Book Review: Awakening Loving-Kindness

Chodron Pema

Shambhala 1996, ISBN 1570622590

How to live in the now, stay where you are, not fan the flame and like yourself – just the way you are.

Andrew Weiss in his Beginning Mindfulness ( New World Library £15.99) says you can do it walking, driving, washing the dishes, turning on the television and preparing the food. His book gives you the wordspeak for any of these actions, phrases which repeated over and over will bring you into a state of Zen. Most meditation teachers, however, do recommend a quiet space.

Thich Nhat Hanh in his Blooming of the Lotus (Beacon Press £14.95) offers gathas, short poems that you repeat on the in and out-breath, an activity that gives your over active monkey mind a pole to climb while you aim for Nirvana.

But my favourite teacher on the subject is Pema Chodron, the American Tibetan Buddhist nun, whose little pocket sized text is a mind-opener on the subject. Awakening Loving Kindness (Shambhala £8.20 ISBN 1-57062-259-0) advises you to “start where you are,” which has to be a sound beginning.

Chodron reassures that you don’t have to cut yourself off from all distractions. The aim is to include the intrusion, not to be phased by it. The same time, same place every day is recommended, since it’s a habit you’re trying to form and a pattern you’re trying to break. Some people are morning sitters and others prefer evening. You just have to sit and see.

The focus with all of the experts is on the breath. We used to sit with eyes glued to a candle or lotus flower or object of beauty with our bodies rigid and our eyes fixed. The focus now is softer. The gaze is relaxed. The body should be straight but not tight. Chodron compares it to “holding the reins, not too slack, not too tight.”

The dog barking, the postman delivering, the ubiquitous mobile phone ringing (usually somebody else’s), even the curl from your incense stick ascending…all this you just note. Whatever moves or sounds- you let it be. These are nothing to the voicespeak in your head. Chodron calls this distraction “the dogs yelping” and advises you to just say -“Thinking.” The theory is that if you don’t give it your attention it will just get tired and give up. It won’t go away altogether warns Chodron but it will become a lot less demanding. She suggests that you might imagine that you are “touching these thoughts very lightly, like a feather touching a bubble. Let the whole thing be soft and gentle but at the same time precise.” Gentleness is a major player in Chodron’s vocabulary. The tone of voice in which you say “thinking “ is a critical giveaway to your level of Bodhichitta or open-heart. The aim is not to beat yourself up but to gently, firmly bring yourself into the now. Only 25% of the attention goes on the out-breath which is a far cry from meditation practice of yore.

Feelings will come up, says Chodron, but again you simply notice them. You may ask where in the body you feel them. The continued gentle focus on the breath opens the body, relaxes the chest and softens the gnarled belly. The feelings won’t disappear either, according to Chodron, but ”you don’t fan the flames either” with your habitual storyline on every event.

The aim is to get to know yourself better, to recognize when you are spinning out the story, escalating the suffering. Meditation teaches you to drop the script. Chodron does not advocate repression either. ”I’m talking about realizing hurricaneness, or,  if it’s a calm day, calmness. I’m saying that when there’s a forest fire don’t resist that power…that’s you.” She also asks you not to act it out either.

Reading Chodron I am reminded that meditation is not necessarily about trance or transcendence. It’s about developing compassion and getting to like myself “just the way I am.” Move over Bridget Jones. Who needs D’Arcy anyway?

Cathy Leonard is a trained teacher and homeopath, working in Lifechanges in Blackrock. Her passion is writing and my aspiration is to meditate with ease.