Archetypal Character Study: Pema Chodron


An Archetypal Character Study by Nancy David

Editor's note: Archetypes are universal forces originating at the highest levels of creation to shape the physical world of Nature as well as the human soul. Larger than a single “thing,” they are the prototypes or patterns that emanate from the spiritual world and are revealed in symbols, images, gestures, energetic patterns and qualities in both nature and human culture. The ability to become articulate in this language is a fundamental practitioner skill in flower essence therapy. Following is an archetypal character study written by Nancy David as part of her requirements for the FES Certification Program.

Love-Lies-Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus):

Positive Qualities: Transcendent consciousness, the ability to move beyond personal pain, suffering or mental anguish by finding larger, transpersonal meaning in such suffering; compassionate awareness of and attention to the meaning of pain or suffering

Patterns of Imbalance: Intensification of pain and suffering due to isolation; profound melancholia due to the over-personalization of one's pain1

Love-Lies-Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) is a beautiful annual hardy plant which can thrive in both arid and humid conditions. This particular species, one of 60, has been cultivated for over 8,000 years in Central and South America. Currently, it is being grown in many countries around the world. Its leaves and seeds can be eaten, and it is shown to be very high in nutrients and proteins, more than many other grains. Its striking magenta red flowers are clustered into many miniscule grain-like buds, and this deep red color permeates throughout the stems and seeds of the plant. Love-Lies-Bleeding is a large bush that can grow up to 8-feet tall. As the summer wanes, the flowers droop towards the earth, mirroring the gesture of surrender and letting go, just as the Buddha touched the earth in the moment of his awakening.

Pema Chodron, renowned and beloved Buddhist teacher and author for more than 30 years, embodies the archetype of the Love-Lies-Bleeding flower essence. Pema's focus has been to teach students how to develop maitri, a Sanskrit word meaning “unconditional acceptance of ourselves,” as the basis of compassion for self and other.2 Through specific meditation practices, students learn to train the mind in gentleness and clarity. As a result of dedicating oneself to this path, true compassion can blossom and grow. As Pema says, “When we start to develop maitri for ourselves—unconditional acceptance of ourselves—then we're really taking care of ourselves in a way that pays off. We feel more at home with our own bodies and minds and more at home in the world. As our kindness for ourselves grows, so does our kindness for other people.”3

But how do we sow the seeds of this kind of compassion for self and other? How do we learn to surrender to our own suffering, and in that process, know compassion for all?

Love-Lies-Bleeding teaches us that when one can accept one's personal suffering, there is the possibility to learn and awaken to a more expanded compassionate awareness for all. Pema initially discovered the Buddhist path in the midst of her personal suffering and despair during her second divorce. Since that time almost 45 years ago, she has skillfully taught us many practical tools, based on the traditional teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Through specific meditation practices, she has generously offered us the possibility of how to accept, find meaning in our suffering, and turn the practice of self-compassion into compassion for everyone. Pema has learned to accept that there is greater meaning beyond her own experience of suffering. With humor and humility, she exemplifies the healing qualities of Love-Lies-Bleeding. Through her ordinary life experiences, we glimpse both her humanness and her transcendent qualities.

This healing and human potential of Love-Lies-Bleeding is expressed in the beautiful affirmation for the Love-Lies-Bleeding flower essence. By exploring each line of the affirmation for Love-Lies-Bleeding, we can reflect on the Buddha's teachings of the Four Noble Truths and Pema Chodron's life story, practice and teachings of the Buddhist path. As a result, we can better understand both Pema herself and how the archetype of Love-Lies-Bleeding manifests.

I allow pain to be a teacher for me.
I breathe into its meaning.
I bend but am not broken.
I surrender but remain serene.
I am the Light born of this embrace.4

The First Noble Truth: There is inevitable pain in a human life; inherent in being human is the experience of discomfort—                               
                                          I allow pain to be a teacher for me

Pema Chodron was born Deidre Blomfield-Brown in New York City on July 14, 1936. Due to financial difficulties, however, the family moved to rural New Jersey when Deidre was just a few months old. She remembers a relaxed childhood, and it doesn't seem that she experienced any particular trauma as she was growing up on her grandfather's farm. When she was an adolescent, she received scholarships to be able to attend Mrs. Porter's School for Girls in Connecticut, an elite boarding school which introduced her to privilege and wealth. But that time also opened up her world, and was the beginning of her spiritual life. The school “cultivated my intellectual curiosity. I remember it as a time of beginning to go deeper, beginning to want to know, and wanting to go further.”5 She continued her education at Sara Lawrence College, but only stayed for two years, and was married. This was in the mid-50s and she and her first husband had a son and daughter.  

