A talk by Pema Chodron at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, June 2, 2004
(Transcribed by Steve Goldman from an audiotape.)

What I realize lately in doing these teachings, the Buddhist teachings, is that there is no way these
days to do this in a way that is separate from what is happening in the world. The teachings have
to be relevant to the world situation that we find ourselves in. This topic, of losing our appetite for
aggression, is very timely, wouldn't you say? In giving this talk, I'm going to be addressing this topic
at the personal level—the level of each of us working with our minds and our hearts. But I want to
make it very clear that however we work with our minds and hearts these days, how we work with our
personal aggression, is sowing seeds for the future of this planet.

According to the Buddhist teachings on karma, any moment in time, whether it's your personal life or
the moment of time on the earth in general, is the result of the seeds that have been sown for the past
700 years. But also the seeds you sowed yesterday have their result in your own life now. And the
seeds that the United States has sown in the last year or the last 50 or 100 years (and not just the United
States, but all the countries of the world) have their result in the world situation today being as painful
as it is.

I know a lot of us feel a kind of despair that it can ever unwind itself. The theme tonight is that it has
to happen at the level of individuals working with their own minds. Tonight I'm going to emphasize
working with our own aggression. Even if the seeds have been sown by whole nations, nations are
made up of all the people who live there, sowing their individual seeds, creating their own future. So
whatever we do today and tomorrow and every day of our lives until we drop dead is sowing seeds for
our own future in this lifetime, and sowing seeds for this nation.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that the seeds that we're sowing now we will see the fruit of in 700
years. Seven hundred years is very hard to conceive of. But if you think in terms of sowing seeds for
your children's future, and for your grandchildren's future, and your grandchildren's children's future,
perhaps that is more real and immediate to you. Because we are more motivated if there is something
personal about it for us. Nevertheless, how we work for ourselves is how the shift will come about.

Just the other day I was given an article by a friend of mine. In the article was a quote by a person
named Rudolph Bayou (sp?), and I decided to base this talk around this quote. The quote goes like
this: “When an old culture is dying, the new culture is created by those people who are not afraid to be

Somehow it rang true with me that we're in a major change, a major transition in the world. And
everyone is rather nervous about how this transition is going, and where it's going. But this quote says
that when an old culture is dying, the new culture is created by those people who are not afraid to be
insecure. So this is a subject I teach on quite a lot.

There is a book by Alan Watts called The Wisdom of Insecurity. And somehow this quote is pointing
in that direction. So I'd like to describe what I'm talking about.


If you think of insecurity as being a moment in time that we experience over and over in our lives,
such as a feeling in the pit of your stomach that you experience out of nowhere, or in the middle of
the night out of nowhere, or whether it's a companion of yours. But if you think of the groundless or
unformed quality of insecurity as a doorway that could lead you into freedom, or, if you went in the
other direction, sets off a chain reaction of suffering and misery. And, to keep on the topic of tonight,
where the insecurity often escalates into aggression, that gets greater and greater and greater. But if
you think of the groundlessness and openness of insecurity, as something like a chance that we're given
to either let it set off the chain reaction, which is the habitual thing that you and I and all of us do,
following the habit (or what I call the chain reaction) of making things worse.

[Laughter] Finally you laugh. I thought that in churches people couldn't laugh.
In any case, if you think of this as an opportunity that either sets off this chain reaction, this habitual
chain reaction, it's a chance that we're given all the time that we could, at that point, choose a fresh
alternative. I'll describe what I mean. Things happen to us all the time that open up the space.
According to the Buddha's teaching, this spaciousness, this openness, this inexpressible, wide-
open, unbiased, unprejudiced space, which is basically wise and has a lot of strength for us, and is
fundamentally very good and sound.

This open space is accessible to us at all times. It's like the sky. It's like being told that whenever
you are in a hot spot or feeling uncomfortable, whenever you are caught up and don't know what to
do, there's a practice. The practice is that you find some place to go and look at the sky, to pause
and to experience some kind of freshness that is free of hope and fear, free of bias and prejudice, just
completely open and fresh. And this place is accessible to us all the time.

