Venerable Thubten Chodron is interviewed by Jennifer Ghahari of Seattle Anxiety Specialists.
Jennifer Ghahari [JG]: Thanks for joining us today. I’m Dr. Jennifer Ghahari, Administrative Director at Seattle Anxiety Specialists. I’d like to welcome Venerable Thubten Chodron. She’s an author, teacher, and the founder and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, one of the first Buddhist training monasteries for Buddhist nuns and monks in America. Today we’re going to discuss how one may mitigate anxiety through meditation. Before we begin, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, some of the work you’ve done, as well as some of the work you’ve done with His Holiness the Dalai Lama?
Venerable Thubten Chodron [VTC]: Thank you for having me here. Let’s see… I wasn’t raised Buddhist. I went to a course when I was working as a teacher in the Los Angeles city schools that really interested me. It was like an incredible psychology of the mind but it was also a spiritual path. The course was taught by two Tibetan Lamas who had a monastery in Nepal. So, I went there and one thing led to the next and I wound up becoming a Buddhist nun. So that was back in 1975 and I was ordained in 1977. I spent a good deal of time living abroad in Asia and also in Europe and then found myself coming back to the US, working as a resident teacher in a Dharma center in Seattle for about 10 years. I then began Sravasti Abbey: we’re in the eastern part of Washington State.
I’ve always been interested in psychology. I found that the Buddhist teaching explained how the human mind works in a way that I had never heard before and it really was quite amazing to me. One of the main things that the Buddha taught was that our happiness and our suffering depend on what’s going on inside of ourselves. This is different than our usual take on life, where we think happiness and suffering come from outside, from other people, places, situations, your job, the government, whatever. The Buddha said those things may be conditions but whether we’re peaceful, whether we’re satisfied, whether we’re happy or miserable--that comes from our own mind, the way we look at situations, the way frame situations when we describe them to ourselves. I found that very interesting, not only intellectually but also, because there was practice associated with it, I found that when I did the Buddhist practice, it really helped me personally with a lot of different issues. So, I just have kept practicing since then.
JG: And then you opened an abbey…
JG: That’s fantastic.
VTC: An abbey is a Buddhist monastery. We have 17 monastics now and we also have many programs and retreats and courses for other people. People come from all over the world to attend courses with us. We keep busy!
JG: Fantastic; thank you. To get started today, the American Psychological Association defines anxiety as an emotion characterized by tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. This definition of anxiety has physical and mental components. I was wondering, do you think of anxiety in this way?
VTC: In Buddhism, when we talk about emotions, we talk about mental states. And we say there may be a biological connection or something going on in the brain but those are physical things that are happening with biological, chemical elements. But the real emotion is the emotion that you feel. So, I would say that feelings of tension in your body or, what was the other one? Increased blood pressure? I would say that those are physical factors that let you know that you may be feeling anxiety. Yeah? So, some people, when they are anxious, may have those physical factors, but I think you can possibly have those physical factors without being anxious or you could be anxious and maybe your body and brain don’t react with those kinds of physical factors. When I talk about anxiety, I’m talking mostly about emotion.
JG: Ok. Why do you think people tend to develop anxiety or be anxious about certain situations and how do you think that underlying assumptions about ourselves and the world work together to create anxiety?
VTC: Oh boy… ok, so there are two things there. Let’s start with the first one, which was why do people go from like being in a regular mental state to getting anxious. There I would say anxiety is related a lot to fear and to worry and it could be worry about our physical protection, our financial situation, our relationships, our status, you name it, we can get anxious about it. Seriously, you know, I mean you can get anxious because your plant isn’t growing.
JG: It happens.
VTC: Yeah, it happens. What I think is going on with anxiety, or what I also know from my personal experience, is that I am weaving stories in my mind. When we were all in English class in high school, we all thought, “I’m not a good creative writer, I can’t write.” Actually, we are spectacular creative writers. When we are anxious, we are creatively writing a whole fictional story. And who’s the star of the story … ME … not somebody else, I am. Then we write this story where there are situations happening externally or somebody said something to us or whatever and our mind takes these situations and imputes all sorts of meaning onto them, and then we think that what we have imputed is the reality of the situation.
