The Problem with the Pema Chodron Quote: “Nothing ever goes away….”

by Melissa West on

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Pema Chodron Quote

How about that quote from Pema Chodron, “Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know?”

Today I want to spend some time unpacking a quote that I often hear in yoga classes and splashed across social media. Every time I hear it or see it it makes me bristle. Short sound bites taken out of context often are that way for me.

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If you are new here, hello, welcome. Thank you for joining me.

I have been a serious student of the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche since summer of 2017. I have a teacher here in Victoria, Neil McKinlay who is a senior teacher of Dharma Ocean. I work closely with him and attend weekly dharma talks and meditation with him. I have take several courses and have taken both refuge vows and bodhisattva vows with Dharma Ocean. All this to say I have some understanding as a student of Buddhism and the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche of which Pema Chodron is a part.

After recently hearing this sound byte in a yin yoga class I thought, you know what, I am going to do some detective work and look at the context of this quote. It just doesn’t seem like something that Pema Chodron would say to me. One of my favourite books of hers is Start Where You Are. I have it on permanent repeat as I am also a student of lojong – they are a set of 59 slogans in Tibetan Buddhism used for mind training to open our hearts and awaken our mind. This book about lojong and I return to it again and again and so I have an ear for Pema Chodron.

I guess I should talk about what bothers me about this quote out of context: “Nothing ever goes away until it teaches you what you need to know.” To me it is antithetical to Tibetan Buddhism in general in that we are training in opening to everything – our thoughts, emotions, situations, people…. We are not training in pushing things away. And secondly, it feels like it lacks compassion. To the person who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, this quote on its own, is actually quite cruel. The terminal illness is not going away, even if they learn all the lessons in the world from it.

So first thing I did was to look at what book this quote was in. The quote comes from her book: When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Even the title gave me some space around the quote: heart advice. I actually did not have to go very far into the book to find the compassion that I felt was missing from the sound byte. At the very opening of the book Pema Chodron talked about how the overarching theme of her book was the need for awakening a fearless compassion toward our own pain and the pain of others.

On page two there was a quote I had highlighted saying, “please do not think meditation is a vacation from irritation.” As I read on there were more and more, “Buddha nature kicks our ass into being receptive,” “stop running away” and “move closer” and that was just chapter one.

But for the sake of keeping this video short I will move right to the context of the quote which comes from Chapter 11 Non Aggression and the Maras, halfway through the book. Maras are obstacles. There are inner obstacles and outer obstacles.

Leading up to the quote, Pema Chodron is talking about inner obstacles. Specifically she is talking about our own inner confusion. Right before the quote she says, perhaps there is no obstacle except our need to keep ourselves from being touched.

The rest of the quote says:

“Nothing ever really attacks us except our own confusion. Perhaps there is no solid obstacle except our own need to protect ourselves from being touched. If we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter, without hesitating or retreating into ourselves.”

She then goes on to tell a story of having an experience with her teacher Chogyam Trungpa who asks her and other students to look at how they react when things are unbearable. My teacher has asked me this question too. It is a beautiful contemplation and inquiry into how we can turn towards ourselves with compassion or away from ourselves with aggression.

The quote, in other words is not about the “thing” going away. At another point in the book Pema Chodron talks about how things come together and fall apart. It is about opening to ourselves with compassion. It is about noticing with kindness when we are shutting down and when we are opening. It is about about softening when things get tough, not toughening up and trying to gain some ground so that we can move on. It is about opening to what it is to be human. It is about being generous and kind with ourselves, not critical of ourselves because this thing is showing up again and I still haven’t learned the damn lesson.

That’s all. Let me know if you like this style of video by putting I am kind and compassionate towards myself in the comments. Let me know if you are interested in more talks like this.

Namaste, Melissa



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