NOT TOO LONG ago, a friend called and asked if I was mad at her.

"Why on earth would you think that?" I asked.

"Because you haven't returned my calls."

"Yours and a whole lot of other people's," I wanted to say. Instead, I took a deep breath and responded that I'd been racing around so much that I'd simply forgotten. Nothing personal. It gets that way sometimes. Most people are rushing through their lives, trying to somehow fit it all in, barely getting through their to-do lists. That's the reality of modern life, especially in a big city.

That's why Tenzin Palmo's story fascinated me.

Instead of doing what so many of her contemporaries do, juggling motherhood, marriage, and a 9-to-5 job, she went the opposite direction. After becoming a Buddhist nun, the British native spent 12 years living alone inside a cave in the Himalayas, almost totally cut off from the rest of the world.

No TV, no newspapers, no Internet and no cell phone. She meditated and tended her garden, subsisting mainly on tea, rice and vegetables. Aside from occasional visits to her spiritual guru, who resided at the base of the mountain where she lived, it was just Palmo and her thoughts.

That's a whole lotta time to think. Along the way, Palmo figured out a few things about the meaning of life and dealing with the inner self. She'll be in Philadelphia tonight sharing her philosophies at a talk scheduled for 8 at the Philadelphia Shambhala Meditation Center, 2030 Sansom St. Her topic: "Working with Negative Emotions."

"We cause so much suffering for ourselves because of our own lack of skill in dealing with our emotions," Palmo told me during a recent phone conservation from India. "We are incredibly ignorant about how to live in the world skillfully . . . we don't learn anything about how to deal skillfully with our emotional life."

What are these negative emotions?

Greed is one, although we don't always think of it as a bad thing, ever since Oliver Stone's film "Wall Street," with its mantra "greed is good," became a symbol of corporate expansion.

But Palmo sees it differently.

Quoting Buddha, she said, "Greed is like drinking salty water. You could drink a whole ocean and you would only be more thirsty. It leads to discontent."

In other words, the American quest to make yourself happy by acquiring more stuff is a self-defeating prophecy.

"Sometimes, something deep inside of us feels starved," Palmo explained. "People think this big, black hole inside can be filled with things.

"We are looking in the wrong direction. We're looking out, instead of looking in. What we need is to have a sense of our own self-containment, that within ourselves we are in balance and that we are centered. If you're really balanced and centered, you don't need anything," she continued. "I'm not saying that you can't want to get a better job, get a nicer house and have a better partner. [But] first you have to make friends with yourself."

Anger was next.

"If you think of anger like it's fire and if you're pouring more and more oil on it, you're going to get a bigger fire," she said. "[Besides] if you're angry with me and I'm angry with you, what does that solve?"

Then, she turned to pride.

"Anything that is governed by our ego is going to cause us problems," Palmo said. "When you meet somebody and you immediately compare them to yourself, you're in trouble. Why can't you let them be them and you be you? Why compare?

"Jealousy [also] is a painful emotion. Anybody who's feeling envious or jealous is not a happy person and can do vicious things in the name of jealousy," Palmo pointed out. "In Buddhism, the way to deal with that is to rejoice in other's happiness. If someone gets the promotion you wanted, feel happy for them."

Although retreating into a cave isn't an option most of us would consider, who among us wouldn't relish a little more quiet time? I know I could use it.

"Even in the busiest of lives, you can always take a few minutes to breathe in and breathe out and center ourselves," Palmo said. "The only time we have is now. If we aren't conscious of now, then we've lost it."

Wise words from a wise woman. *

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