Notes & Quotes - How We Live Is How We Die by Pema Chodron

The following are my favorite quotes from Pema Chodron's How We Live Is How We Die.

  1. The term bardo is usually associated with the intermediate state between lives, but a broader translation of the word is simply "transition" or "gap". The journey that takes place after our death is one such transition, but when we examine our experience closely, we will find that we are always in transition. During every moment of our lives, something is ending and something else is beginning. This is not an esoteric concept. When we pay attention, it becomes our unmistakable experience.
  2. The Tibetan Book of the Dead lists six bardos: the natural bardo of this life, the bardo of dreaming, the bardo of meditation, the bardo of dying, the bardo of dharmata, and the bardo of becoming.
  3. I've always found that my greatest personal growth happens when my mind and heart are more curious than doubtful.
  4. Death is not something that happens at the end of life. Death happens every moment. We live in a wondrous flow of birth and death. The end of one experience is the beginning of the next experience, which quickly comes to its own end, leading to a new beginning. It's like a river continuously flowing.
  5. Our state of mind affects the world. We know how it affects the people around us. If you scowl at someone, they're more likely to scowl at another person. If you smile at them, it makes them feel good and they're more likely to smile at others. Similarly, if you become more at ease with the transitory quality of life and the inevitability of death, that ease will be transmitted to others.
  6. The Buddha stressed impermanence as one of the most important contemplations of the spiritual path. "Of all footprints, the elephant's are outstanding," he said. "Just so, of all subjects of mediation...the idea of impermanence is unsurpassed."
  7. What the Buddha simply called "the suffering of change," lurks in our gut as the painful knowledge that we can never really get all that we want. We can never get our life to be just the way we want it to be, once and for all. We can never reach a position where we're always feeling good.
  8. We can look at falling in love. A big part of the thrill is the freshness this new love brings to our life. Our entire world feels fresh. But as time goes on, we start wanting everything to remain exactly the way we like it to be. This is when all-pervasive suffering rears its head and the honeymoon phase comes to an end. As the freshness fades away, the lovers begin to notice certain things, such as how the other one is stingy or overcritical. Somehow the veil is lifted and they being to find each other irritating, just for being how they are. What often happens next is they start trying to improve each other, to make their partner shape up. But that approach only makes things worse. The only way relationships really work is when both people are able to let things be and work with each other as they are. This means overcoming some of their general resistance to life as it is--rather than life as they want it to be.
  9. All-pervasive suffering is our constant struggle against the fact that everything is wide-open, that we never know what's going to happen, that our life is unwritten and unfolds as we go along, and that there's very little we can do to control it. We experience this struggle as a persistent hum of anxiety in the background of our life. This all comes from the fact that everything is impermanent. Everything in the universe is in flux. The solid ground we walk on changes from instant to instant.
  10. Major dislocations and reversals expose the truth underlying all our experience--that there is nothing reliable to hold on to, and that our sense of a solid, stable reality is just an illusion. Every time our bubble is burst, we have a chance to become more used to the nature of how things are. If we can see these as opportunities, we'll be in a good position to face the end of our life and to be open to whatever may happen next.
  11. In the Tibetan worldview, our bodies are made of five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. The earth element is everything solid in the body: bones, muscles, teeth, and so on. The water element is the various fluids, such as blood, lymph, and saliva. The fire element is our body's warmth. The air element is our breath. The space element is the cavities within our body, all the open spaces. There is also a sixth, nonphysical element that comes into play: consciousness. According to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, during the dying process, these elements dissolve into one another, from the grossest to the subtlest.
  12. According to Western medicine, the person is dead. Life is over. But in the Buddhist teachings, it is said that an internal process, known as the "inner dissolution," continues. In this final dissolution of our lifetime, the element of consciousness dissolves into space. This process is also unpredictable, but in general, it is said to last about twenty minutes. For this reason, the teachings recommend letting the body be, without touching or moving it, for at least that amount of time, and preferably much longer.
  13. The inner dissolution presents us with an incredible chance, if we are prepared for it. It is said to happen in three stages which we have three strong experiences of color. First, the light of the whole environment becomes white, like a cloudless sky lit up by a full moon. Then we perceive redness, like the sky at sunset. Finally, we perceive black, like a night sky with no moon or stars. At this point, we fall into a blank state of unconsciousness and the dissolution process is complete. The next thing that happens, according to the teachings, is that an egoless me recovers consciousness and the mind is experienced in a completely naked, unobstructed way. This is sometimes referred to as "the mind of clear light and death." It only lasts for a moment, but as we will see, preparing for this experience can short-circuit the entire cycle of birth and death and cause full awakening on the spot. This is considered such a precious opportunity that all of my principal teachers have emphasized preparing for it as one of the most important endeavors of life.