VTC: We are creatively writing and what we’re creatively writing about is usually something that will not happen or that is very unlikely to happen and, even if it did, if we check in our lives, we have internal resources to deal with the situation. We also have resources in the community and our family and whatever to handle the situation but when we get anxious the story we write is I am all alone, this horrible thing is happening, what if it happens, what am I going to do? Nobody else can help me, nobody else cares about me, I don’t know what to do, I’m going crazy and I might be out on the streets by Tuesday and my marriage is over by Wednesday and my kid is going to flunk out of school because he couldn’t spell cat in first grade, he spelled it with a K instead of a C and how he’s not going to get into university if he can’t spell cat correctly. You know, I’m exaggerating things, but this is exactly what the story writing behind anxiety does. And the thing is that we believe it. But it’s completely made up by our mind.
It’s so interesting as I watch my own mind when I get anxious. I’ll tell you a little story. I was writing a book — this was many years ago, maybe 20 years ago — and the publisher did something I didn’t like and this happened and that happened and it was a whole huge mess and I didn’t know if the book was going to get published or not and I was just really, you know, anxious about it because I was responsible for writing it to some other people but I didn’t appreciate what they were doing because they were interfering, and so yeah, I was really a mess, quite anxious. And so, I happened to go to Dharamsala in the springtime, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama would give teachings. One day I went to the teachings and I was walking back to my room from the teachings and again my mind is ruminating about the situation. You know, I’m in India, halfway around the world from Seattle but this situation is alive and well, screaming at me with anxiety in my mind and all of a sudden as I’m walking, I said, you know, there’s over seven billion human beings on this planet and how many of them are as worried and upset about this as I am?
VTC: I thought, nobody else. There’s only one human being on this planet who is so upset and that’s me. Seven billion minus one couldn’t care less about what was going on with this book and the manuscript. I thought, if seven billion minus one don’t think this is important, why am I so anxious about this? Why am I ruminating about it? It is clearly not earthshaking, you know. When we are anxious, we feel like the situation we are in is a national emergency or equivalent to one. In other words, everybody should be stressed about this. But actually, everybody else is too busy thinking about themselves and I’m the only one stressed, and why am I stressed? Because my mind is creating a situation and then spinning, spinning, spinning around my creation. At that moment when I thought like that I just said LET GO – this is not earthshaking, it is not so important, you will find a way out to remedy this. So, I let it go and then I had a great time for the rest of my trip in India.
JG: So, touching upon that, I was wondering can you speak about the relationship between suffering and permanence and anxiety, how do they relate?
VTC: There are so many avenues from which we come to anxiety, and one of them is our expectations about how life should be.
VTC: I have a little thing that I call the Rules of the Universe. They are, of course, coming from me, they are my Rules of the Universe but everybody and everything should follow them even though they don’t know. People should treat me according to my Rules of the Universe. If they haven’t asked me what my rules are, that’s too bad for them… they should know already and treat me according to them. So, part of my Rules of the Universe, you know, are my expectations and one of my expectations is that the things that I like do not change.
VTC: Ok? They are permanent. If this situation, if this relationship, is going south, it’s always going south: there’s no hope for it. If my financial situation is horrible, it’s always going to be horrible. This is the mind that fixes things in time and doesn’t consider that things change. That’s one way I trap myself: I think the bad things are permanent.
JG: Oh, ok.
VTC: But I get anxious about he good things in my life because I think they’re going to end. So, the bad things, which are going to change, I fix in time. The good things, which are going to change, I expect not to change at all.
VTC: So, this is my misperception, isn’t it? That I’m expecting people not to change or at least the good qualities of the people that I care about and the relationship I have with them are not supposed to change. That’s one of my Rules of the Universe. Now, of course, everybody is changing moment by moment, they’re not the same. But when I expect everybody who is my loved one and my friend always to be kind to me and always be my loved one or friend, I’m creating a situation for anxiety because I know that things change and I am rejecting the fact that they can change. And that makes me anxious. Ok, now this person is my friend but what if they like somebody more than me? What if they move away, what if one of us gets sick? What if, what if? Again, we’re creatively writing “what if” situations.
