Reaching Underneath Our Protective Shell by Pema Chodron

Reaching Underneath Our Protective Shell by Pema Chodron

There’s a slogan in the Mahayana teachings that says, “Drive all blames onto oneself.”
The essence of this slogan is, “When it hurts so bad, it’s because I am hanging on so
tight.” It’s not saying that you should beat yourself up. It’s not advocating martyrdom.
What it implies is that pain comes from holding so tightly to having it our own way, and
that one of the main exits we take when we find ourselves uncomfortable, when we find
ourselves in an unwanted situation or an unwanted place, is to blame.


We habitually erect a barrier called blame that keeps us from communicating genuinely
with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who’s right and who’s wrong. We do
that with the people who are closest to us and we do it with political systems, with all
kinds of things that we don’t like about our associates or our society. It is a very common,
ancient, well-perfected device for trying to feel better. Blame others. Blaming is a way to
protect your heart, trying to protect what is soft and open and tender in yourself. Rather
than own that pain, we scramble to find some comfortable ground.

The slogan is a helpful and interesting suggestion that you could begin to shift that
deep-seated ancient habitual tendency to hang on to having it on our own terms. The way
to start would be first, when you feel the tendency to blame, to try to get in touch with
what it feels like to be holding on to yourself so tightly. What does it feel like to blame?
What does it feel to reject? What does it feel like to hate? What does it feel like to be
righteously indignant?

In each of us, there’s a lot of softness, a lot of heart. Touching that soft spot has to be the
starting place. This is what compassion is all about. When we stop blaming long enough
to give ourselves an open space in which to feel our soft spot, it’s as if we’re reaching
down to touch a large wound that lies right underneath all that protective shell that
blaming builds.

Compassionate action starts with seeing yourself when you start to make yourself right
and when you start to make yourself wrong. At that point you could just contemplate the
fact that there is a larger alternative to either of those, a more tender, shaky kind of place
where you could live.

This place, if you can touch it, will help you train yourself throughout your life to open
further to whatever you felt, to open further rather than shut down more. You’ll find that
as you begin to commit yourself to this practice, as you begin to have a sense of
celebrating the parts of yourself that you found so impossible before, something will shift
in you. Something will shift permanently in you. Your ancient habitual patterns will begin
to soften and you’ll begin to see the faces and hear the words of people who are talking to

If you begin to get in touch with whatever you feel with some kind of kindness, your
protective shield will melt and you’ll find that more areas of your life are workable. As
you learn to have compassion for yourself, the circle of compassion for others–what and
who you work with, and how–widens.