Sometimes it is said that it all begins with space, and space permeates every moment of our lives. You
could say that abiding in that space, ongoingly, would be a description of the enlightened state or the
awakened state. But, actually, for people like you and I, it's accessible all the time. We experience it
very directly whenever we feel wonder, whenever we feel awe, whenever there's a sudden shock.

I mentioned, in a talk I gave last summer, the sudden shock when you're about to cross the street
and someone rolls down their window and yells things at you that I don't think I should say in Grace
Cathedral. But, basically, the person insults you very deeply. I was talking in that talk about how that
sets off the chain reaction. And, in our attempt to get comfortable, we make matters worse by setting
off the chain reaction of aggression. But what I did not mention in that talk is that, before the chain
reaction starts, and before the aggression or the habitual pattern clicks in, there's like a shock, an open
space, where, if you had the instruction, to pause at that point instead of following the chain reaction.

Just the fact that something has just shocked you, someone has just insulted you, the ground has
fallen out from under your feet for just a moment. Before getting that ground back under your feet by
following the habitual reaction, you are instructed to pause and breathe deeply in and breathe deeply
out, and basically milk that pause for all it's worth.

Right there in that pause (I do this as a practice whenever the ground shifts), whether it's in the most
minor way of something hurting my feelings. Or, feeling afraid suddenly out of nowhere. Something
happens that brings up a panic. Or, maybe it is an insult or a betrayal. But whenever there is that sting
of pain, I practice because I know that that moment is precious.


If I pause with it and breathe in and out, then I can have the experience of timeless presence, of the
inexpressible wisdom and goodness of my own mind. I can look at the world with fresh eyes, hear
things with fresh ears, in that pause which is free of bias, free of thinking—just given go me on a silver
platter by this person who yelled obscenities at me out of the window of their car.

Or, this person very close to me who said something that cut me to the heart. The sting of that, I know
from so much experience, that, usually without any second thought, it sets off the chain reaction. But
the instruction that I've been given--and that I am going to point out, hopefully over and over tonight
in ways that make it more clear what I'm talking about—the instruction is to take that as a window of
opportunity that can introduce you to the inexpressible goodness of your own mind and heart. To let
that experience of groundlessness, or the rug being pulled out, or the sting that pierces you to the heart,
let it actually introduce you to a fresh alternative, to a new way of living, to a new way of experiencing.

When you follow the chain reaction (what I mean is, when someone insults you or when anything
unpleasant drops into your lap), you have an almost immediate experience of some kind of negativity.
It might be depression. It might be envy. It might be rage or hatred. It might be just minor irritation,
or it might be loneliness. But something gets triggered. When something unwanted falls into your lap,
there's like a knee-jerk reaction. You get hooked. And I'm saying, if you notice when you're hooked, if
you notice that sting of feeling hooked, usually what will happen (and you can observe this, sometimes
you can observe it right as it starts), you feel yourself tightening and shutting down. If someone were
to tap you on the shoulder and say, “What does this feel like,” you would say, “It feels bad.”

And probably what you would say is that it makes you feel bad about yourself. And that feels bad.
Something has happened and there's a bad feeling. And you want to get out of there. So, to use the
language of sowing seeds, you water the seeds that are already there of strong habitual pattern. And
the next thing you know, your mind is going on and on with resentful, aggressive, irritated, negative
thinking about yourself or about somebody else. Then, usually before you catch this, you are already
speaking out of it and acting out of it. But my feeling on this subject is that it is never too late in the
chain reaction to catch the fact that you are hooked.

So whether it's a little teensy weensy hook right at the beginning, where something happens, it doesn't
have to be someone rolling down their window insulting you, it can just be inexplicable to you and
to everyone else why it is that you get hooked. But someone is talking to you and you can feel that
something that they've said triggers in you some tightness in yourself, some pulling back, some closing
down. You could notice it there, and that would be like a tiny little hook right there. But, as most
people say, usually it's at least a medium-sized hook before you start to notice it. And, generally
speaking, a really big hook. You're like a fish who's bitten the hook, and it's dragging you, it's dragging
you. This is what I mean by the chain reaction.

