A talk by Pema Chodron at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, June 2, 2004
Transcribed by Steve Goldman for a dharma discussion at Cedar Sangha on December 13, 2011.


In September 2004, I attended a weekend workshop taught by Pema Chodron, which was entitled "Losing our appetite for aggression."  I found these particular teachings to be profound, as they strongly resonate with my own experience, and they offer a pwerful application of meditation practice to daily life.

Earlier that year, Pema presented a brief version of these teachings in a talk at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  i was able to obtain an audio cassette recording of that talk.  To make these teachings availabe to the Sangha and others for discussion, I transcribed her talk on paper (with some minor editing for clarity).

The following is my brief snynopsis of these teachings:

Sometimes someone says something to you (e.g. an insult) that triggers a strong reaction inside of you.  It stings.  You are hooked.  So starts what Pema calls, "the chain reaction."  Typically you first feel bad about yourself.  Often you trun that anger outward and lash out agains the person who hurt you.  That anger is usually returned to you by the other person, and the aggression escalates.

Pema asks us to find a fresh approach.  She instructs us to pause when we are hooked, and breathe in and out.  She tells us to focus on the feelings inside our bodies, to notice where the pain or the tension is located, and to let the "seeds of anger" burn up inside of us.  By slowing down the reaction chain, we are more able to respond from a place of understand and compassion, for both ourselves and others.  And, by not reacting in the habitual way, we create a more peaceful world. 

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 thte Buddhist teachings on karma,any moment in time,whetherit's your personal life or the moment of time on the earth in genral, 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 in 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 seends, creating their own future.  So whatever we do today and tomorrow and ever 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 fuit 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 you grandchildrens's future, and your grandchildrens' 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 givin 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 insecure."

Sowehow it rang true with me that we're in a major change, a major transition in the world.  And everyone s 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 alot.

There is a book by Alan Watts called The Wisdom of Insecurity.  And somehow this quote i pinting 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 freedome, 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 insecuirty 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, unpredudiced 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 what whenever you are in a hot spot or feeling uncomfortable, whenever you aer 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 prdudice, 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 talk I gave last summer, the sudden shock when you're about to cross the steet 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 unstruction, to pause at that point instead of following the chain reaction.

Just the fact that something has just shocked you, someone has just unsulted ou, 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 mild 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 unsult 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 in and breathe in and out, then I can have the experience of timeless presence, of the inexpressible wisdon and goodnes 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 to me on a silver platter by this person who yelled obscenities at me out the window of their car. 

Or, this person very close to me who said somehting that cut me to the hear.  The sting of that, I know from so much experience, that, usuallywithout any second though, it sets off the chain reaction.  But the instuction 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 frest 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 immediat experience of somekind of negativity.  It might be depression.  I might be envy.  It might be rage or hatred.  I 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 the 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 tighteing 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.  Andthat 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 ourself or about somebody else.  Then, usually before you catch this, you are already speaking our of it and acting out of it.  But my feeling on this subjuect 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 hood right at thte 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 theyve siad trigger in ou 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 agressive 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 peopel 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 felg 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 Rinchpoche, who started the Shambhala Centers, which are now led by his son, Sakyong Mipham Rinphoche.  I also have another living teacher (Zeger Konchol? RInphoche).  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 et 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 doin 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 indidvidual works with it in this way, it's not just a minor thing.  It's an opportunity to not only connect with the inxpressible 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 nonreactice 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 untheatened 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 you frear 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 mow 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 uncomfortaable feeling.  It jsut 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 poeple is not getting any less.

So I am saying that it has to do with developing an appetite for getting curious about being willing to pause and hang out for a while in that space of insecurity.  One of the ways i have thaught this is: when you notice that you're hooked, don't act out.  That would mean, don't follow the chain raction 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 apuse, breathe deeply in and out, and have the bigger perspective of knowing that 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 mements of time are impermanent and passing and fluid, we have an amaing ability, no one ever had to teach us, we're just bron knowing how to make it last a long time.  So, sincethe subject is aggression, I thing it's very important to say that, as a culture, I thing the aggression that needs always to be addressed is sort of the ground for all tf 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 oneslef, 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 simultaneoulsy, you interpret that as: something is wrong with me, I am bad.

Guiltlessness is very important in this process of burning up the seeds of aggression, in our own hearts and in our own minds.  My teacher Konchal Rinphoche 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 theis culture, comes from feeling bad about ourselves.  It makes us feels so bad, so wretched, so uncomfortable, tht it sets off the chat reaction of tring to get away from the 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 osme 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 feel like, you would say something like, "Bad me."  The aggression is turned agains 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 ddep discomfor about yourself.  If you went more deeply in 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 ifyou touch the sadness, you find the vast blue sky."

This is what I am incouraging.  And it will probably happen before you leave the cathedral even if 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 your own car and you're not talking or listening to the radio - nothing is destracting 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.  Yout 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 ptential for crating 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 continuin changing, impermanent, fluid nature of your won being and of rality.  And, as you are burning up the old seeds of negativity, you find that your capacity to love and care aobut other poeple 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 you eyes open, you keep you heart open, and you keep you mind open.  And you notice when it shuts down into prdudice and bias and negativity.  you develop an intusiams for no longer wanting to water those dees.  From now until the day you die, you want to instead be choosing a fresh alternative.