  14. We are unaware that we are not a solid, permanent entity, and that we are not separate from what we perceive. This is the big misunderstanding, the illusion of separateness. 
  15. There's no continuous individual who experiences life and death. No one lives and no one dies. Life and death, beginnings and endings, gains and losses are like dreams or magical illusions.
  16. When we perceive something without our usual concepts, we discover shunyata, or "emptiness," an often-misunderstood word. Emptiness doesn't refer to a void: it doesn't suggest a cold, dark world in which nothing has any meaning. What it means is that everything we examine is free from--"empty" of--our conceptual interpretation, our views and opinions. Nothing in this world is fixed; nothing is permanently and definitively one way or another. All phenomena are just as they are, free of our value judgments and preconceptions.
  17. Just as our thoughts and emotions create our experience of the world right now, in that same way, and even more intensely, they will create the environment we find ourselves in after death. If you want to experience heaven, work with your thoughts and emotions. If you want to avoid hell, work with your thoughts and emotions.
  18. In the Buddha's teachings on karma, the teachings on cause and effect, whatever we do, say, or even think makes an imprint in our mind. When we do something once, we're likely to do it again. When we react to a situation a certain way, we're likely to react the same way next time that situation comes up. This is how propensities develop. As a result, we usually behave and react predictably. In some particular circumstances, we're very generous; in others we're self-protective. In some, we're tolerant; in others, irritable. In some, confident; in others, insecure. And every time we react in our habitual ways, we strengthen our propensities. This is similar to the findings in neuroscience that show how pathways in our brain get reinforced by our habitual actions and thinking patterns.
  19. Because of the strong interconnected relationship between our mind and our world, we will often find that changing our mental and emotional habits has a powerful effect on our outer experience. It seems like a miracle, but it's quite simple and straightforward if you think about it. If you work with your propensity to get jealous, it will seem like there are fewer and fewer people to envy. If you work with your anger, people won't make you so mad.
  20. When a person or event triggers painful emotions, we can distinguish between the trigger and the propensity. We can ask ourselves, as openly and objectively as possible, "What is the main cause of my suffering? Is it my supervisor or is it my propensities?" This kind of closeness and friendship with our propensities creates the right causes and conditions for them to loosen up and unwind.
  21. Knowing how to work with our emotions is really the key to finding balance and equanimity, qualities that support us as we go forward through all the transitions and gaps that we are yet to experience.
  22. The Dharma tells us that all our experiences of discomfort, anxiety, being disturbed, and being bothered are rooted in our kleshas. This Sanskrit term means "destructive emotions" or "pain-causing emotions." The three main kleshas are craving, aggression, and ignorance.
  23. We can only stand in the shoes of others to the degree that we can stand in our own. When we turn a blind eye to our own emotions and propensities, we cut ourselves off from others. It's as simple as that.
  24. In the traditional analogy, confusion and wisdom are like ice and water, which are both made of the same molecules. The only difference is that ice is frozen and water isn't.
  25. By getting in touch with the physical sensation of our neurosis, we come to know the feeling of wisdom as well. From this point of view, wisdom feels like relaxation, expansion, openness. Instead of fighting with our emotions, we let them be. We don't act them out or repress them. We simply let them be. We simply connect with what they feel like. Instead of tightening up with our strong opinions and storylines, we relax and allow the co-emergent wisdom in our kleshas to speak for itself. If we practice in this way, our emotions themselves will become our most direct path of awakening.
  26. An essential thing to remember, and one that will serve us well in the bardos, is that the nature of all these buddhas, those awakened beings, is no different from the nature of our own mind.
  27. If we train ourselves as much as possible in staying open to the unpredictable, groundless appearances of this life, we may have the instinct to stay open in the bardo of dharmata and become fully awakened.
  28. On a simple, everyday level, sacred world begins with an attitude of openness and curiosity rather than judgment and dread. When you wake up in the morning, you think, "I wonder what's going to happen today" as opposed to "I've already figured out why today is going to be miserable." Your attitude is "I'm ready for anything," rather than "Oy vey."