VTC: Meanwhile, the people with whom I have difficult situations, I fixate and then I get anxious about those. Like “Oh, you know my brother said this now I can’t talk to him and it’s never going to change. And oh, he revealed how much he can’t stand me and we’ve been competing with each other since we were kids. How am I ever going to deal with this? I know he’s never going to change.” It’s toxic; that’s a good one. As soon as I label it toxic, you know, he’s toxic, the relationship is toxic. What’s toxic? My proliferating mind that is projecting stuff onto people, that’s what’s toxic, because I have my Rules of the Universe. My brother should always be like this, he should always treat me like this. He’s a living being who changes all the time and I change all the time, too. But I get anxious because I think it’s always going to be like this and how am I going to deal with it?
JG: Wow. Thank you.
VTC: This is what I mean: we just can create things. It’s quite amazing. Now, going back to your other question about assumptions that might underlie anxiety.
VTC: I think the foremost assumption is that, now it’s quite embarrassing to admit this, but we’re all friends so I think we can be open. We think that we’re the most important one in the world. Yeah?
VTC: I’m the most important person in the world! And that’s why I have my Rules of the Universe that everybody should follow. My happiness, my suffering, matter more than anybody else’s. I don’t care what’s going on in Syria, what’s going on in Israel and Gaza. I don’t care about the craziness in America, you know, American politics, nothing, you know. What happens to me is the most important. And that fixation on ourselves makes us so miserable. Why? Because we relate everything in the world to ourselves.
JG: Hmmm. Right.
VTC: And so, we joke about this at the monastery, the Abbey. I’ll hear two people talking in another part of the room and I’ll joke, “Oh you guys, I know you’re talking about me, criticizing me. I can tell, you’re not talking very loud. I know you’re talking about me. Look at that look on your face.” And I tease them about it because this is how we function, isn’t it? In your work place, if you walk in and two people are talking and their voice is low, they’re talking about you an they’re saying something bad. Anxiety: oh no, what did I do? They’re talking about me! What happens if they tell the boss, I won’t get the promotion, I might even get fired and then everybody in the office thinks I’m terrible, anyway what they’re gossiping about me didn’t happen and how do I clear this situation up and nobody likes me and I’m going to get fired and how am I going to tell my family I got fired. It’s because everything is so self-referential, right?
VTC: Then we get upset, stressed, anxious about it. I’ll tell you another story. I think stories are really good examples.
VTC: One of my friends, her son was engaged to a woman who was from a different religion, a different culture. My friend didn’t care, she was cool about that. And, obviously, her son was, too. Anyway, the fiancée’s family was having a big party down in Los Angeles; my friend lives in Oregon. She went down to Los Angeles. She didn’t know anybody there except her son and the fiancée. She didn’t know anybody else.
So, she walks in — it’s at the family’s home – she walks into the home. The first time she told us this story: “I walk in and there’s my son’s fiancée talking to somebody and she doesn’t even acknowledge that I walked in the room. She doesn’t turn around and say hello. She knows I don’t know anybody here, except for her and my son. You know it’s just common sense, common courtesy. If you’re going to marry somebody, you try and be nice to your future mother-in-law. She should have come up, at least said hello, introduce me to her family, made sure I feel comfortable. What’s going to happen? My son is marrying this woman and she is so rude and so inconsiderate! How are they going to have a happy marriage?” This is the story she tells.
So, because we do some non-violent communication work here at the Abbey, we said, ok, first, tell us the facts of the situation. No interpretation, no embellishment, no emotive words or words that exaggerate what’s going to happen. It took her a while to actually do that because she was so worked up. What she came to, the facts of the situation, was, “I walked into the house, my son’s fiancée was talking with somebody and she continued talking to that person.” That’s all that happened. Those are the facts of the situation, that’s all that happened. Now compare that with what she got anxious about.
VTC: You can see that the facts of the situation and how she interpreted things, how she imputed motivations on the woman, all of that was coming from her mind, her creative writing mind.
