This is the slogan about surprises as gifts. These surprises can be pleasant or unpleasant; the main point is that they can stop your minds. You're walking along and a snowball hits you on the side of the head. It stops your mind.
I was being driven in a car one day, when a horn honked loudly from behind. A car comes up by my window and the driver's face is purple and he's shaking his fist at me - my window is rolled down and so is his - and he yells "Get a job!" That one still stops my mind.
The instruction is that when something stops your mind, catch the moment of that gap, that moment of big space, that moment of bewilderment, that moment of total astonishment, and let yourself rest in it a little longer than you ordinarily might.
Interestingly enough, this is also the instruction on how to die. The moment of death is apparently a major surprise.
After the gap, when you've begun to talk to yourself again - "That horrible person" or "Wasn't it wonderful that he allowed me to rest my mind in the nature of alaya?" - you could catch yourself and start to do tonglen practice. Let the story line go and get in touch.
Usually we're so caught up in ourselves, we're hanging on to ourselves so tightly, that it takes a Mack truck knocking us down to wake us up and stop our minds. But really, as you begin to practice, it could just take the wind blowing the curtain.
I had an interesting experience of something surprising me like this on retreat. I had been practicing all day, after which you might think I would be in a calm, saintly frame of mind. But as I saw that someone had left dirty dishes, I started to get really angry.
Now, on this retreat we put our name on our dishes... there was only one woman of our group of eight who would leave such a mess. Who did she think was going to wash these dishes, her mother? Did she think we were all her slaves? I was really getting into this, I was thinking, "I've know her for a long time, but actually she might as well have never meditated for the way she's so inconsiderate of everybody else on this planet."
When I got to the sink, I looked at the plate, and the name on it was "Pema" and the name on the cup was "Pema" and the name on the knife was "Pema". It was all mine! Needless to say, that cut my trip considerably. It also stopped my mind.
From Start Where You Are : A Guide to Compassionate Living by Pema Chodron, Copyright 1994, Shambhala Publications.
Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.
This site provides an on-line database of commentaries on the Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices of lojong (Mind Training) and tonglen.