Positively Kick Ass

Two Positively Kick Ass Spiritual Guides: Pema Chödrön & Louis CK

Go buy a concert ticket. Go buy a video. Give this man your money - it's for a good cause.

Go buy a concert ticket. Go buy a video. Give this man your money - it's for a good cause.

I think these two might have been separated at birth. Granted, the physical resemblance isn't all that striking, beyond the strong noses and sparse reddish hair. You're probably right to be skeptical about their spiritual affinity, too, given that Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist nun and Louis CK a magnificently crass comedian. But Pema and Louis have been getting on amazingly well at the little party in my mind. They've also been giving me some of the same invaluable advice... in very different words.

Photo by Robin Holland. Click through to the book at the top of my Pema stack.

Photo by Robin Holland. Click through to the book at the top of my Pema stack.

Pema Chödrön = spiritual guide. Not a big stretch. James Atlas recently had a great op-ed in the NY Times about the exploding popularity of Buddhism among Americans who've become disenchanted with formal religion (or never got enchanted in the first place). He has a word for people like us, "people with a stack of Pema Chödrön books beside their beds": he calls us Newddhists, and goes on to confess that he's one himself. You can tease when you're family.

So why are so many of us turning to Pema for support both at ordinary moments and at times of great need? If she's become an emblem, if she's risen to the double-edged status of cliché, it's not because she's feeding people pablum. Look back into those eyes. Can you hold that gaze? Remember, you're only dealing with a photo here. If you dare to ask this woman what she thinks about how you're conducting your life, you'd best be prepared to do more than rearrange your deck chairs.

"There is compassion and there is idiot compassion; there is patience and there is idiot patience; there is generosity and there is idiot generosity. For example, trying to smooth everything out to avoid confrontation, to not rock the boat, is not what's meant by compassion or patience. That's what is meant by control."

- Pema Chödrön

How does Pema kick my ass?

  • By telling me things that I don't want to hear, at the moment when I need to hear them.
  • By telling me things that I'm starved to hear, before I know I need to hear them.
  • By laughing at me, you, herself, all of us.
  • By relishing what's difficult.
  • By encouraging me to make a mess, and to embrace the mess I'm already in.
  • By leading the way to humility. Again and again and again.
  • Did I mention the laughter thing? It's important.

Chödrön's resemblance to Louis CK came clearly into focus for me when I read her observation that the impulse toward self-improvement is "a subtle aggression against who we really are." I love that. It's impossible. Pema has got to know that I would never read her books if I didn't want to improve myself somehow, if I weren't seeking to be a little less stupid and destructive, a little more patient and generous. But now she tells me to cut it out. What do I do with that? How am I supposed to be fully accepting and hopeful of change?

Louis lives the paradox. In his concert at the New Beacon, he repeatedly says, "I want to be a better person." And I believe him. But every time he says it, he goes on to demonstrate how feeble this desire is, how it gets continually swamped by fiercer hungers (for sex, ice cream, revenge, etc.).

How does Louis kick my ass?

  • By reveling in the comedy of limitation. He insists on telling us in excruciating detail all the ways that he fails to be a good guy, a sexy guy, a smart guy, a loving guy.
  • By "leaning into" his discomfort and shame and thereby redeeming them.
  • By transforming arrows into flowers. For $5 a download.
  • By staying tender.
  • By smiling - adorably - when he's just said the very worst thing in the history of human speech.
  • By being a big-bellied bodhisattva, a saggy sideline warrior - except that he now somehow finds himself an honest-to-god hero to all of us who dream of taking creative and economic possession of our work. That's transformation for you.

I follow these two because they'd really rather I didn't, because they'd both be happiest seeing me find my own way. (Well, my imaginary friends who look and sound like them would be very happy indeed.)


Just a human being...