Pema Chödrön with Advice on Wholehearted Living during a Global Pandemic

By Andrea D’Asaro

After a 45-minute wait, thousands of Pema Chödrön fans finally saw her face through a FaceTime patch into Zoom on Sunday, May 17, as part of one of Shambhala Online’s weekly Sunday Gatherings, this time a question and answer event. Pema encouraged her online support team to keep trying, despite connection difficulties: “It could be that Cape Breton is very rural,” she explained, assuring waiting students.

The online Q&A focused on living with the global pandemic, COVID-19. This session took place before the death of George Floyd, which has sparked widespread protests and calls for justice and an end to systemic racism in the United States.

Pema’s new book (the first in many years), is called Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World. Her most popular book, When Things Fall Apart, is an Amazon’s best seller and she currently is the most popular writer on Tibetan Buddhism, according to Wikipedia. 

Admired for her down-to-earth examples and advocacy for compassion practices, Pema Chödrön moved to rural Cape Breton, Nova Scotia as director of Gampo Abbey in 1984. Her main teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who introduced the Shambhala teachings, asked her to establish this monastery for western monks and nuns. Although she still goes on occasional speaking tours, Pema increasingly returns to solitary retreat at the Abbey under the guidance of Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche.

Much of Pema’s advice included suggestions for deep self-kindness such as this comment:

“All of us are living among circumstances that provoke fear and anxiety. We can start with putting our anxious minds in the cradle of loving kindness. We can sit with the anxiety right in the middle of the speedy feeling. Connect in physically, put your hand on your heart with kindness, scan your body and see where it’s contracted and where you are holding and send a lot of warmth to those places in your body. Let the thoughts go and come the best you can.” 

With her golden shirt, maroon robes and impish smile, Pema displayed energy and wisdom that belied her age of 84. Questions included those from health care workers, parents, and meditators on how to care for ourselves and others, the right way to practice tonglen, and how to avoid oppressing others with our practice. A sampling of the questions and Pema’s responses are presented here.


Q: What advice can you give for overwhelmed health care workers, where we have lost staff and have many ill residents. 

A: Find a way to bring some space into the equation. Go to a window and look out at the sky, breathe in so your inbreath and outbreath are almost audible, with the sound of “Aaaah” on the outbreath. Do that for 3 – 10 breaths to refresh yourself. It brings oxygen to your brain and allows for some space and tenderness in the middle of what you have to do. Keep your heart open to those you are caring for—it can give you energy to stroke someone’s hand or sing a little song to someone. Think of all those in the same boat as you and wish for them to have some space, some respite on the front lines. You deserve applause and respect. Any thoughts about when it’s going to end aren’t helpful at all.  One day at a time, one moment at a time, and allow yourself that space. 


Q: I’m a single mom and my children are feeling a lack of connection to their friends at school and they are getting depressed; they are 11-year-old twins. 

A: It may be helpful to talk with them about the situation, how all over the world in all kinds of countries–even much poorer and more crowded– others are also going through this. You might work together to come up with ideas of what you might do to reach out and help others in the same situation. Look for creative ways, starting with your friends, that can assist others in feeling less alone and claustrophobic. When you reach out to others, that will help you.


Q: In tonglen (sending and taking practice), you recommend we flash on absolute bodhicitta. How do you do that? 

A: This is an important time to do tonglen on the spot—just open up to what is in front of you, our own painful emotions, what’s happening in our world, and how we can link to others. Images can also help: envision being at the ocean or high in the mountains, looking over vast space. Your mind can just open out and rest free of concepts and thoughts for maybe 2 seconds. Or the flashing can be a sense of stillness and quiet—see if any of that helps. 


Q: Keith Hitchcock, from the Seattle Shambhala Center, asked: “I’m an aspiring bodhisattva and find that I want to serve others, but need more time for self-care. What do you recommend?”

A: You have to refresh yourself, take time for yourself so you can go back with renewed energy. Allow yourself to rest; don’t feel guilty– you’ll do a better job if you balance it that way. Whatever works for you to really be there for others. 


Q: I feel aversion to my partner, whom I care for, and he is ill. This feels painful and scary. I was practicing loving-kindness and still want to find my soft heart. 

A: It sounds like you want to practice loving-kindness towards him, yet the circumstances are conspiring against you. Giving yourself alone time is very important and think of others who are in your same situation. Anything you can do to bring kindness to yourself and to him. Through the day, just separate yourself and give yourself permission to step away, as best you can. Tell him what’s going on with something like: “I’m sorry if I’m abrupt, I’m having a hard time too. I need to take some time out and regroup and do some practice for you and me.” Make time out part of your routine with the intention to come through this together, stronger and closer. 


Q: How do I let go of the obsession that others I live with should practice with me? 

A: You can’t control other people. Our neurosis is so heightened at this time. This tendency to control others, you have to let that one go. Instead, send good will to them. It would be good to learn the lesson that you can’t control others. It will go well for your lifetime if you put a smile on your face and let go of reforming others, the whole idea being so ridiculous. 



The recording of the full talk from May 17, 2020, is available to all who register on the program page via Shambhala Online

Shambhala Online offers weekly Sunday Gatherings led by senior teachers in the Shambhala Tradition around relevant topics. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *