OPRAH: You were an average mother of two, and then you became a Buddhist nun. What did you read in that article that put you on this path?
PEMA: I became involved in Buddhism in a way that's very appealing to a lot of people because of the fact that their lives fall apart, and that's what happened to me. When my second marriage broke up, it just floored me, but I had some kind of fundamental sanity that kept saying, "There's something very profound in this that will teach you something," so I started looking for it. The first line of Chögyam Trungpa's article "Working with Negativity" read, "We all experience negativity—the basic aggression of wanting things to be different than they are." Everything else was saying, "Look at the positive side," and this said, "Stay with your experience." That's how it started.
OPRAH: Is that what you advise we do when things fall apart—stay with it?
PEMA: Yes. The problem is that we have so little tolerance for uncomfortable feelings. I'm not even talking about unpleasant outer circumstances, but that feeling in your stomach of "I don't want this to be happening." You try to escape it in some way, but if somehow you could stay present and touch the rawness of the experience, you can really learn something.
OPRAH: When you tell people to touch the rawness and feel it, what should they do? They're already feeling pain.
PEMA: Go to your body and connect with the physical sensation. It always feels really bad; it's usually a tightening in the throat or the heart or the solar plexus. Stay with that and say to yourself, "Millions of people all over the world have this kind of discomfort, fear—I don't even have to call it anything—this feeling of not wanting things to be this way. This is my link with humanity." Connect with the idea that this moment is a shared experience all over the world.
OPRAH: What happens if you choose not to sit with the feeling?
PEMA: It cuts you off from your compassion and empathy for others. That gives birth to a chain reaction that causes people to self-destruct or strike out and hurt other people. It's the source of a lot of the pain and destruction that we see in the world today.
OPRAH: So what do you do to stay with it?
PEMA: I think the most straightforward way is to breathe in very deeply and connect with the feeling, and breathe it out on the exhalation. I call it compassionate abiding. It means staying with yourself when, probably for your whole lifetime, you've always run away at that point.
OPRAH: For me, that's getting a bag of chips.
PEMA: Yeah, for a lot of people, it's eating. But you could go down the list, everything from eating chips to doing some much more destructive things.
OPRAH: I recall you telling a story about Jarvis Jay Masters, an inmate on death row in San Quentin, and how he took a vow for peace. [During a Buddhist ceremony, Masters vowed, "From this day forward I will not harm other people, even if it costs my life."]
PEMA: I've learned a lot from that man in terms of how he puts these words into practice and how it brings him so much empathy for other people.
We Hear You!