Pema Chodron is the first American in the Vajrayana tradition of Tantric Buddhism to become a fully ordained nun. She was born in 1936 in New York as Deirdre Blomfield-Brown. Pema married at the age of 21 and had two children with her husband; the family moved to California where Pema graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and became an elementary school teacher.
A few years later, this marriage dissolved and Pema eventually remarried – eight years later, her husband said he was having an affair and wanted a divorce. This marital crisis would be Pema’s spiritual awakening as she explored a variety of therapies and religious practices, ultimately discovering Buddhism. The suggestion to work with emotions rather than trying to get rid of them resonated with her.
While in her mid-thirties, Pema traveled to the French Alps and met Lama Chime Rinpoche. He agreed to let her study with him, so for the next several years she was his student in London and divided her time between England and the United States. When Pema was in America, she studied with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche at his center in San Francisco. Trungpa Rinpoche helped Pema to see that she was stuck repeating the same habitual patterns, and he became her guru. Pema studied with Trungpa Rinpoche from the 1970s up to his death in 1987.
Pema became a novice nun in 1974 while she was studying with Lama Chime in London, ordained by. His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa who came to England at that time. At the request of the Sixteenth Karmapa, in Hong Kong in 1981, Pema received the full monastic ordination in the Chinese lineage of Buddhism.
After this landmark ordination, Pema served as the director of Karma Dzong in Boulder, Colorado. Then in 1984, at the request of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, she relocated to rural Cape Breton in Nova Scotia to be the director of Gampo Abbey, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in North America for Western men and women.
Pema published her first book, The Wisdom of No Escape, in 1991 and has written scores of books since then, the most recent being Welcoming the Unwelcome which came out in 2019. She divides her time between teaching in Canada and the United States and in solitary retreat, contemplation, and writing.
Pema’s philosophy of “Start Where You Are” makes the practice of meditation readily accessible for anyone, and her writing reflects the numerous benefits that mindfulness has on the mind, body, and spirit. Her work focuses on both the practices of meditation and breathing exercises, as well as their outcomes such as clarity, equanimity, resilience, and compassion. Pema’s approach combines clear and effective instruction with empathy-based guidance.
“Awake and be fully conscious of whatever is happening in the present moment.” (Chodron, Taking the Leap). This is the crux of mindfulness; a reminder to bring ourselves back to center, back to the present moment. To be fully engaged with our reality, here and now. Mindfulness is not a state of being, it is a practice. It is a way of being; one that asks only for our attention and awareness – an ongoing exercise that develops acceptance, equanimity, harmony, patience, peace, self-compassion, and understanding. Pema instructs the meditator to “Pause briefly and frequently. Breathe. Stay.” (Chodron, Taking the Leap).
Evidence of meditation can be found in art and scriptures from thousands of years ago. There is good reason why this practice has gone on for so long in the cultures and religions of the world. Meditation provides us with the opportunity to discover what’s beneath the surface and how to reckon with what we find. Sitting quietly with ourselves and paying attention brings awareness to our mental activities and their impact on our bodies. We can notice the myriad thoughts that flit through our minds, the ego-stories upon which we fixate and replay in an endless cycle, and the bottled-up emotions causing tension and unease.
We also gradually become comfortable with the unpleasantness of seeing ourselves so clearly, and this eventually builds confidence, resilience, and compassion. Pema teaches “If we begin to surrender to ourselves – begin to drop the story line and experience what all this messy stuff behind the story line feels like – we begin to find bodhichitta, the tenderness that’s under all that harshness. (Chodron, The Pocket Pema Chodron).
We become connected with our bodies during meditation, helping us to identify areas that are sore or misaligned. As we breathe deeply, our blood is oxygenated and our brains are enriched. The levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, are reduced, and neurotransmitters in the brain increase the “feel-good” hormone serotonin which calms and relaxes us. With each inhale and exhale, our cleansing breath works to center and soothe ourselves. As the writer Anne Lamott so beautifully stated, “Breath is a koan: both a resting place and enlivening.”
Pema instructs the meditator to “Breathe in and out with a sense of opening and warmth toward the embodied places of fear.” Awareness of breath is a profound mindfulness practice. To begin this exercise, we start by paying full attention to how we are breathing. Concentrate on each inhale and exhale, and our posture while breathing. During the inhalation, are our lungs expanding? Is our diaphragm down? Is our navel out? And with each exhalation, are our lungs emptying and our diaphragm and navel going back in place? This process helps to make us fully aware of our breathing and, with each daily session, helps us to achieve deeper, fuller breaths. In her tonglen practice, Pema offers this guidance: “Breathe in the hot, dark, constricted feeling of sadness that you feel, and breathe out a light, cool sense of joy or space or whatever might provide relief. Widen the circle of compassion by connecting with all those who feel this kind of pain, and extending the wish to help everyone.” (Chodron, Comfortable with Uncertainty).
