Spontaneity (and goosebumps) during an Omega Institute retreat with Pema Chödrön

An image from Is Nothing Something by Thich Nhat Hanh, author, and Jessica McClure, illustrator. It's a book of kids' questions and zen answers. I chose this image because it tenderly reflects the grace of a tender teacher connection.

Through my monitor, she looks me straight in the eye and calls my name.

Who? Pema. That’s who. Pema Chödrön.

I wasn’t even going to ask a question. But I did. I wanted to feel connected with her, my beloved teacher and look, lucky me.

So Pema looks through my screen and says, “Susan….

Susanpeople say that if I look straight into the camera, you’ll feel the connection…so Susan….”

Oh, I feel it. I hear her call my name and feel my heart beat faster.

Okay, wait. Back up.

Why is Pema calling my name?

Pema Chödrön presented a three-day retreat at Omega Institute called Touching the Present: Exploring the Nature of Self (May 2015). I registered to attend in person, but it is sold out. So I chose the next best thing. I joined thousands of others and attended online. After Pema teaches, she invites questions. People line up at a microphone to share a personal struggle within the context of the lesson. A lot of people are in line. Getting to the front of the queue is rare.

My question is asked by an Omega moderator. He says, “I have two questions. Do you want the easy or hard one first?”

Pema says, “The hard one.” (Of course.)

That turns out to be mine. (Oh.)

I haven’t asked a question at any retreat I’ve attended online or in-person. This one came spontaneously. I wrote it to help clarify and personalize her teachings. I had no expectation it would be answered.

My question: “Will you talk about illness as not me and instead as part of a creative process?”

Then the moderator adds the other sentences I wrote as context.

“I have incurable cancer. This workshop invites an investigation of illness as both me and not me. I want to view illness as a river, constantly moving and changing, with anything possible. I want to love this illness that teaches me openness and shows me that I am not what or who I think I am.” 

I’m curious about why I asked that question. I don’t now think of myself as having cancer, though sometimes fear or unpleasant memories return. I’m really asking how to process any serious difficulty, especially the biggies like illness, aging, and dying.

Pema says, “It sounds like you know an awful lot already. At least conceptually you understand what we’ve been teaching and the direction you want to go.”

(Admission: I know a teeny, tiny bit. I'm stable, not in pain, and still giving up the idea of "me" as some fixed thing, like cancer.)

The conceptual understanding she refers to is in her lesson about the skandhas—aspects and functions of the body (form) and mind (feeling, perception, labels, mental formations, and consciousness). Pema's lesson investigates what it means to be human and live with presence, and the skandhas study helps us explore emotional reactivity. (I'm reading this book to gain an understanding of the retreat teachings.)

So, okay, I kind of understand the concept.

I want active, practical application to learn how to live the hardened, tight breath that comes when I'm afraid. 

Pema continues:

“So the instruction is mostly to take to heart and apply [what you learn here] over and over, moment-by-moment, when you get afraid and when your thinking mind begins to create unpleasant scenarios. Just keep coming back again and again to your body and mind as a direct experience. If you can, experience your illness at the level of your sixth consciousness [mind], which is to say, with an innocent awareness that does not escalate or elaborate.

[Admission: "Experience with an innocent awareness that doesn't escalate?" Okay, my head gets it. Now if my head would hold hands with my heart.]

Sogyal Rinpoche [author of the book, The Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying] says an interesting thing. When you relate to your sense perceptions at the 6th consciousness, it creates a little gap, and that little gap makes a significant difference in how you’re going to perceive your world.”

There’s that gap again.

Pema continues, “So what I take from Sogyal Rinpoche’s story is even if it’s just a moment of fresh take—an egoless take on your illness free of storyline, the physical discomfort, and the gut reaction, whatever it might be, just relate to it at the first level over and over again.”

The first level she refers to is a body as form.

This is such a challenging practice, and her next words remind me of that. “Usually, you’re not at a place where you can stay there yet.”

YET. That is one of my new favorite words.

The place I’m not at yet is open spaciousness. Well, actually I am open to spaciousness for the first seconds when I fall into my comfy bed at night and sometimes in meditation. I completely relax and let go.

(Just for now, I imagine doing that. Susan, fall with a deep breath onto your bed or into your favorite chair. Soften. Breathe easy. Hang loose.)

So, I do know this spaciousness. 

I just don’t yet know the full potential of that expansive space when I’m in mental or physical pain. When pain shows up, the tendency is to tighten, not open. I want to feel a fall-into-my-bed fresh sense when it shows up.

I'm curious about my response process to the effects of chemotherapy and 3 years of monoclonal antibody therapy. I want to be able to embrace mental or physical pain without escalating my feelings or elaborating on what is happening. What do I mean by elaborate? An elaboration is when I label what's happening as good or bad, ugly, unfair, character-building, etc., or spin a story based on my ever-changing perceptions. 

Pema ends with, “Sogyal says that just creating that little pause, the little gap, makes a significant difference in how you perceive your illness.”

I’m exploring that.
Image: Pema, a precious presence. Andrea Roth, photographer. From the Pema Chodron Foundation website.