familiarization. You see, you can’t just sit here during the class and listen to this, and then not apply it. Because, basically, when the retreat is over, or the lecture is over, it’s just another thing that was interesting at the time, but it will not transform you. It has to become familiar. It has to become something that you experiment with and find your own way of making it genuine to yourself. Transcribed from Be Grateful to Everyone by Pema Chodron (Part V of VII). Familiarization. The next strength is familiarization. What familiarization means is that the dharma no longer feels like a foreign entity: your first thought becomes dharmic. You begin to realize that all the teachings are about yourself; you’re here to study yourself. Dharma isn’t philosophy. Dharma is basically a good recipe for how to cook yourself, how to soften the hardest, toughest piece of meat. Dharma is good instruction on how to stop cheating yourself, how to stop robbing yourself, how to find out who you really are, not in the limited sense of “I need” and “I’m gonna get,” but through developing wakefulness as your habit, your way of perceiving everything. We talk about enlightenment as if it’s a big accomplishment. Basically, it has to do with relaxing and finding out what you already have. The enlightened “you” might be a slightly different “you” from the one you’re familiar with, but it still has hair growing out of its head, still has taste buds, and when it gets the flu, snot comes out of its nose. Enlightened, however, you might experience yourself in a slightly less claustrophobic way, maybe a completely nonclaustrophobic way. Familiarization means that you don’t have to search any further, and you know it. It’s all in the “pleasantness of the presentness,” in the very discursive thoughts you’re having now, in all the emotions that are coursing through you; it’s all in there somehow. Chodron, Pema (2010-09-14). Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living (Shambhala Classics) (p. 87). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.

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