A meditative focus on breathing helps to decrease anxiety and replace it with a deep calm. We feel more connected with our bodies as we concentrate on the mechanics of breathing and how our bodies work in such perfect harmony, taking and releasing air. Our minds will refresh with each healing and rejuvenating inhale and exhale.
Meditation helps us to purify our minds, removing obstacles such as emotional fixation and attachments. This is beneficial to emotional control, overall health and well-being, and raising consciousness to elevate social good, harmony, and peace in the world. As Pema teaches through compassion-based meditation practices, when we are healthy on the inside, we extend and share that peace of mind and positivity with others through our energy, words, and deeds.
The practice of meditation can help us stay in the present moment without ruminating on the past or fretting about the future. We become “unstuck” as we release ourselves from the grip of our thoughts and allow emotions to run their course, freeing us from their control. Pema’s teaching helps us to see that “Our predicament is just a moment in time – and in that moment, we can choose to be stuck in an old habitual response or we can choose to be free.” (Chodron, Taking the Leap). Meditation strengthens our ability to manage stress in a healthy way, while creating a sense of equanimity to help us courageously and peacefully navigate the challenges of life. Meditation also brings us in touch with our precious inner nature and connects us with others in the spirit of compassion and hope that we may all be free from suffering. “Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are.” (Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape).
Committing to the practice of mindfulness is an adjustment that is not always easy but that is richly rewarding. This practice helps us to see that so much of our waking life is spent on auto-pilot, almost like a dream-state, in which we go through the motions and follow wherever the gusts of our mind lead. But we are not to lament or give up when we temporarily lose focus. Pema teaches “If we become drawn away by thoughts, by longings, by hopes and fears, again and again we can return to this present moment.” (Chodron, When Things Fall Apart). We can return to center; to ourselves.
The heart of mindfulness is awareness. This takes many forms: active listening, observing our thoughts without believing them, paying attention to emotions without being swept up by them, and pausing to simply breathe and be. Our presence in the present moment is the key to connection with ourselves, others, and life itself. Meditation also helps us to identify the habits and triggers that blow us off course from the path of mindful attention to the present moment. “We are stuck in patterns of grasping and fixating, which cause the same thoughts and reactions to occur again and again and again. In this way we project our world.” (Chodron, When Things Fall Apart).
Within the chrysalis, a caterpillar digests itself and releases enzymes that dissolve and disintegrate all of its tissues; this protein-rich soup fuels the formation of the butterfly. Destruction is a prerequisite to creation. Mindfulness helps us to see this interconnection, and not to fear it – rather, to move closer to it with curiosity and openness.
What are we willing to sacrifice in order to evolve? Are we willing to let go of habits, objects, and relationships that do not serve us? Are we willing to erase old programming; eradicate our ego-stories and mental scripts? Our reactions to internal thoughts and external circumstances; our preconceived perceptions; our patterns – within each moment and interaction, we have the power to choose the alchemy of transformation. “The ground of not causing harm is mindfulness, a sense of clear seeing with respect and compassion for what it is we see… But mindfulness doesn’t stop with formal meditation. It helps us relate with all the details of our lives… It’s a lifetime’s journey to relate honestly to the immediacy of our experience and to respect ourselves enough not to judge it.” (Chodron, When Things Fall Apart).
Presence is a gift received through the wholehearted practice of mindfulness. Being attuned in this way allows us to choose rather than to react, helping us remain calm, kind, and open. In the solitude of meditation, we find ourselves. In quiet contemplation, we see that change is the only constant and is nothing to fear. And in connecting with ourselves with compassion, we can find forgiveness, empathy, inclusion, and kindness for ourselves and for others.
“Being satisfied with what we already have is a magical golden key to being alive in a full, unrestricted, and inspired way.” (Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape). When we consider our society which is so fixated on consumerism, materialism, capitalism, greed, and gain, it becomes increasingly urgent and important to engage with meditation so that we purify our minds and become one with the universal truth of self and our interconnectedness with all living beings. When we practice mindfulness, we can free ourselves from the snares of ego and the grip of delusions and connect with the reality of the present moment. “Our true nature is not some ideal that we have to live up to. It’s who we are right now, and that’s what we can make friends with and celebrate.” (Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape).
Chodron, Pema. Comfortable with Uncertainty. Shambala, 2018.
Chodron, Pema. The Pocket Pema Chodron. Shambala, 2008.
Chodron, Pema. Taking the Leap. Shambala, 2001.
Chodron, Pema. When Things Fall Apart. Shambala, 2016.
Chodron, Pema. The Wisdom of No Escape. Shambala, 2001.
Miller, Andrea. “Becoming Pema.” Lion’s Roar, 16 July 2017,