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What To Do When The Going Gets Rough
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What To Do When The Going Gets Rough

By Pema Chödrön

Pema Chödrön on four ways to hold our minds steady and hearts open when facing difficult people or circumstances.

The most straightforward advice on awakening enlightened mind is this: practice not causing harm to anyone—yourself or others—and every day, do what you can to be helpful. If we take this instruction to heart and begin to use it, we will probably find that it is not so easy. Before we know it, someone has provoked us, and either directly or indirectly, we've caused harm.

Therefore, when our intention is sincere but the going gets rough, must of us could use some help. We could use some fundamental instruction on how to lighten up and turn around our well-established habits of striking out and blaming.

The four methods for holding our seat provide just such support for developing the patience to stay open to what's happening instead of acting on automatic pilot. These four methods are:

1. not setting up the target for the arrow,

2. connecting with the heart,

3. seeing obstacles as teachers, and

4. regarding all that occurs as a dream.

First, if we have not set up the target, it cannot be hit by an arrow. This is to say that each time we retaliate with aggressive words and actions, we are strengthening the habit of anger. As long as we do this, without doubt, plenty of arrows will come our way. We will become increasingly irritated by the reactions of others. However, each time we are provoked, we are given a chance to do something different. We can strengthen old habits by setting up the target or we can weaken them by holding our seat.

Each time we sit still with the restlessness and heat of anger we are tamed and strengthened. This is instruction on cultivating the root of happiness. Each time we act on the anger or suppress it, we escalate our aggression; we become more and more like a walking target. Then, as the years go by, almost everything makes us mad. This is the key to understanding, at a completely real and personal level, how we sow the seeds of suffering.

So this is the first method: remember that we set up the target and only we can take it down. Understand that if we hold our seat when we want to retaliate—even if it's only briefly—we are starting to dissolve a pattern of aggression that will continue to hurt us and others forever if we let it.

Second is the instruction for connecting with the heart. In times of anger, we can contact the kindness and compassion that we already have.

When someone who is insane starts to harm us, we can easily understand that she doesn't know what she is doing. There is the possibility of contacting our heart and feeling sadness that she is out of control and is harming herself by hurting others. There is the possibility that even though we feel fear, we do not feel hatred or anger. Instead we might feel inspired to help this person if we can.

Actually, a lunatic is far less crazy than a sane person who harms us, for that so-called sane person has the potential to realize that in acting aggressively he is sowing seeds of his own confusion and dissatisfaction. His present aggression is strengthening future, more intense habits of aggression. He is creating his own soap opera. This kind of life is painful and lonely. The one who harms us is under the influence of patterns that could continue to produce suffering forever.

So this is the second method: connect with the heart. Remember that the one who harms us does not need to be provoked further and neither do we. Recognize that, just like us, millions are burning with the fire of aggression. We can sit with the intensity of the anger and let its energy humble us and make us more compassionate.

Third is the instruction on seeing difficulties as teachers. If there is no teacher around to give us direct personal guidance on how to stop causing harm, never fear! Life itself will provide opportunities for learning how to hold our seat. Without the inconsiderate neighbor, where will we find the chance to practice patience? Without the office bully, how could we ever get the chance to know the energy of anger so intimately that it loses its destructive power?

The teacher is always with us. The teacher is always showing us precisely where we're at—encouraging us not to speak and act in the same old neurotic ways, encouraging us also not to repress or dissociate, encouraging us not to sow the seeds of suffering. So with this person who is scaring us or insulting us, do we retaliate as we have one hundred thousand times before, or do we start to get smart and finally hold our seat?

Right at the point when we are about to blow our top or withdraw into oblivion, we can remember this: we are warriors-in-training being taught how to sit with edginess and discomfort. We are being challenged to remain and to relax where we are.

The problem with following these or any instructions is that we have a tendency to be too serious and rigid. We get tense and uptight about trying to relax and be patient.

This is where the fourth instruction comes in: it is helpful to think about the person who is angry, the anger itself, and the object of that anger as being like a dream. We can regard our life as a movie in which we are temporarily the leading player. Rather than making it so important, we can reflect on the essencelessness of our current situation. We can slow down and ask ourselves: "Who is this monolithic me that has been so offended? And who is this other person who can trigger me like this? What is this praise and blame that hooks me like a fish, that catches me like a mouse in a trap? How is it that these circumstances have the power to propel me like a Ping-Pong ball from hope to fear, from happiness to misery?" This big-deal struggle, this big-deal self, and this big-deal other could all be lightened up considerably.

Contemplate these outer circumstances, as well as these emotions, as well as this huge sense of me, as passing and essenceless, like a memory, like a movie, like a dream. When we awaken from sleep we know that the enemies in our dreams are an illusion. That realization cuts through panic and fear.

When we find ourselves captured by aggression, we can remember this: there is no basis for striking out or for repressing. There is no basis for hatred or shame. We can at least begin to question our assumptions. Could it be that whether we are awake or asleep, we are simply moving from one dreamlike state to another?

These four methods for turning anger around and for learning a little patience come to us from the Kadampa masters of eleventh-century Tibet. These instructions have provided encouragement for fledgling bodhisattvas in the past, and they are just as useful in the present. These same Kadampa masters advised that we not procrastinate. They urged us to use these instructions immediately—on this very day in this very situation—and not say to ourselves, "I will try this in the future when I have a bit more time."

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