Omega Institute hosted Pema Chödrön for her final in-person retreat recently. Pema has influenced me profoundly. I rediscovered her teachings in the middle of the night, about a year ago. Sleepless, I gathered up my very tall stack of pillows (my husband calls me the princess and the pea) and wandered down the hall to our guest room.
I stared at my face in the mirror on the bureau. Sadness stared back at me. I felt lost, scared, and confused. I’m dying, I thought. For some time I had been facing some physical challenges. My body felt weak – sitting up in bed took much effort. I struggled with pain in my shoulders, hips, and feet. I was losing dexterity in my right hand and even flipping a pancake was awkward, if not amusing. I had been ignoring these symptoms or at least minimizing them for years, but now they were progressing, shouting at me for attention. My balance too was making subtle changes. When a friend would pull me forward for a hug, I’d fall into them, without the corrective ability to pull back.
Something was wrong. I climbed into the bed and scanned the stack of books on the side table. In the middle of the pile was a small thin book titled, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön. I opened the book and lodged my drugstore readers on my nose.
“Wherever we are right now, whatever our lives are like in the moment, this is our mandala, our working basis for awakening. The awakened life isn’t somewhere else – in some distant place that’s accessible only when we’ve got it all together. With the commitment to embrace the world just as it is, we begin to see that sanity and goodness are always present and can be uncovered right here, right now.”
The challenges I face, including physical pain and disability and the uncertainty of what’s next, are essential for the transformation of my mind and heart. By facing my greatest fears of suffering and death, of unknowing, I wake up to this perilous, yet beautiful act of living. I fall asleep with the book lying on my heart.
Meeting Pema has been on my bucket list ever since, but since in-person registration was sold out at Omega, I took the online option. My ticket gave me the opportunity to watch the weekend sessions live, as well as access to the recordings for two months. I decided to make space and commit to the live sessions.
Breathing in pain, breathing out relief
I weep when she steps on the stage for the opening session. At 85 years young, she is still quite sturdy, although she comments that her legs “don’t work” after sitting too long. She smiles broadly and her eyes twinkle as she tilts her big round glasses to survey the audience.
Pema introduces the topic for the weekend, “tonglen,” the practice of breathing in pain and breathing out relief. My daughter sits next to me riveted. Tonglen, explains Pema, is the most effective way to courageously connect with others, as well as our own psyche. She says, “It’s a practice for staying in the middle of the river. It gives us strength to let go of the shore.” Within minutes she has the entire audience, 500 in-person and 4000 online, practicing tonglen. My daughter sits upright, with eyes closed. I peek at her, wondering who she is doing this practice for, and moved that she is willing to learn this valuable tool. Little do either of us know, she would turn to tonglen five days later as her little friend lies in a hospital bed fighting for her life. Can I say, “wow!”?
The healing power of Wow!
One of the participants stands at the microphone to ask Ani Pema a question. He is a college professor and starts with words of gratitude for all he has learned from her over the past decade. He says, “You taught me about ‘wow!’” When we are faced with our demise, it helps to bring in an element of “wow!” and make space for curiosity and wonder. That doesn’t mean ignoring feelings of loss, anger, fear, or injustice. In fact, just the opposite. Lean into those feelings, rather than suppressing them, and remember your “wow!” He tells Pema that he added “wow!” to his phone contact for his mother so that when she called, he would remember, “Wow! It’s my mom calling!” Everyone laughs.
For some reason the concept of “wow!” really stuck with me. It filled me with joy and an immense feeling of comfort and empowerment. I started the week revitalized, not just emotionally, but physically as well. The transformation of my being has me filled with wonder and gratitude. This experience reinforced what I already know, the value of learning in community. I’ve studied Pema’s teachings over the years, and I was tempted to dismiss the opportunity to learn with her online as repetitive and less valuable than the in-person experience. But the opposite was true. Hearing her speak and answer questions re-ignited the teachings for me. Listening to the questions, witnessing the vulnerability of the participants who courageously stood up, and savoring her sage replies, often touched with levity, helped me feel part of the community.
This experience reaffirms my passion for building community – for bringing people together who love nature, want to heal the earth, and be part of a great healing force for humanity and nature. It inspires me to keep learning and encouraging others that education is a life-long journey.
As soon as I become complacent about my learning journey, my world becomes smaller, and I feel more isolated. This isolation breeds apathy, the quicksand of the mind.
Learning, and leaning to face the wind
With a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, my cognitive function is at risk, and I tend to my brain health every single day. Actually, I believe everyone needs to do that, before any hard diagnosis. I do many things to support my brain function, but number one is to study and keep learning.
Number two is to connect with others.
The BotanicWise community has become my family and is full of teachers – not just those who lead the educational programs – but many who share their plant wisdom and resources within the platform.
I look forward to the events and meetups. I look forward to seeing the comments and responding when I can. I look forward to Abbey’s updates about resolved technical support issues. I love knowing that we have this space that’s just for us plant people, and that we’re creating a space of learning and caring.
So as I continue onward, I keep learning, loving, and leaning into life – and I’m grateful for you and everyone in this community.
Thank you, for all that you are, all of it.
You can log in or join the BotanicWise Community free here. I hope to see you there and learn together.