Facing My Fears, Pema Chodron Style

Annah ElizabethUncategorized4 Comments

“You focus on another person’s suffering and breathe it in,” a friend of mine told me about a Tonglen meditation group she recently participated in, “and then you breathe out compassion.”

Her group’s attention had been directed to the victims, families, and friends of those affected by the recent Aurora, Colorado shooting rampage.

I couldn’t comprehend this model from the purpose as she described it. “Maybe by focusing on other’s pain, we are able to fully realize that we aren’t alone in our grief,” I reasoned.

I have thought about the contradictory nature of this practice, over the past few days, and decided to delve into the philosophy a bit more.

Turns out my logic was halfway there.

Pema Chodron wrote the following about the meditation in her description The Practice of Tonglen:

In order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves.

In particular, to care about other people who are fearful, angry, jealous, overpowered by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, miserly, selfish, mean —you name it— to have compassion and to care for these people, means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves…

The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem to be.

Pema Chodron, highly regarded in the field of peace and meditation, has devoted most of her life to the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism, and to helping people be more compassionate. Compassionate with themselves and with others.

It seems, then, that the methodology is designed to put us in touch with our fear, those fears from which we hide or flee, those trepidations that are our deepest insecurities, and just possibly the faults we cannot face.

Two years ago I wrote about how our fear tends to present itself in the form of anger, and shortly thereafter I realized that my anger seemed to have taken up residence in my liver.

Just recently, I realized that it is quite possible the overwhelming anger I feel toward my husband isn’t about him or his affair. At all.

The seething inside of my organs is about me.

My failures. My insecurities.

My fear that I’m not good enough.

Might never be good enough.

My frustration that I can’t figure out how to resolve my conflict.

It’s been nearly FOUR (five, six) years, Annah, you should be over this by now.

My anxieties that I keep choosing the same ill-directed behaviors over and over again.

Eating too much when I’m bored.

Eating too much when I’m stressed.

Eating myself into ignorance and disregard for my health. My life.

It’s about the angst inside of me that says You’re not in control, Annah. You can’t control if he’ll have another affair or not.

You can’t control whether anyone else will do or say something without regard to your feelings, your dignity, or your sanity.

Ah, but it’s so much easier to pretend, isn’t it?

So much easier to pretend that someone else is to blame for our discomfort.

It’s a fear that I’ll make the wrong choice

A fear that I’ll ultimately fail


A quick Google search turned up these quotes about failure:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ~ Thomas A. Edison

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” ~ Paulo Coelho

And my favorite, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” ~Winston Churchill

“You can’t keep looking in the rearview mirror,” the therapist Warren and I recently saw said to me.

During my first appointment with her, I had expressed that I hadn’t been able to unlock the final pieces of my conflict over Warren’s last affair, and that I felt I needed help in uncovering what was holding me back.

I wasn’t thrilled when she indicated she felt we should approach it from couple’s therapy, because I knew that if I couldn’t resolve my own personal angst, then marriage counseling wouldn’t be productive.

Again, I let fear drive my decision.

Fear that if I refused couple’s counseling I’d be doing a disservice to my marriage.

Fear that I was being self-centered by wanting to focus on me.

Fear that my logic was somehow misguided…

“That’s why I’m here,” I said to the therapist, with tears streaming down my face. “That’s why I chose to see someone, to help me figure out why I can’t seem to let this go.”

As I hopelessly searched the room for tissues, I felt anger toward her rising in my belly.

Why didn’t you listen to me?

Why did you practically insist that marriage counseling was the way to settle my conflicts?

Are you incompetent?

What kind of therapist doesn’t have tissues in her office?

But these are the real questions, the ones I deflected away from my heart:

Why don’t you listen to yourself?

Why didn’t you insist that you wanted to see her alone?

Are you stupid for staying with a man who has cheated on you twice?

Why are you still crying over this?

And these are the answers to those burning questions:

Because I’m confused and I’m not sure I can trust my instincts anymore.

Because I didn’t trust that I knew better than her; she’s the expert after all.

No. I am not stupid. (And now I smile, because, honestly, that’s an answer without hesitation or doubt.)

Because I am.


4 Comments on “Facing My Fears, Pema Chodron Style”

  1. you’re very brave Annah. thank you for this honesty.
    my husband cheated almost a year ago and I’ve just discovered new emails from the woman. such a churn of thoughts and questions. I don’t know what it would take to be able to trust any of his answers and somehow my trust in myself is also poisoned, residually. as if I distrust myself for not having prevented it. ah well, it will pass and Pema Chodron’s teachings are a great comfort in the meantime. “we cannot always change external circumstances, but we can ALWAYS change how we relate to external circumstances.”

    best wishes on your journey 😉


    1. I hope everything worked out for Olivia. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to discover those new emails again. I’m so sorry you went through that.

      1. Hi, Anna,
        Thank you for being here, for sharing, and for your well wishes for Olivia. I, too, hope she found resolution that worked for her. We never know how another’s story or compassion will help us heal. I appreciate you and your time in reaching out. All my very best to you, Journeyer!

  2. Dear Olivia,

    Thank you for your kind words and for your appreciation for my writing.

    I am sorry for your conflict. Adultery does defy everything we invisioned for our marriage, what we thought our vows meant…

    Those recent e-mails you mention…Do you feel it is time to demand more of the relationship? With him and with yourself?

    It is so complex, the way we blame ourselves, we begin to distrust our own feelings/knowledge/sanity. Stay strong, Journeyer. Ask yourself the tough questions and accept the tougher answers that follow…

    Not knowing your story, I would like to offer you something to chew on. When I learned of Warren’s first affair, I doubted everything that had come before, doubted that he’d ever loved me at all, and wondered if every aspect of our relationship had somehow been a ruse or a lie, or just a figment of my imgination…

    My therapist’s response to this was to tell me that, “He loves you, Annah. That’s why he’s still with you. If he didn’t love you, he’d have left to be with her.”

    There was relief in that bit of insight. But there was also this: I had to decide if that type of love was what I wanted in my life. Could I accept that, if he didn’t want to change, if my pain didn’t matter, he might continue to make the same choices over and over, and I would find myself in constant agony?

    And one more thing…after the first affair, we blamed it on our conflicts, the stresses in our life, and a host of “extraneous.” When the second affair happened, I knew it was more, that he had some inner conflict/insecurities/demons that were causing him to make choices that were sabatoging not only our marriage, but his life.

    Fortunately, Warren didn’t want to continue on the paths he’d been taking and did the hard work of individual (and joint) therapy. We are still working on it, both of us…

    Do you think your guy would be open to counseling? Open to self-reflection? Are you willing to do that work? If not, are you willing to accept the continuation of behaviors that bring you pain and conflict?

    Tough questions, Olivia. But I have every confidence that you will be able to “relate to those external circumstances” in a way that is healthy for you.

    I have every confidence that you can conquer the turmoil…After all, you were born with everything you need to reconcile your grief, and to heal…

    Stay strong, Journeyer!
    Hugs and healing…

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