Being Your Own Best Friend: Help from Pema Chodron

Willow in garden

“I’m sinking under a cloud of doom and gloom,” I wrote in my journal. I squirmed under the weight of grief with no one to listen to my fears, to care if my belly ached, or to notice if I made it home at night.

I longed for my husband Vic and my old life, but he was dead. My old life was dead, too, but my rebuilding project was moving forward. I had finished writing a book and written a book proposal. Swenson Book Development was ready to submit my proposal to publishers which meant waiting for doors to crack open or slam in my face.

I was scared.

I defended against despair like a boxer in the ring but misery dumped itself on my journal pages. As I read what I’d written, I heard my inner commentary. You’re a whiny spoiled brat. Everyone has trouble. Get it together and make a move.

The more I scolded myself, the worse I felt. My heart knotted as I chastised myself for wanting what I couldn’t have and for not being grateful for what I had for so long. Had the years of meditation and psychological work taught me nothing?

I was not only scared. I was ashamed. 

Driving home through the dark night, I glanced through a stack of CDs on the passenger seat. At the bottom of the pile was Pema Chodron’s Audio Collection. I randomly chose a CD from the three-box set. “Good Medicine,” the cover said.

In her warm comforting voice, Pema Chodron spoke of maitri or unconditional friendliness with oneself. She reminded me how we accept a friend’s dark moods and struggles with kindness, but attack ourselves without mercy.

“This all has to do with our relationship with pain, our relationship with difficulty…,” Pema said. “A certain amount of pain in life is inevitable…, such as dying…, such as the more you love someone, the more grief there is at the loss of that person.”

Then she suggested we stop struggling against discomfort and have compassion toward ourselves.

I knew she was right. My breath softened as Pema’s gentle voice encouraged me to befriend my pain and so befriend myself.

Stay. Stay. Stay,” she said about not running away from difficulty. She paused between each word as though training an unruly dog.

Stay. Stay. Stay,” I said to myself using the kind tone I use with my dog Willow. Stay with longing. Stay with fear. Stay with discomfort.

I let myself feel challenged and exposed, frightened that my writing efforts would become a failure, that my new life was a farce and I wasn’t going anywhere. I stayed. Then I cried. I accepted being unmoored and lost. I forgave myself for being human.

The next morning my gloom lightened. Once again, I saw how exhausting and futile it was to push grief and fear away or run from anxiety. I learned how my darkest feelings showed me the way to compassion and courage.

Stay. Stay. Stay. 

Elaine in car with Pema

You’ll enjoy this five-minute video of Pema Chodron speaking about maître

Elaine Mansfield’s book Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief found a publisher and won the 2015 Gold Medal IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award) for Aging, Death, and Dying. Her TEDx talk is Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss. Elaine writes about bereavement, family, marriage, and the environment. She facilitates bereavement workshops, gives presentations, and volunteers at Hospicare in Ithaca, NY.  She’s been a student of nature, philosophy, Jungian psychology, mythology, and meditation for forty years and writes a weekly blog about life and loss. You can read more about Elaine and her work at her website.

Images courtesy of the writer.