Pema Chödrön is an American ordained nun of Tibetan Buddhism. At nearly 70 years old, she is the director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada and has authored several books. I first learned of her from one of the many YouTube videos available, showing interviews and teachings on Buddhism.
In The Places That Scare You, Chödrön gives us a remarkably rich, eye-opening, practical, moving, and genuine overview of the kind of training designed to help us overcome fear. As it turns out, this approach is one of helping us to become more compassionate – both with ourselves and with others (which are intimately linked, or rather, synonymous).
Chödrön often refers to this training as ‘warrior training’ because compassion (true compassion in our deepest habits, thoughts, and actions) requires bravery, strength, and steadfastness. To be truly compassionate requires us to venture into the places that scare us.
One of the things I found most striking about this book was Chödrön’s humility and honesty. She openly reveals moments in her life where she was much less than enlightened. Moments of anger, lashing out, and desperation. This is not some high-minded or abstract philosophic discourse, but real advice from a woman who has been through it. I learned just how apparent it is when an author is writing from a place of love and tenderness for the reader.
Chödrön gives specific techniques toward which the reader can apply themselves. This review cannot recreate what the book accomplishes in that regard, but I will merely sum up some of the concepts covered.
In discussing meditation, she cautions against self-denigration or ‘trying to fix ourselves’. Rather, “It is only when we begin to relax with ourselves that meditation becomes a transformative process. Only when we relate with ourselves without moralizing, without harshness, without deception, can we let go of harmful patterns.”
Through meditation we begin to learn how to say ‘no’ to our impulse to run away from discomfort, whether physical, emotional, or from boredom or distraction. We learn to have less self-deception. She quotes Kerouac…
“The Beat poet Jack Kerouac, feeling primed for a spiritual breakthrough, wrote to a friend before he retreated into the wilderness, “If I don’t get a vision on Desolation Peak, then my name ain’t William Blake.” But later he wrote that he found it hard to face the naked truth. “I’d thought, in June when I get to the top… and everybody leaves… I will come face to face with God or Tathagata [Buddha] and find out once and for all what is the meaning of all this existence and suffering… but instead I’d come face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it, but face to face with ole Hateful… Me.”
She illustrates how meditation is not about escaping, pushing away, or repressing difficult emotions. It is about looking head on and examining our emotional experience. We do this by shedding away the narratives attached to them, without condemning or justifying. “Acting out and repressing are tactics we use to get away from our emotional pain.”
Meditation helps us learn to stay in the present moment, without seeking escape into other places and times, keeps our focus on what is happening. This kind of attention is inherent in our ability to love. In her chapter, “Warrior Slogans”, Chödrön talks about 59 pithy slogans of Atisha, organized by Geshe Chekawa, taken from the teachings of the bodhichitta. Because it is difficult to remain in mindful during the passions of intense moments, these slogans can serve as effective reminders. “They encourage us to ask, ‘How can I practice right now, right on this painful spot, and transform this into the path of awakening?’”
In cultivating loving-kindness, she explains how the root of aggression and suffering is ignorance. We ignore our kinship and interconnectedness with others. We fail to see how, when we harm another we are harming ourselves. “The first step in cultivating loving kindness is to be more attentive to when we are erecting barriers between ourselves and others.” Chödrön goes on to talk about seven stages of developing loving-kindness. “The point is to consider everyone we encounter as our beloved.”
“Developing compassion is even more challenging than loving-kindness because it involves the willingness to feel pain”. Here she describes exercises in imagining the suffering of others and putting ourselves in their place, and learning to look on this directly without turning away or “shutting down”.
We use the earlier loving-kindness techniques toward ourselves as well, because we will need to learn “to soften our hearts and be more honest and forgiving about when and how we shut down”.
Chödrön says, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.” She then offers meditative techniques for conditioning ourselves in this way.