Deidre left her first husband when she fell in love with someone very different from her previous conventional life. It wasn't until her second marriage ended some eight years later because her husband had an affair, that Pema shares, “I felt very rejected by my (second) husband...I felt that kind of groundlessness and fear that people in a dependent relationship feel when they suddenly don't have it anymore. The feeling was devastating to I started looking around for answers—primarily how to deal with the intensity of my anger, which scared me a lot. A major habitual tendency that had been part of my identity was gone. And that produced terror.”6 It was at that time of Deidre's personal anguish that she began exploring various ways to feel better about her situation. Trying different therapies and spiritual paths, she happened upon an article in a magazine entitled “Working with Negativity,” by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a “crazy wisdom” Tibetan guru.

She knew nothing about Buddhism at the time, but something in the article spoke powerfully to her experience, and opened up her heart and curiosity. The message was a description of the possibility that one might relate to negativity and difficulty in life as holding inherent potential wisdom, rather than seeing one's personal hardship as wrong. In fact, one could even relate with all the emotions, rather than trying to get rid of them. This was a radical point of view which eventually led Deidre to the Buddhist path, with twists and turns along the way. Deidre was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1974, and it was at that time she was given the name Pema Chodron (translated from the Tibetan meaning Lotus Lamp of the Teachings). With her children now teenagers, cared for by their father (her first husband), Pema moved to San Francisco to a Buddhist meditation center and taught at a private school during the day. There, she received teachings from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who became her guru. As her devotion and meditation practice deepened over time, Pema became the first American to become a fully ordained nun in 1981, and she began teaching as a senior student of Trungpa Rinpoche some years later.

As Pema shares in her first book The Wisdom of No Escape, “There's a common misunderstanding among all the human beings who have ever been born on the earth that the best way to live is to try to avoid pain and just try to be comfortable...If we're committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we're going to run; we'll never know what's beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.”7

Deidre learned through her own anguish how to “allow pain to be [her] teacher.” As a result of Deidre's openness and commitment to be “with” her suffering instead of avoiding her pain, her life direction changed in completely unexpected and positive ways. With her life and practice as testimony, we can see that she has been committed to the ongoing discovery of what is “beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing.” And this has required much fearlessness and trust.

The Second Noble Truth: The Origin and Cause of Suffering and Discomfort is Fundamental Dissatisfaction and our Attachment to a Fixed Identity (Ego); The Third Noble Truth: The Cessation of Suffering is Possible—

I breathe into its meaning
I bend but am not broken

The Buddha taught that it is the struggle against the pain that is inherent in all our lives, the incessant avoidance of pain and our attachment to pleasure, that actually creates more suffering for ourselves rather than giving us the happiness we naturally seek. As Pema shares, “There's a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to get away from painful things, and that if we could just learn how to get away from the painful things, then we would be happy. That is the innocent, naïve misunderstanding that we all share, which keeps us unhappy.”8 We have all been taught to think that if we get pleasure instead of pain, or gain instead of loss, for example, that's where our happiness lies. However, because all of life is so transitory and limited, we only get momentary satisfaction and gratification. The Buddhist teaching is that “the root of happiness is thinking bigger—in being able to embrace it all, which leads to a kind of lasting, indestructible, at-home in your world, at-home in your body.”9

Through the practice of sitting meditation or shamatha (Sanskrit for “calm abiding”), we learn to relax and accept all parts of ourselves and the world around us, whether pleasant or painful. It is this kind of relaxation and acceptance, which describes maitri (loving kindness), by “beginning to discover your own humanness, your connection to all people.”10 The purpose of this meditation practice is not to feel better per se, but to see more clearly who we are as humans. Pema teaches that “meditation is about seeing clearly the body we have, the mind that we have, the domestic situation that we have, the job that we have, and the people who are in our lives. It's about seeing how we react to all these things.  It's seeing our emotions and thoughts just as they are right now, in this very moment...It's not about trying to make them go away, not trying to become better than we are, but just seeing clearly with precision and gentleness.”11 Sitting quietly, utilizing the out-breath as a focus that we return to, over and over again, as we “spin out” with our thoughts and storylines, we simply and gently label these thoughts “thinking”. We gradually learn how to come back to just being with ourselves as we are, in the moment. And it is this clear seeing with ourselves, this kind of honesty, that moves us towards a deeper understanding of the “sharedness of the human condition”12