All of our aggressive speech and aggressive actions start in the mind, and it starts when we get
triggered, when we get hooked. That is a moment of truth for people who wish to not water the old
seeds of aggression, but to burn up the seeds of aggression, to actually burn them up. I often wondered,
when you're insulted, and you pause and you breathe with it, why it felt like you were sitting in the
middle of a fire.

I was having a conversation. I have two principal teachers. My main teacher was Chogyam Trungpa


Rinpoche, who started the Shambhala Centers, which are now led by his son, Sakyong Mipham
Rinpoche. I also have another living teacher (Zeger Konchal? Rinpoche). I was talking with Konchal
Rinpoche recently, and I said, “Why is it that when you don't do the habitual thing, when you don't
water the seeds of aggression, which is the way that you habitually try to get out of the discomfort of
being hooked. Why is it that it is so uncomfortable, and feels like sitting in the middle of the fire?

And he said, “Because you are burning up the seeds of aggression by not doing the habitual thing.”
You are burning up your personal seeds of aggression. And we could say, in terms of this talk, the
seeds of aggression of the earth. As each individual works with it in this way, it's not just a minor
thing. It's an opportunity to not only connect with the inexpressible goodness of our minds and our
hearts, but also to burn up the seeds of aggression.

Someone asked me, “What would it feel like to burn up those seeds? If you were a person who did not
have any seeds of aggression, what would that look like?” They asked the question because they were
thinking you'd probably be pretty boring. No juice, no passion.

I said I really wouldn't know from personal experience [laughter], but I imagine that you'd be the
kind of person that I would like to hang out with. Because it isn't that you'd have no juice. It isn't
that you would have no passion for life. What it would mean is that I wouldn't have to be walking
around on tiptoes that everything I said was going to trigger you in some way. And you were going
to, inexplicably to me, get all worked up because of something that I said or because of how I looked.
You'd be a nonreactive person in the sense of not being so easily worked up or triggered off.

Also, I would imagine from the awakened people I've known, they're all very playful, very curious,
very unthreatened by things. They go into situations with their eyes and their hearts wide open. They
have a real appetite for life instead of an appetite for aggression. They are, as this quote would say, not
afraid to be insecure. I think the reason why the quote struck me so much is because what I'm saying
here in terms of lessening your personal aggression, burning up the seeds of your own aggression, as
well as the seeds of your fear of other people's aggression, what it means is that, in order to change the
habit and burn up those seeds, developing an appetite and losing one's fear. Or at least getting very
curious about what I now like to call positive groundlessness, or positive insecurity.

My own experience is that if we are inspired about not following the same old chain reaction—which
is always, when we get triggered, we want to get out of the hot seat. We want to get away from that
uncomfortable feeling. It just seems reasonable to want to do so, except for the fact that, as you may
have noticed, it doesn't really work. We've been trying the same ways of getting comfortable for as
long as we can remember. And then we notice that our aggression, or our fear, or our anxiety, or our
resentfulness, or our criticalness of ourselves and other people is not getting any less.

So I am saying that it has to do with developing an appetite for getting curious and being willing
to pause and hang out for awhile in that space of insecurity. One of the ways I have taught this is:
when you notice that you're hooked, don't act out. That would mean, don't follow the chain reaction
of beginning to speak and act out of the discomfort of being hooked. But also don't repress. This
is another chain reaction—a chain reaction of shutting down and not facing directly and having an
immediate experience of what's going on.

So, when you notice that you're hooked, don't act out, don't repress, but let it pierce you to the heart.


Another way I have taught this is: when you notice that you're hooked, drop the story line and relax
with the underlying energy. Currently I'm saying, that when you notice that you're hooked, just pause,
breathe deeply in and out, and have the bigger perspective of knowing that this is a moment in time
that is impermanent, shifting, and changing. This insecurity that you're feeling is nothing monolithic,
it's nothing solid. It's not graspable, and it is passing. You breathe with it, relax with it, and let it pass
through you.