VTC: That made herself the centerpiece of the situation. There was a whole room full of people? How many people were in that room? Were any of the other people as upset about this as her? Nobody else noticed.
VTC: It’s just another example of like – wow – if I go back to the raw facts of what happened, why am I getting so anxious? I could have gone into the situation and introduced myself to somebody. “Hi, I’m the groom’s mother.” And then they would have said, “He’s such a wonderful boy,” you know? But she didn’t do that; she just stood there frozen, feeling offended.
VTC: She could have gone into the situation and just said, “Wow, you know, I’ll just go in and introduce myself. My son’s marrying into this family, I want to get to know these people.
JG: Right. And everybody could have been feeling anxious at the same time…
VTC: Right! Yeah, because they don’t know everybody at the gathering either.
JG: Right. Thank you. So, in terms of anxiety and trying to mitigate that, can having a spiritual path help lessen anxiety and, as a Buddhist, how does the practice of Buddhist teachings help you with anxiety?
VTC: Yes, I think a spiritual practice can help us, no matter what faith you are. I think what’s common in all faiths is that we think there’s something more than our own ego and we think that there’s something more than just the happiness of this life.
VTC: Whatever religion one is, if one has a practice in that religion, that can help you expand your vision. Anxiety, stress, is very narrow vision. It’s all about me in this situation right now and my misery. If you have a spiritual path, your mind thinks about other people, it thinks about the future, it thinks about being an ethical person and keeping good ethical conduct. That’s common in all faiths. In Buddhism, in particular, we have a genre of teachings, called lojong in Tibetan, meaning mind training or thought training. It’s a series of teachings that show you how to describe things from another perspective so that your anxiety, your anger, your fear, your greed, your jealousy, whatever it is, dissipates. In other words, you’re not suppressing emotions or repressing them but you’re learning to look at a situation from a much different perspective, a much broader perspective and when you do that then the emotion that is based on self-centeredness automatically fades. This genre of teachings, the mind or thought training teachings, are the ones I rely on so much in my own life to deal with situations, because whenever you work with people things always come up and you have to figure out a way to resolve problems. As we all know, people do not follow the first Rule of our Universe. My first rule is everybody should be, do, think and say exactly what I think they should be, do, think and say.
JG: Right, yeah.
VTC: My parents should be this way, my mother should be this way, my father should be this way, my brother, my sister, my pet frog, you know, the turkeys that are wondering around the Abbey, everybody should fulfill my expectations. And, it’s not just that they should be, do, and think what I say but they should all like me. And they should all think I’m wonderful, right?
VTC: The problem with the world is that people do not realize that I am the center of it. That is the big problem. So, these people, they’re so stupid, they think they’re the center of the world, they don’t realize that I am. So, they need to change. Of course, I get anxious, especially if I have kids, I’ve got to rear my kids so that they become exactly what I’m not, they fulfill all my aspirations, they become what I could never become. You get anxious about that. This is all from seeing things from the wrong perspective. One of our practices is called seeing the disadvantages of being self-centered. We contemplate those. Another practice is seeing the benefits of cherishing others.
VTC: You mean when I’m anxious, I should think about other people. Really?? You mean other people exist as something outside the drama that concerns me?? You mean they have feelings? That they want to be happy, they don’t want to be miserable? Just like me??
VTC: There are people right now whose houses have been bombed. They have no place to go. Now how would that feel, to be in that situation? Right now, we’re in the aftermath of the Israel Gaza thing. In both Israel and in Gaza, houses were bombed, people were killed. How would I feel if I was in that situation? Or, how would I feel if I were a refugee? Fleeing from Syria or who knows where…there are so many places in the world now. How would I feel if I was a refugee having to go to another country where I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t speak the language?
JG: Yeah, right.
VTC: Oh my goodness, you mean there are people like that? They’re in that situation? So we start to open our mind to see what’s happening in the world. But then our mind might go to: well, there are all these rich people in Beverly Hills. I forget in Seattle what the rich neighborhood is, but they live there. They live in New York on the Upper West side, Upper East side, whatever it is. Those people are happy. No, they aren’t, No, they aren’t. I’m sure you’ve dealt with people who on the outside look like they have everything, but they aren’t happy at all. They have personal problems, they have all sorts of problems. Wealthy people, who have a good front, have a whole other set of problems. So, we begin to see, oh my goodness, I’m not the only one.
