An evening with Pema Chödrön and k.d. lang

On June 20, 2015, I had the good fortune of attending an event at UCLA’s Royce Hall with Pema Chödrön and k.d. lang. The event, a benefit for Tools for Peace and the Pema Chodron Foundation, was designed as a Q & A with Chödrön and lang on life’s “big questions,” followed by a musical performance by lang. The moderator was Tami Simon, the founder and publisher of Sounds True.

Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun and prolific author, is widely regarded for the down-to-earth manner in which she presents complex Buddhist teachings. While founded in her own monastic traditions, her teachings are uniquely accessible and wrestle with questions about how to live well as a human being in a complicated and often painful world – questions whose relevance extends beyond the boundaries of specific spiritual orientations. As a result, Chödrön’s work has reached a vast and varied audience, both within the Western Buddhist community and without. While I am still only scratching the surface in my understanding of these teachings, what has always stood out to me is the wise, clear, and convincing tone through which she conveys two radical messages: You already have everything you’re searching for; and, the more neurosis, the more wisdom. (To read more on these ideas, check out this wonderful Brain Pickings post.) Fundamentally, hers is a message of compassion: learning to befriend the parts of ourselves we find most challenging, thereby uncovering the material that enables us to open to others’ difficult experiences with love and kindness.

k.d. lang, a Grammy-award-winning singer, initially seemed a surprising partner for this event. A little research quickly revealed – in addition to my strikingly limited knowledge about k.d. lang – that lang has been inspired by Buddhism for most of her life. About 15 years ago, she found a Buddhist teacher (after a difficult day in the recording studio, interestingly enough), at which time she made a commitment to devote her life to the practice. In addition to her music, lang is known for being a fierce advocate for a number of important social causes, including LGBTQ rights, animal rights, and human rights. Her own coming out on the cover of The Advocate in 1992 was groundbreaking, launching her into fame both as an extraordinary music talent and a celebrated figure in the LGBTQ community (read more about lang’s story in her own words, here).

It was a marvel that two such dynamic figures – well-known, inspirational, and powerful in their own rights – had found their ways to the same stage. Watching their interaction was a discourse of its own: Pema Chödrön, 79-years-old, dressed in monastic robes, speaking with the soft confidence that emerges from decades of dedication to compassionate living. And k.d. lang, young by comparison, both in life and to the Buddhist teachings, dressed with elegant androgyny in her signature suit, her speech carrying both a bow to Chödrön’s sagacity and a passionate, magnetic wisdom all her own.

It was the first time these two had met, and they spoke earnestly with one another, often without need for the moderator’s direction. Their dialogue was fluid, with their perspectives flowing synchronously on many topics. Both spoke to the importance of finding, and making, gaps in our lives – space in which we can find distance between ourselves and what’s occurring, or the storylines we tell ourselves about what’s occurring. Cultivating “gap-aciousness,” as they affectionately termed it, helps us to deescalate; to notice when we’ve been triggered by someone or something; to see when we’re falling into old and unhelpful patterns; to respond rather than react. This practice of creating space has been heralded by a number of meditation teachers and practitioners, in addition to Chödrön (who writes about it here), such as Tara Brach who speaks of “the sacred pause” and Jack Kornfield who promotes labeling physical sensations to create distance from them.

These gaps, they noted, can help us to more accurately see what is happening in our interactions and within ourselves, thereby providing a doorway for compassion – a practice which is only possible once we are aware that some difficulty is occurring. Chödrön and lang explained this connection between self-awareness and compassion by emphasizing that acknowledging our own difficult experiences and tendencies (memories, emotions, thoughts, habits) is the foundation for being able to support others in theirs. In a powerful summary, Chödrön stated, You can’t stand in someone else’s shoes unless you can learn to stand in your own.

On some topics, Chödrön and lang’s different perspectives came to life. Simon, the moderator, inquired about how lang receives her being labeled as a warrior. Lang cringed, as if the term was somehow aversive, and emphatically stated that she has never viewed herself in those terms. It appeared that “warrior” not only did not resonate with lang, but also did not capture a meaning with which she wished to be associated. In response, Chödrön inclined towards her inquisitively, an inviting smile playing on her lips. No? she asked. Well, what if a warrior is someone who leans into uncertainty, who follows a path s/he believes in, who acknowledges that both fear and love are part of strength? There was a moment of quiet as lang and Chödrön held each other’s gaze, as if following their own credo of creating a space in which to consider and hold their unique perspectives with warmth and respect.

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The evening culminated in a musical performance by k.d. lang, the memory of which still brings chills down my arms. To those familiar with lang’s music, it will come as no surprise that her voice and the message of her songs beautifully brought to life the evening’s dialogue on living with uncertainty, moving through pain and fear with authenticity, and surrendering to our own vulnerability. It was a reminder of how deeply creative expression can penetrate us, allowing us to recall singular moments of our own lives that inspired us or brought us to our knees, while simultaneously reminding us that such moments are part of a larger, shared human experience. The final song was lang’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – far and away the most powerful rendition of Cohen’s poetry that I have ever heard. It was as if she poured every ounce of herself and her history into each note, fully experiencing the meaning embedded within each lyric. Another listener aptly captured the heartwrenching combination of her vocals and the music as “a plaintive cry of human existence.” Words, however, fall short here. The only ending that seems appropriate is to leave you as I was left, with her music speaking for itself.

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