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Current Update as of June 14, 2003

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The Places that Scare You

The Places that Scare You

Book Talk by Gayl P. Woityra

We all know the saying, "Timing is everything." Sometimes, however, certain happenings seem to be so fortuitous, so timely, that one is inclined to think that synchronicity is playing a part. Such is the case with the publication of Pema Chodron's new book just a few weeks before the horrendous events of September 11, 2001. The title and subject matter of Chodron's new work is a timely one for us all: THE PLACES THAT SCARE YOU: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (Shambhala, 2001).

Pema Chodron, one of my favorite authors, is an American and one of the foremost students of renowned Tibetan meditation master, Chogyam Trungpa. Chodron is also an ordained Buddhist nun, and currently the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery in North America established for Westerners. Her books, while based upon Buddhist practices, are written for a broad, largely non-Buddhist, general audience. Her style is easy and her point of view is down to earth and highly practical. Her previous books are START WHERE YOU ARE (Shambhala, 1994), THE WISDOM OF NO ESCAPE (Shambhala, 1991), and WHEN THINGS FALL APART (Shambhala, 1997).

It should be obvious from the titles of her books that Pema Chodron's teachings always focus on life as it is: filled with problems and the unexpected. The great gift she brings is to explain Buddhist practices in such a way that they are accessible and understandable to anyone. The great marvel of Buddhist teachings is that they involve more than precepts of how we should think and behave. While they do include mantras and slogans that would be acceptable to almost anyone of any religious persuasion, they also provide clear-cut programs or processes to use in order to work toward achieving such ideals as compassion and loving-kindness to all beings.

It is no surprise then that Buddhists often use the words "training" and "practice." Westerners clearly understand that practice and training are necessary for developing a physical or mental skill. We train for physical health and athletics skills; we practice on our musical instruments; we even train our pets. But it has been less common in the West to train or practice for our spiritual development. Buddhism, however, teaches that we need to diligently practice--daily, and for our entire life--in order to grow and evolve as spiritual beings.

Pema Chodron teaches these principles and practices. She has dedicated herself to sharing the teachings in order to benefit others. Her intent with this book is to share a guide on the training of "the compassionate warrior." "Compassion" seems obvious because it is a major theme of Buddhism. Why "warrior"? We learn that it takes great courage and fortitude to truly face our fears and become compassionate both to ourselves and others. Hence, we need to become like warriors.

How does this relate to our current world situation and to terrorism in America? Chodron tells us that "A warrior accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next." We presently see such unpredictability as a world condition. What most Americans have not acknowledged in the past is that such uncertainty has always been the human condition. We've been living with much denial. Chodron gently points out that "This not knowing is part of the adventure [of life], and it's also what makes us afraid." What can some of the training or practices do for us? Chodron says, "The central question of a warrior's training is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort." She points out that the human tendency is to hunker down in our "nests" like timid baby birds waiting for mama bird to come fix our fear and discomfort. Instead, we need to face and accept our own fears, which indeed takes courage.

The Buddhist practice or process involves being open to what is. "Openness doesn't come from resisting our fears but from getting to know them well." At first this sounds quite impossible or even contradictory to Western minds. When we feel scared we usually seek shelter, security, safety in external things: therapy, entertainment, socializing, medicines, government. Close examination of our own behavior, however, can show us that the very seeking of security reveals our great insecurities. Spiritual teachers always tell us that our only security is within. Unfortunately we are not born already in touch with any inner security. It takes years, maybe lifetimes of practice, to get in touch with our inner places of safety.

Life is clearly quite "unsafe." "The Buddha taught that there are three principal characteristics of human existence: impermanence, egolessness, and suffering or dissatisfaction." There are no exceptions; this is what every human being experiences. Pema Chodron notes: "Recognizing these qualities to be real and true in our own experience helps us to relax with things as they are." This is terribly difficult for most of us to accept. Human nature tends to want life to go the way we want it to go. "We want permanence . . . [we] seek security" and we feel frustration at any kind of impermanence, such as changes in status, perceived non-safety, loss of any kind, or thoughts of death.

Buddhist teachings can be helpful to many people at this time because "they encourage us to relax gradually and wholeheartedly into the ordinary and obvious truth of change." They take the point of view that suffering and dissatisfaction derive largely from our resistance to "the noble and irrefutable truth of impermanence and death." When we don't deal realistically with life as it is, "we look for happiness in all the wrong places." Chodron compares this to "the alcoholic who drinks to stop the depression that escalates with every drink."