VTC: Instead of just focusing on myself, what about doing a meditation practice? There’s one meditation practice called metta – which means loving kindness – where we think loving, kind thoughts towards other people. We just sit there and generate these kind thoughts, wishing them to have happiness and the causes of happiness. And a compassion practice wishing people to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. You don’t have to limit it to human beings. Animals also.
VTC: Really, when you see what’s happening to many animals it makes me so sad. So, you can sit there and just wish other people well. It’s a fantastic practice and, you know, you can start with people that you know if you want to. They usually recommend starting with somebody you know who’s not somebody you’re really attached to emotionally, and you wish that person well. May they have good health, may they have good relationships, may they feel successful in their life. May what interferes with them opening their hearts to others, may they be free of that kind of hindrance. May they have love and compassion for others. May they have all their physical needs met.
You start with somebody that you know, that you’re not close to. Then you do the same thing for somebody that you’re close to. Then you do it for a stranger, somebody at the grocery store. Maybe your neighbor. People don’t even know their neighbors nowadays. Thinking about your neighbor: may they have happiness and the kind of things that would make them happy. What kind of problems could they have in their life that I wish them to be free of? After you’ve done somebody you know, then a dear one, then a stranger, now you go to somebody you don’t like.
VTC: Somebody you fear even, maybe even somebody who abused you. And you think, are they a happy person? Somebody who was mean to you or harmed you or cheated you, did they do that because they were happy? Happy people don’t wake up in the morning and say I think I’m going to abuse somebody and cheat them and lie to them, make them all feel miserable. Happy people don’t think like that – so this person must be suffering, they must be very miserable. It’s their misery that made them do what was harmful to me or harmful to the people I loved.
JG: Yeah, right.
VTC: Or harmful to the country – whatever it is. It was their misery that made them do that because in their confusion, they thought acting that way was going to alleviate their own misery and of course it didn’t. They were acting out their own suffering under the delusion that it was going to alleviate the tension in their own minds and of course it didn’t. It made them more miserable because they have to live with knowing what they did. So, they’re actually more miserable than they were before they did what was harmful. Aren’t these people, who are so confused and so miserable, aren’t they objects of compassion?
VTC: Can I open my heart to have compassion for people like this? Knowing that they also have the ability to change? That what happened was one part of their life, but they are more than the worst thing that they did in their life. And, of course, the worst thing they did in their life was in relationship to me, not in relationship to anybody else – it was always involving me, because I’m the victim of everybody else, right? But actually – can I wish them well? What would happen if they were happy? What would happen if their minds were peaceful and they had some wisdom and they realized that acting in this way wasn’t going to bring anybody any benefit, including themselves? And so, to wish them to be happy. I do this meditation with politicians a lot. I won’t mention names, but there are a lot of people out there in the government who need some compassion.
VTC: Or people out of the government who need some compassion. Because they’re doing things that are so harmful and they don’t understand what they’re doing. They’re so confused and so wrapped up in trying to promote themselves that I don’t know how some of them can live with themselves. So practice wishing these people well — may they have wisdom, may they feel secure so that they don’t need to take revenge on other people. May they have a magnanimous mind so that they wish other people joy and can feel happy by creating the circumstances for other people to be happy. Wishing that for those people is a fantastic meditation. It really helps.
JG: One question I have is, if you’re internalizing and you have all this anxiety and you want to try to meditate, sometimes it can be hard to focus and actually meditate. Are there ways to get over your anxiety so that you are able to start meditating. It’s like a vicious cycle, I think.
