The Buddha Loves Boundaries
To be fair, Pema Chödrön is not to blame for what happened. It was the late nineties and she was writing about starting right where you are and the brilliant wisdom of having no escape. She was sweet and kind and suggesting that we stop running from the pain and simply be with it. But I misunderstood her.
The first time I came across Pema Chödrön’s writings I was in college and working at a local public library in Fairview, a dot of a town in northern New Jersey. The library was tiny: four book cases, two tables, one bathroom the size of a hall closet. There, among children screaming to use the new computers, and white-haired ladies moaning about how complicated computers were these days, I caught sight of a new magazine. It was Tricycle or Shambhala Sun. I can’t remember if Pema was on the cover but she was in the magazine. It was an excerpt of her writing about anger.
I understood anger. I had understood it for a long time. There was so much to be angry about in those days: the way my father drank and raged at me, the way he narrowed his eyes at me, the memories of him beating me as a child. There were other things to be angry about, as well. The way white people corrected my English, the way money never stretched enough to cover the cost of routine doctor appointments. I was twenty years old and I felt justified in my anger. Rage, actually. If I want to be accurate, the emotion that rattled in my throat was rage.
But I also felt suffocated by that emotion. On certain days, at certain moments, the rage took such hold of me that I had no control over myself. I snapped at people I loved: my mother, my sister, my boyfriend. When I yelled at the people who deserved it, like my father, it only made him bark back and at a higher volume. I muttered too, about the white people controlling America’s political infrastructure as if that would hurt them, and then I felt worse about myself. I knew I was miserable but I didn’t know why rage wasn’t fixing the problem.
And there, all of a sudden, in this magazine, was a little white lady with a buzz haircut suggesting that maybe anger was the way we protected our soft spot. I loved that phrase. Our soft spot. I read it over and over again, as if it wasn’t a few words but a rosary bead I could rub for good luck. Our soft spot. That’s the reason I was so angry all the time. I was fighting like crazy to protect a tender place within myself.
After that first excerpt, I went and bought a book of Pema’s. I underlined passages. I began quoting her. According to Pema Chödrön, it was okay to love where you were and to not run away from it. I read this in my bedroom in my parents’ home and looked around me.
There was the stench of my father’s Budweiser beers.
The nights he barked at me.
The roaches in the kitchen with their awful splayed antennas.
And the mouse scuttling from the stove to the wall.
And the poison from the black market—a thin, white powder—to kill the roaches and the mouse.
The blare of the fire trucks leaving the station around the block.
The violence in Colombia, my mother’s country.
The lack of food in Cuba, my father’s country.
The bitterness of my auntie who had lost her job.
And the sadness of my mother who had lost hers.
And the rage of my father who now had not a manufacturing job but one cleaning dishes and floors for white people.
Here was Pema’s suggestion: a girl could love this, even this, and what’s more she could find her joy here. I closed the book and wondered if it was true.
Pema Chödrön had no way of knowing that someone in my situation was reading her book without the benefit of a sangha, a community, a person who could have said to me: No, Pema’s not saying you should live with an abusive alcoholic. She’s not saying you have to tolerate roaches or that you shouldn’t protest class oppression and white supremacy.
But that is what I understood. I didn’t have to move out of my parents’ home. I didn’t have to yell at my father. I didn’t have to fight anyone or anything. I simply had to sit—and this is what I did.
I sat on my bed, which was the bottom of a bunk bed I shared with my sister, and I closed my eyes and did what the white lady without hair dictated. Focus at your nostrils. The breath coming in. The breath going out. If you find yourself thinking about your father drinking in the kitchen or the mouse that’s scurrying in the walls, bring your attention back to your nostrils.
I did this thing called meditation every morning and every night. It proved helpful to do this on the bottom of a bunk bed. My father walked past me and didn’t even realize I was there. It was like being inside a cave, the bed frame providing housing for me and my pillow which now served as a sitting cushion. I heard my father’s footsteps, noticed my mind wondering what he wanted, and I came back to my nostrils. Then, it was my auntie’s footsteps and the door to my bedroom closing and from the kitchen her sing-song voice making the announcement: “No, está haciendo meditación.” And I noticed where my mind was and came back to my nostrils.
Luckily, Pema said I could make a game of this. I could count one on the in-breath and two on the out-breath and see how close I could get to ten without being swept away by thoughts or emotions. Most of my sessions proceeded like this:
One-two-three…I forgot to send the email. Could I send it now? Maybe I could send it now and say I had trouble with the server. Damn it. Back to the breath. One-two-three…my breathing is so shallow. Is it? It really is. What does it mean when a person breathes like this? I should get back to my breath, but I’m probably not getting enough oxygen. Am I going to die early in this life? One-two-three…I have to pee. Four. Or maybe it’s gas. One-two…is my mother making patacones? I want White Castle.
Needless to say, I never reached the number ten, let alone the number five, but I did become curious. Some days, my breathing was shallow, and other days it swept in and out of me as if my diaphragm had developed some urgency. Some days, my thoughts felt as much a part of myself as the color of my eyes. It was nothing I could detach from. But other days, my thoughts lurched and then hovered near me but not as a part of me, and I sat there, patient and watchful. While counting from one to two to three, I began to discover that anger squeezed at my chest; sadness was not absence but a pair of hands pushing me to the ground, and excitement was a warm liquid that rushed into my arms and even my collarbone.