Since "there is no cure for the facts of life," what can we do? One recommendation is to meditate. But Chodron points out that meditation is not a cure-all and should not just be "about feeling good." What is most important is "complete acceptance of ourselves," something she calls "maitri." [Italicize "maitri" please] "It is only when we begin to relax with ourselves that meditation becomes a transformative process." For her, meditation is "about being able to stay present with ourselves." She calls this practice: "training with kindness."

It is with such Buddhist teachings and practices that I see its great integration with all other religions. All world religions, for example, have versions of the Golden Rule (do unto others . . . ). In Christianity Jesus taught, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Buddhism provides various steps and practices by which individuals can actually apply these great precepts. A major Buddhist teaching, for example, "shows us how to transform difficult circumstances into the path of enlightenment." A key to this is to widen one's circle of compassion. The process involves awareness of our own experiences and pain, treating ourselves with gentle compassion, and realizing that "the suffering we feel is shared by all beings."

Various chapters in Pema Chodron's book explain clearly and simply a number of practices to use in order to work toward this spiritual development. One practice involves training in "bodhichitta." Readers of other Chodron books may be familiar with this term. "Bodhi" means "awake," "enlightened," or "completely open." "Chitta" means "mind," "heart," or "attitude." Other chapters present the practices of "loving-kindness," and "compassion." Each one of these involves a similar set of seven steps. Anyone could practice these steps.

The practice always starts with awakening loving-kindness or compassion for oneself. You can use a given aspiration statement or use your own words. The second step is to awaken (think of, feel, or pray) loving-kindness for a loved one or animal for whom you already have these feelings. The third step moves to a friend, using the same words. Now it gets a bit more difficult. The fourth step moves to someone neutral, perhaps a stranger, a person on the phone, a check-out person at the supermarket. The fifth step is to awaken loving-kindness for someone you find difficult or offensive. The sixth step expands the loving-kindness to include all of the above. The seventh step extends the loving-kindness (or compassion) to all beings throughout the universe.

In recent times many psychologists and counselors on television have encouraged viewers to take each day as it comes. This is a psychologically healthy approach to life, particularly in difficult times. Such a view is also basic to Buddhist teachings. Pema Chodron reminds us that "The key is to be here, fully connected with the moment, paying attention to the details of ordinary life." This is also where we find happiness and joy. When we stay present in the moment we can most easily recognize even the smallest blessings each day holds. Awake to each moment, we can feel gratitude for the good fortunes of family, health, smiles, supportive environment, sunshine, good food, whatever. Chodron notes, "The first step is to stop, notice, and appreciate what is happening."

Other current psychological advice suggests that we help ourselves by helping others. We have all seen heart-moving examples of such selflessness in the hours, days, and weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. Pema Chodron says, "In a nutshell, when life is pleasant, think of others. When life is a burden, think of others. If this is the only training we ever remember to do, it will benefit us tremendously and everyone else as well. It's a way of bringing whatever we encounter onto the path of awakening bodhichitta." It is useful to remember that these are the things that we ALL can do. All it takes is the discipline to remember to act with loving-kindness at all times.

Chodron reiterates: "This simple way of training with pleasure and pain allows us to use what we have, wherever we are, to connect with other people. It engenders on-the-spot bravery, which is what it will take to heal ourselves and our brothers and sisters on the planet."

In chapter after chapter, all fairly brief and all very easy to read and understand, Pema Chodron shares with readers the wisdom she has gleaned from her years of study, life, and practices. Readers will gather dozens of ideas to ponder, simple practices to try, new attitudes to consider. This book arrives at just the right time. While written before this year's terrible events, it speaks to them. These events are the reality of life on earth now. They are, in a way, a magnification of the realities of life in general at any and all times. As Chodron says, "What will happen to us today is completely unknown. . . . Whatever happens, our commitment is to use it to awaken our heart." The hard part is not to be swayed by external circumstances. Each one of us can begin in a very simple way: "Practice not causing harm to anyone--yourself or others--and every day, do what you can to be helpful."

"Peace between countries must rest on the solid foundation of love between individuals." --Mahatma Gandhi

Pema Chodron's book, The Places that Scare You can be ordered from Amazon.com by clicking here!

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