VTC: Yeah, it is. One meditation that they recommend is just to watch your breath. There are two points. You can either focus at your belly and watch your belly expand as you inhale, watch it fall as you exhale or you can focus at the nostrils and the tip of the nose and watch the sensation of the breath as it comes in and as it goes out or you can just sit there and feel yourself breathing and feel how the breath connects you to the universe. Your object of focus, your object of attention, is just the breath. Now, it’s very easy to get distracted because we are used to being distracted. When you notice you got distracted, don’t criticize yourself. Just know, ok, now I’m thinking about this or I hear a sound or whatever – and come home to your breath. See your breath as home and notice the peaceful flow of your breath as it goes in and out. Don’t deep breathe and don’t force your breath in any way but just imagine sitting there being peaceful and breathing peacefully and bring your attention back to your breath and watch your breath and relax.
JG: Ok. It sounds like you can really do that anywhere. You don’t have to do it in a special place or wear special clothes or have a special pillow?
VTC: Right, all of Buddhist practice is like that. You can do it anywhere; you don’t need special props or anything.
JG: How long would you recommend that someone do that for?
VTC: The breathing meditation?
VTC: Start out maybe five minutes and then you know then go to ten, then go to fifteen.
JGi: Oh ok…
VTC: And then, like I said, there are other meditations that people can do. You might switch into another meditation. In Buddhism we have many kinds of meditation. Watching the breath is one kind, but another kind is the the meditation on loving kindness and compassion. We have visualization meditations that are also really very effective, I think for dealing with anxiety and so forth. If I take a Buddhist mediation and secularize it because I don’t the audience — you may have Catholics and Muslims and Jews and non-believers. A visualization could be: think of the good qualities that you really respect in others that you would like to develop in yourself – qualities of love and compassion, ethical conduct, generosity, patience, forgiveness, humility – and imagine those qualities manifesting as a ball of light in front of you. If somebody were a Buddhist, I would say it can manifest as the Buddha figure, if you’re a Christian it could manifest as Jesus or just keep it as a ball of light. So, the good qualities manifest as that ball of light and the ball of light is radiant and it just spreads everywhere in the universe. The light from the ball comes into you through the top of your head and through all the pores of your body and it fills your whole body with this radiant light which is the nature of all those good qualities.
VTC: You’re sitting there imagining that this light is coming into you and that you are experiencing those good qualities and you can now relate to the world as somebody who has those qualities, as somebody who’s kind and peaceful and compassionate. You think, that light has come in, now I’m enriched by it, I can start to become like that in my interactions with other people. You focus on that visualization and then, at the end, you imagine that the ball of light — it’s very small — comes on top of your head and then it comes to the center of your heart and you think that now, at the center of your heart (the middle of your chest, not your beating heart), you have light there. The light of your own love and compassion and wisdom radiates, it fills your body and it goes outside your body and you start radiating light to other people, to your friends, to strangers and also to the people you don’t like and the people you’re afraid of and the people who have harmed you. You imagine that all those people absorb that light. And then you just stay in that state of feeling good about yourself and feeling good about other people.
JG: Right. Thank you. This has been beyond amazing and I want to thank you for speaking with us today. Is there anything else, before we wrap up, that you would like to add or anything else that you would like to share?
VTC: There is one thing. I think it is very important to have a sense of humor. We’ve got to be able to make fun of ourselves, to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves so seriously. To have that kind of sense of humor, we have to be kind of transparent. Usually we have faults and we hide them away and hope nobody notices them. But, hey, people notice our faults. So, going around like this, saying I don’t have a nose (covering her face) even though everybody knows I have one is ridiculous. Ok, we have faults, can I laugh at my faults, can I talk about my faults, can I be open about them without feeling ashamed and without blaming myself and telling myself what a horrible person I am? Can I just say I have this fault and I’m working on it and I can also laugh at myself?
VTC: I can laugh at when I act out this fault because sometimes what I’m doing or saying is so ridiculous that I have to laugh at myself. I think that’s also quite important.
JG: Perfect. Well, thank you again for being with us and for sharing this wisdom. I know you guys offer a lot of different lectures and classes at the Abbey so we’re definitely going to share the link on our website to your website so people can check that out.
JG: We’ll put both of those on our site.
VTC: And our YouTube channel because everything is about us!
JG: Exactly! Again, thank you for having all that information out there; that’s wonderful.
VTC: Thank you. Take care.
JG: Thank you.