  29. "Basic goodness" isn't about good and bad in the ordinary, dualistic sense. What it means is that everything is the display of wisdom. We can allow everything to be just as it is--without being for or against it, without labeling it as right or wrong, pleasant or unpleasant, ugly or beautiful. This is the attitude of basic goodness. Instead of following our ego's likes and dislikes, we can learn to enjoy phenomena just as they are. Instead of seeing everything through the filter of our habits and propensities, we can appreciate our world just as it is.
  30. The truth is not always something we want to hear. But in order to experience our full potential as human beings, we would be wise to appreciate the truth in whatever form it appears.
  31. It may seem like we're smelling the same lilac scent or feeling the same anger from one moment to the next, but if we slow down enough to notice the continuous, subtle movement of life, it becomes apparent how everything is in a constant state of flux and that there are lots of gaps.
  32. It's said that in the bardo of becoming the first thing you do is go back to where you lived. You see your family. They're weeping and you don't know why. It's confusing. You try to communicate with them, but they don't reply. Then it dawns on you that they don't even know you're there. The Tibetan Book of the Dead says the pain you feel is as intense as "the pain of a fish rolling in hot sand." This is why the teachings suggest that when someone we know has just passed away, we should keep reminding them that they've died. Doing so will lighten their confusion and help them accept what's going on. We could remind them when we're beside their body, or even later at a distance. Unless someone tells them they're dead, they may go on for a long time without realizing it.
  33. Sometimes I have conversations with friends who have died. I do this during the forty-nine days after their death, hoping to help them make a smooth transition. The main advice I give them is "Don't run. Slow down. Don't make any quick moves. Face whatever scares you." That's good advice for life as well.
  34. Our ability to interrupt the momentum of negative thought patterns can be greatly enhance through meditation practice. I've learned this to be true from my own experience and from talking to many students about meditation over the years. The more we practice, the more we can get used to being present with thoughts, emotions, and circumstances that used to sweep us away. Instead of continuing to react solely based on habit, we can gradually develop some appropriate distance from the compelling events taking place in our mind and in our perceptions. We can get better at catching our emotions at an earlier stage, before the storylines fully kick in and turn our little sparks and embers into destructive blazes.
  35. Our felt sense of existing as a separate, special self is at the root of all our torments in life and in death. The more we can let go of our fixation on this illusory "me" during this life, the more we'll be free of that fixation in the bardo of becoming. The more we can realize the dreamlike nature of our life right now, the better chance we'll have of realizing that the bardo of becoming is also just like a dream. And when we realize we're in a dream, we may have some say about where that dream is taking us. Then we can use the clarity of our bardo mind to make a smart choice and go toward a pure realm or a favorable rebirth where we can benefit others.
  36. There are two kinds of warmth that soften us up and make us more decent, loving beings. One is the warmth of kindness and extending ourselves to others, thinking of them rather than remaining completely self-centered. The other is the warmth of devotion: the love for one's teachers, those who have shown us the truth. Both come from the warmth of the heart. Both make our lives deeply meaningful. Both bring down the barriers between ourselves and others.
  37. Seeing our emotional experiences as temporary states helps us understand that they're not our true identity. Instead, they become evidence that actually we have no fixed true identity. Our true nature is beyond any realm. When we realize this fully, the lid comes off the jar and the bee is liberated.
  38. There are countless people who live in places or situations so full of difficulty that there's no luxury of shifting one's attention from the outer world and putting one's effort into inner transformation.
  39. How we respond to the momentary, changeable circumstances of a daily life matters equally now and when we die. As Trungpa Rinpoche said, "The present situation is important. That's the whole point, the important point."
  40. In life we have a choice of either living in our usual unaware way--lost in our thoughts, run around by our emotions--or waking up and experiencing everything freshly, as if for the very first time.
  41. In all the bardos of life and death, a key instruction is "Don't struggle." Whatever is happening, stay there--right with what you're feeling. Slow down and pay attention. Develop the capacity to stay in those uncomfortable, edgy places of uncertainty, vulnerability, and insecurity. Develop the capacity to flow with the continual change from bardo to bardo, from gap to gap.
  42. The most important factor in preparing for death is to remember that how we live is how we die. If we learn to embrace impermanence, to work with our kleshas, to recognize the sky-like nature of our mind, and to open ourselves wider and wider to the experiences of life, we'll be learning both how to live and how to die. If we develop a passion to learn about the groundless, unpredictable, unfathomable nature of our world and of our mind, that will enable us to face our death with more curiosity than fear.