Being Your Own Best Friend: Help from Pema Chodron

“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.

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17 thoughts on “Being Your Own Best Friend: Help from Pema Chodron

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I have to remind myself constantly to be as nice to myself as I am to my kids (when they were young and now as adults) and as nice to me as I am to my dog. I agree that the path to freedom is love. We live in a strange culture that demands impossible perfection of women on every level. My mom bought in. So did I. We can change things.

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    1. Thank you. Yes, there is healing but there is no forgetting. I carry grief wounds of a lifetime in my heart–just like everyone else. I believe these experiences are our teachers and help us remember what matters in life. Even as we heal and move forward, there is always more loss and grief. Sometimes close (a very sick brother, in my case) or sometimes at a little distance. The need for self-love and kindness doesn’t go away.

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  1. Really beautiful, Elaine. I am happy to see this article published. It is hard for us to befriend ourselves in all our pain and to embrace our shadow side, too. My husband sent me the Rumi poem “The Guest House” when we first met and I have loved it ever since. It tells us to welcome it all. So hard to do. But so important.

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  2. Thank you, Tricia. Self-acceptance isn’t easy to come by. Most of us deal with harsh self-judgment and cultural opinion about how we should and should not respond to grief and quite a few other things. As you well know, we “should” get over grief in months. Our maximum alloted time is one year, so most everyone I know learns to keep quiet after that. I’m glad we aren’t doing that.
    I have loved The Guest House for years and used it in many bereavement groups. The cartoon version was a thrill as I recognized the characters who invade my inner peace.

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  3. As always, beautiful writing! Thank you so much Elaine for introducing me to the wonderful, Pema Chodron. What a treat! I’ve just watched her online for the past hour. She’s a truly inspiring woman, much like yourself! Many years ago I remember reading that, ‘we can only love another, to the extent to which, we love ourselves’ … and that made so much sense to me at a time when I was full of self-loathing, mistrust and suffering. Truly, I did wonder why I was attracting so many critical people in my life until the penny dropped and I learnt how to not only befriend my fear but also to give myself the loving kindness, and compassion I so richly deserved. A birth right for all I believe. Blessings, Deborah.

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    1. Deborah, it makes me happy to know I introduced you to Pema Chodron. She’s a wonderful storyteller, full of humor and forgiveness about the human condition. I read her books first. Then, after my husband died, I began listening to her CDs in the car. After that I watched videos of her for the first time. I was surprised by her quiet body because her voice is full of energy. I expected to see her waving her arms and pacing back and forth. She’s obviously been meditating for a long time. Quiet mind. Quiet body.

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  4. I often have to remind myself that it is important for me to show the same compassion towards myself that I show to others. I have learned to send love to those aching parts of my body, be it muscles, joints or bleeding heart. Thank you for another gentle nudge not to forget about self-nurturing and forgiveness.

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    1. It’s a lovely thing to send specific compassion toward parts of us that hurt–muscles, skin, hearts, everything. I so often forget, so I wrote this for myself as well as for others. Your words inspire me to keep the compassion going for myself–and also for our suffering world.

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    1. I look forward to your post, Marian. Thanks for commenting here. I just spent five days with my sick brother. Each evening, Willow waited for me to arrive back to my brother’s home from the hospital. She parked next to my suitcase because she knew I wouldn’t be gone for long if my suitcase was still there–and if I moved the suitcase to the car, she didn’t want me to forget her. As though I could! She is a wonderful friend and healing friend.

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  5. Loved reading your post. It reminded me of how influential Alan Watts has been since I discovered him some time ago. When I first heard about him, I downloaded every lecture I could find from him and would listen to them daily. I have been intrigued very much by aspects of Buddhist thinking but the way he articulates things and also the fact that his voice is very unique and comforting to me, really opened this world up to me and made it much more accessible.

    I am now intrigued to listen to the teachings of Pema Chodron. Thanks for the reccomendation. 🙂

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