I kept meditating because I had always been afraid of emotions. I had thought rage or sadness would literally kill me and that made me angry. But sitting on the cushion, trying desperately to reach the number ten, I discovered Pema was right. Thoughts and feelings come and go. I could see my father passed out every night at the kitchen table, feel the rage flood my belly and my limbs, notice the tender spot in my chest for him, and return to my breathing.
It didn’t occur to me that I didn’t have to live this way. I really believed I was following Pema’s advice. Start where you are. Don’t look for a way out. Stay with what is.
It must have been a Saturday afternoon. I was home and so was my father. He wasn’t drunk but he wanted something from me. He wanted me to make my bed, I think, or to call someone. It wasn’t the request but his voice, the menace in it, the threat of what would happen to me if I didn’t do exactly what he wanted at exactly that moment. We faced off in the living room, him tall and muscular, his hairline receding, his eyebrows knitted together in a frown, and me, short and soft-boned, my own eyebrows thick and my eyes flashing.
“I’ll do it later,” I answered, my voice stern and on the edge of screaming.
“No, now!” he barked.
We stared each other down. At the window, it was spring. The apple tree in our yard was beginning its bloom. The branches sagged slightly with their new little offerings, swayed a bit more slowly in the breeze.
My father screamed again. I stayed silent. He screamed some more, and then it happened. It was only a second, maybe not even that long, but suddenly it was not my father before me, or it was not me. It was me sitting on my cushion watching my thoughts and emotions come and go and I could see—I could actually see that I did not have to get hooked.
“I can’t talk to you right now,” I said to my father.
Fine. I didn’t say it. I snapped it at him the same way I would quietly utter “damn it” when during meditation I realized my mind had wandered. The point is, I could see what was happening. I could interrupt it.
My father did the most peculiar thing then. He grew silent and glared at me suspiciously, as if he had come across a small insect he didn’t like but wasn’t familiar with.
“I have to go out,” I said, grabbing my wallet.
He shrugged his shoulders. His eyebrows were still knitted, still angry, still menacing, but he said nothing.
I walked the three short blocks to the flower shop and bought myself a bouquet.
This is what I appreciate about Buddhism and about Pema’s teachings in particular. Even when you miss the point, as long as you’re staying with yourself with a little compassion, miracles happen.
I continued like that with my father for many years, about seven years. Sometimes, snapping.
Sometimes, keeping my voice calm. Sometimes, yelling. But over and over again, coming back to my breath, getting a little less hooked each time and slowly beginning to appreciate the ways he cared for me, how he bought me pizza on Sundays, how he wanted me to succeed as a writer.
And I did move out eventually. I was twenty-eight. I moved across the country. After being away from him for a year though, I forgot my practice. Or rather, I forgot the awfulness of living with someone who drinks every day. I forgot that it’s better to meet my father early in the day before the alcohol has taken its toll.
It was quite the shock, then, that December, when I walked into his home late in the evening with my luggage and he practically spit at me, “Why’s your hair so short? You look ugly.”
I called a friend in tears. She was familiar with alcoholics. She had lived with one. She was also a Buddhist. I sobbed, “I know I’m supposed to stay in the present moment, to stay with what is, but this hurts.”
She listened, she empathized, and when I was done, she said sweetly but firmly, “No. You stay with the hurt inside of you, but you don’t have to stay with someone who’s yelling at you and hurting you.”
She may as well have told me the world was flat. I argued, “Pema says to stay with the hard stuff.”
“She means the hard stuff inside yourself, not someone being hard on you.”
To be fair, I wasn’t the only one confused about this point. Listening to a recording of Pema answering questions, a woman posits the same situation. Her mother picks fights. She thinks she should stay with the moment, with the pelea, but Pema says no. “The kindest thing to do there is to leave,” she says. That way you don’t keep the cycle going. “Boundaries are good,” Pema says. “The Buddha would like boundaries.”
That is how I learn that I can spend no more than four days a year with my father. That I am best off taking flights that arrive early in the day, and to enjoy my time with him in the mornings, before the alcohol arrives. Later this will change. But at the beginning, it is my boundary.
When I finally had a chance to see Pema in person along with three or five thousand people, a woman and then a man asked her the same question. The woman wanted to know if she should leave her relationship or stay. Was she running away from her soft spot if she left the relationship?
Pema stood at the mic, still white, still without hair, still sweet, and explained that when there is abuse, you probably do want to leave. Being in the present moment doesn’t mean allowing someone to punch you in the face. When a man reached the mic and admitted that he felt his wife was abusing him because she was nagging at him about the dishes, Pema asked him what he thought he should do about the situation.
He cited Pema’s advice to the woman. He thought he should leave his abusive marriage.
She was surprised. “What you described isn’t abuse—it’s marriage,” she said, and the audience burst into laughter.
I laughed as well, but now, months later, I feel a little ache in my heart for that man. The more I sit—the more intimate I grow with the way my mind works—the more I see that I cannot genuinely tell the difference between abuse and someone who simply hurts me with a bit of unkindness, with some nagging. My mind has to go through a routine, which roughly speaking is outrage followed by rage, then self doubt and finally fear.
The antidote is the same as when I first found Pema’s writing, as when a man in India decided to tell people about his experience: sit, watch the thoughts and feelings come and go, and try to make it to the number ten. Then, call a wise and trusted friend and everything will fall into place—even when it doesn’t.
Daisy Hernández is the author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir and coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today's Feminism. She's the Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. See more of her work at www.daisyhernandez.com.