Other chapters describe the empathetic practice of Tonglen (exchanging oneself for others), examining the “stories we tell ourselves”, and more. On equanimity, Chödrön says, “To cultivate equanimity we practice catching ourselves when we feel attraction or aversion, before it hardens into grasping or negativity.”
“When life is pleasant, think of others. When life is a burden, think of others.”
She also cautions about the three enemies of compassion: pity (‘professional warmth’ that creates distance and superiority), overwhelm (feelings of futility and hopelessness), and idiot compassion (not saying ‘no’ when we should, to avoid conflict or preserve our image).
On forgiveness, we again start within, “There is a simple practice we can do to cultivate forgiveness. First we acknowledge what we feel – shame, revenge, embarrassment, remorse. Then we forgive ourselves for being human. Then, in the spirit of not wallowing in the pain, we let go and make a fresh start. We don’t have to carry the burden with us anymore. We can acknowledge, forgive, and start anew.”
Chödrön also calls out laziness where we often fail to recognize it as such. She identifies various forms of laziness. For example, the laziness of seeking comfort, which makes us hostile when faced with inconvenience. Another kind of laziness is a feigned self-pity and hopelessness as a way of escape. “I couldn’t care less” and resentment is another way we make excuses not to do better.
Later she addresses some of the sources of fear. “Through paramita we learn to be comfortable with uncertainty… It’s like lying in bed before dawn and hearing rain on the roof. This simple sound can be disappointing because we were planning a picnic. It can be pleasing because our garden is so dry. But the flexible mind of prajna doesn’t draw conclusions of good and bad. It perceives the sound without adding anything extra, without judgments of happy or sad.”
She also addresses the subtle and nuanced approach to ethics inherent in Buddhism: “There is a traditional Buddhist story about a ship captain Compassionate Heart, who was traveling with five hundred people when a pirate, Angry Spearman, boarded the boat and threatened to kill them all. The captain realized that if the pirate did this, he would be sowing the seeds of his own intense suffering. Moved by compassion for both the pirate and the people, the captain killed Angry Spearman. In the same vein, we sometimes have to tell a lie in order to protect someone from harm. There is no act that is inherently virtuous or nonvirtuous.”
Chödrön expands this to all conclusions in her chapter on Groundlessness, where she speaks of cultivating the ability to feel comfortable in the face of uncertainty. Speaking of the Buddha, teaching his students on Vulture Peak, she tells us…
“He told the audience that whatever they believed had to be let go, that dwelling on any description of reality was a trap… The Buddha’s principal message that day was that holding on to anything blocks wisdom. Any conclusions we might draw must be let go.”
Being aware of the judgments we are continually placing upon reality, which obfuscate understanding and mislead us. Again, being mindful of the stories we tell ourselves.
“…when we understand that there is no final attainment, no ultimate answer or stopping place, when our mind is free of warring emotions and the belief in separateness, then we will have no fear… To the extent that we stop struggling against uncertainty and ambiguity, to that extent we dissolve our fear.”
Although Chödrön didn’t go into the following specifically, one effect her book had on me was that it really drove home a profound truth regarding the real nature of strength. While all kinds of people go about hurling bombs and insults, worrying about themselves, and acting out on their fears; the truly strong among us are those who can be found caring for others in their most desperate need. All of those who humbly serve the needy, or who care for a spouse or family member going through great suffering day after day – these warriors are the strongest because they are able to gaze directly at the suffering of others without shutting down, turning away, or surrendering to despair.
It would be so easy to fool ourselves into thinking that our incapacitating distress and pity toward those in need were some sort of virtue. But they don’t need our pity; they need our presence. The same can be said for ourselves – we don’t need self-pity, we need to be present. And to practice such compassion requires those strong enough to go to the places that scare them. If we want to confront our fears, then compassion is the answer.
Chödrön also provides an appendix, where she summarizes several training techniques: the slogans of Atisha, the steps of loving-kindness practice, compassion practice, and some others.
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