Generally speaking, even though these moments of time are impermanent and passing and fluid, we
have an amazing ability, no one ever had to teach us, we're just born knowing how to make it last a
long time. So, since the subject is aggression, I think it's very important to say that, as a culture, I think
the aggression that needs always to be addressed is sort of the ground for all of this kind of practice, of
not being afraid to be insecure. It's about this practice of developing a curiosity about what it feels like
to be triggered. The ground of that has to be a loving kindness for oneself, some attitude of honesty
and gentleness, some ability to pay attention and stay with yourself.

Because, generally speaking, when you notice that you're hooked, you turn the aggression against
yourself, and you feel like you're a bad person to be hooked. In other words, you see that you are
hooked, and it has the taste and smell and is pregnant with resentment, or criticalness, or envy, or
hatred, or bitterness of some kind, or discouragement. Almost simultaneously, you interpret that as:
something is wrong with me, I am bad.

Guiltlessness is very important is this process of burning up the seeds of aggression, in our own hearts
and in our own minds. My teacher Konchal Rinpoche taught me that, fundamentally, we are not guilty
no matter how we feel. I think that most of the striking out at other people, for us in this culture, comes
from a feeling bad about ourselves. It's makes us feel so bad, so wretched, so uncomfortable, that it
sets off the chain reaction of trying to get away from that feeling.

Then something very habitual happens. Some of us get depressed on the spot, some of us get angry.
Some of us feel terribly lonely at that moment. The hook is some kind of feeling of despondency, or
rage, or something very, very familiar. If you got hooked and someone were to give you four seconds
or a moment and then tap you on the shoulder and say what does this feeling like, you would say
something like, “Bad me.” The aggression is turned against yourself.

Maybe if you waited four minutes and then someone tapped you on the shoulder, you would say
something like: “They are really wrong. They did this to me and it's their fault that I'm in this
situation. But, in that moment, if you were to pause and start breathing and let the whole thing unwind,
and unravel, and hang out in that uncomfortable yet impermanent, ineffable space, you would realize
that all of this blaming of other people is about some deep discomfort about yourself. If you went more
deeply into that discomfort, you would probably find sadness.

I quote this poem by Rick Fields a lot, where he said: “Behind all the hardness, there is fear. And if
you touch the fear, you find the tenderness of sadness. And if you touch the sadness, you find the vast
blue sky.”

This is what I am encouraging. And it will probably happen before you leave the cathedral even it isn't
happening right now: the next time you feel yourself hooked. If you're on a bus when you get hooked
or you're driving you're own car and you're not talking or listening to the radio—nothing is distracting


you—you can actually feel yourself getting hooked. You can feel the tightening. But even if it's a
really big hook, and you're already all worked up, you pause and you breathe with it. And you don't
act out and you don't repress. You think of this quote: “The ones who create the new culture are those
who are not afraid to be insecure.”

Whatever it is that you think at that moment-- if you think: “This is what it feels like to be burning up
the seeds that have caused all the pain on this earth right now.” You have to reframe that bad feeling,
so that you see it as a doorway, an opening to the vast blue sky, to the tenderness of your being. It
takes a lot of courage to not just follow the chain reaction.

So somehow, right there, in these moments that we're given over and over again, if we can realize
that the insecurity that we're feeling has all the potential for creating the new culture, a culture based
on love and compassion, rather than on fear (where we need a Homeland Security system to protect
ourselves). In this other approach, you open yourself to the continuing changing, impermanent, fluid
nature of your own being and of reality. And, as you are burning up the old seeds of negativity, you
find that your capacity to love and care about other people increases. You can look out of your eyes
and not be afraid of the fear that the outer circumstances might bring up in you. You keep your eyes
open, you keep your heart open, and you keep your mind open. And you notice when it shuts down
into prejudice and bias and negativity. You develop an enthusiasm for no longer wanting to water
those seeds. From now until the day you die, you want to instead be choosing a fresh alternative.