Within our willingness to soften and open our hearts, we are able to step into experiencing compassion for everyone in a similar situation of pain. Pema describes this technique with much humor, as similar to training a dog to “stay...stay...stay...” She shares that “if you train a dog with love, kindness and clarity, then the dog is obedient, and flexible, has a sense of humor and can roll with the changes...when the mind goes off, you don't just hit yourself (bad dog!). No, you just come back...Whatever arises in the mind, you just acknowledge that it's there; give it all the space to be there, and then you just come back to being in your body, the quality of your mood...”13 In the Good Medicine teachings, Pema shares her own heartfelt humanness, through an experience with her beloved granddaughter. While taking care of her for the weekend, Pema had to give up her own self-deception that she didn't have any aggression. With humor, she shares that “losing it” with her granddaughter was just part of the realization necessary, just to “be there cold-turkey with what it feels like to be losing it”.

The next step of her experience was to also surrender to how embarrassed she felt with “losing it...that being this spiritual teacher that all these people come was like bribing the kid, “Don't tell! Oh Alex, this is just between you and grandma!” Another illustration of this kind of humility that Pema holds is expressed in her vulnerability and openness: “Yesterday I began to be very curious about the experience of resistance. I noticed that I was sitting there with uncomfortable feelings in my heart and stomach—dread, you could call it. I began to recognize the opportunity of experiencing the realness of the four elements, feeling what it's like to be weather. Of course that didn't make the discomfort go away, but it removed the resistance, and somehow the world was there again.”14 These examples from Pema's life show that she has not only learned how to “breathe into its [pain's] meaning,” but how to “bend and not be broken.” She helps us understand that “resisting life causes suffering...that resisting our complete unity with all of life, resisting the fact that we change and flow like the weather, that we have the same energy as all living things, resisting that is what's called ego.” And it is in that resistance and the willingness to “bend” that both our suffering and our loving kindness and compassion co-exist.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Path Leads One to the Cessation of Suffering 

I surrender but remain serene
I am the Light born of this embrace

Pema began to struggle with physical distress in the early-80s, which was chronic fatigue syndrome and environmental illness that wasn't formally diagnosed until 1994. She was eventually able to heal herself through homeopathy and diet. It was around the time of the onset of her physical issues that Pema had moved to Boulder to be closer to her teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. There, she held many responsibilities and duties to help maintain the center of Rinpoche's activities, though she had not yet started to teach publicly or publish any books. Besides extreme fatigue, depression is also one of the common symptoms of CFS, and obviously Pema was experiencing a serious immune disturbance at that time in her life. She requested permission from Rinpoche to move to Cape Breton, where land had been purchased with the intent to create a monastic setting. It was perhaps her desire to get away from her responsibilities in Boulder, thinking that life would be more manageable and quiet at Gampo Abbey. However, when she did finally move there in 1985, it was wrought with many stressful adjustments. She was named Director of the abbey, and continues in that role today. It is not surprising that Pema developed CFS, with her tendencies towards the Love-Lies-Bleeding archetype. Love-Lies-Bleeding “helps by moving the soul consciousness outward from over-personal identification and isolation, to transpersonal awareness of the meaning and purpose of such an experience...the individual is able to experience physical and mental suffering differently with the context of a larger, shared human experience.”15 I think that the suffering Pema experienced through the mental, physical and emotional anguish that CFS can manifest, was a personal turning-point for her awareness and meditation. Pema surrendered to the opportunity to deepen her practice and understanding, especially through the Tonglen compassion practice (translated as “sending and taking”). It is this particular compassion practice that has become a main hallmark and focus of her teaching.

There are many different kinds of compassion meditations in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The purpose of Tonglen practice is to develop compassion for self and others, but only after one has learned a sense of non-aggression towards oneself. The teachings state that “the path of saving others from confusion starts with our willingness to accept ourselves without deception.”16

The essence of the Tonglen practice consists in breathing-in one's own discomfort or pain in the moment, with the understanding that what one is feeling and experiencing is also felt by millions of people all over the planet. As Pema shares, “The Tonglen practice begins to awaken this realization of our shared humanity.”17 The next step is to breathe-out and send a sense of relief or joy or spaciousness to everyone who might be experiencing that same distress as you are in that moment.

