The words "Buddhist nun" probably don't spring to mind when most of us contemplate making a change in our lives. But in the early 1970s Pema Chödrön, born Dierdre Blomfield-Brown, was a mother of two who found herself in the kind of emotional agony that called for drastic redirection. Until then her life had been utterly conventional: The youngest of three from a Catholic family in New Jersey, Pema attended the prestigious Miss Porter's School in Connecticut and Sarah Lawrence College. She met and married a young lawyer and had a daughter, Arlyn, and a son, Edward. The family moved to California, where Pema earned a master's degree in education at the University of California at Berkeley and became an elementary school teacher.
But within a few years, things began to change. Pema and her husband divorced; she later married a writer, and the couple moved to New Mexico, where Pema continued to teach as they raised her children from her first marriage. One day Pema's husband told her he was having an affair and intended to leave her, and she went into an intense depression.
She struggled to find a way to break through it, but conventional advice didn't seem to help. By chance she came across a magazine that was open to an article by Chögyam Trungpa, a renowned Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher; it described how pain, instead of being something to avoid, can actually bring us closer to the truth. The words not only altered Pema's relationship to her feelings but put her on a trajectory that would change her life as well as the lives of many others.
A few months later, while visiting a Sufi camp in the French Alps, Pema met a Tibetan lama, or master, whom she then went to London to study with. Within a year, she took a Buddhist vow to spend the rest of her life helping others seek enlightenment and end their suffering. Chögyam Trungpa became her teacher, and in 1981, Pema became the first American woman to become a fully ordained Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition. During her spiritual studies, she was given the name Pema Chödrön, which means "lotus torch of the dharma" (a loose translation might be "lamp of the truth").
In 1984 Pema became the director of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery established in North America for Westerners. Now 71 years old, she teaches in the United States and Canada, gives interviews—like this one, which is part of my Soul Series on Oprah Radio on XM Radio—and has written books including Start Where You Are, When Things Fall Apart, and Practicing Peace in Times of War. That one's by my bedside; I've read it so many times and marked it up so much, it looks like every sentence is highlighted. Perhaps what makes Pema's message resonate so strongly with people, no matter what their religion or spiritual path, is its universality. Each of us has experienced heartache; how we interact with that feeling, Pema says, can create the possibility of a more joyful life. In her most desperate moment, that's precisely what she learned to do.