“The experience becomes the stepping stone for understanding the experience of other people, and that kind of compassion is real compassion...a relationship between can look in the eyes of someone suffering and be there for them.”18 In addition, Pema teaches us that “Tonglen practice goes against the grain of how we usually deal with the world: wanting life on our own terms, wanting things to work out for our own benefit, no matter what happens to others. The practice begins to break down the walls we've built around ourselves, begins to liberate us from the prison of self. As this protective shield starts to come apart, we naturally feel a wish to reach out. People need help and we can provide it—both literally and at the level of aspiration for their well-being.”19

Pema Chodron has offered these precious teachings with dedication to helping us all to awaken to ourselves and others and how to “surrender and remain serene”. With courage, we can learn how to accept our human condition and “stay” with the pain and strife of our fragile and transitory existence. With openness, we can also learn to uncover our basic goodness and maitri, our loving kindness and compassion. Surrendering to our humanness, we are able to fully realize that we are “the Light born of this embrace”.

In conclusion, a final prayer from Pema is a loving aspiration for all of us: “May we all learn that pain is not the end of the journey, and neither is delight. We can hold them both—indeed hold it all—at the same time, remembering that everything in these quixotic, unpredictable, unsettled and unsettling, exhilarating and heart-stirring times is a doorway to awakening in sacred world.”

May it be so, with thanks to the flowering plants like Love-Lies-Bleeding and precious beings like Pema Chodron who offer us guidance and wise support.


1 Patricia Kaminski and Richard Katz, Flower Essence Repertory  (Nevada City: Flower Essence Society, 2004) 235

2 Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears (Boston: Shambala Publications,  2009) 85               

3 Pema 87

4 Affirm a Flower Cards (Nevada City: Flower Essence Society) Love-Lies-Bleeding

5 Lenore Friedman, Meetings with Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America (Boston: Shambala Publications, 1987) 96

6 Friedman, 97

7 Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Lovingkindness (Boston: Shambala Publications, 1991) 3

8 Chodron, 14

9 Pema Chodron, “Good Medicine: How to Turn Pain into Compassion with Tonglen Meditation”, audio (Boulder: Sounds True, 2001) Disc 1

10 Chodron, Disc 1

11 Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Lovingkindness 14

12 Pema Chodron, “Good Medicine: How to Turn Pain into Compassion with Tonglen Meditation” audio Disc 1

13 Chodron, Disc 1

14 Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Lovingkindness 40

15 Patricia Kaminski and Richard Katz, Flower Essence Repertory  235

16 Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears  98

17 Pema Chodron, “Good Medicine: How to Turn Pain into Compassion with Tonglen Meditation” Disc 1   

18 Chodron, Disc 1

19 Pema Chodron,Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change  (Boston: Shambala Publishing, 2009) 84                                                                                  


Chodron, Pema. The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness. Boston: Shambala Publications, 1991.

Chodron, Pema. “Good Medicine: How to Turn Pain Into Compassion With Tonglen Meditation.” Audio CD. Boulder: Sounds True, 2001.

Chodron, Pema. Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. Boston: Shambala Publications, 2009.

Chodron, Pema. Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. Boston: Shambala Publications, 2012.

Friedman, Lenore. Meetings with Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America. Boston: Shambala Publications, 1986.

Kaminski, Patricia and Katz, Richard. Affirm a Flower Cards: FES Quintiessentials. Nevada City: Flower Essence Society.

Kaminski, Patricia and Katz, Richard. Flower Essence Repertory. Nevada City: Flower Essence Society, special reprint edition, 2004.

Katz, Richard. “Sunflower and Love-Lies-Bleeding, A Study in Spiritual Surrender.” Nevada City: Flower Essence Society. “What is Amaranth Good For?” “Amaranthus caudatus” 

Illustrations from “images”

About Nancy David

Nancy David is a licensed therapist and long-time Buddhist practitioner. She has lived off-grid outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico for 24 years with her husband and two children, now global citizens. Recently retired from school counseling in the Santa Fe Public schools, Nancy has a small private practice in Santa Fe. Combining counseling with the healing art of flower essence therapy, Nancy is inspired to help facilitate deep healing for individuals who are called to receive the flowers' wisdom.      


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