The Places That Scare You
"Everybody loves something, even if it's only tortillas." Pema Chodron remembers this remark from her teacher Trungpa Rinpoche, who was trying to explain the Buddhist concept of bodhichitta. The literal definition of bodhichitta is the open mind or heart, the 'soft spot' that all humans have, even if apparently bad.
Chodron, an American woman who became a Buddhist nun, has sought to bring this ancient idea to a contemporary audience. Her philosophy is that to get by in the contemporary world most people harden themselves to their own soft spots, and close off feelings of empathy for others. Most of the time we try to stop feeling bodhichitta , putting up false barriers such as prejudices or opinions. But the soft spots remain, Chodron says, 'like a crack in the walls'; they point to our genuine nature and are therefore available to us at any time.
The bodhichitta teachings originally came from India and were brought to Tibet in the eleventh century. They were distilled into easy to remember slogans such as "Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment". The teachings arm us with the ability to work through our 'difficult' personal traits to become enlightened, and one way to do this is to remember slogans like this whenever we are caught up in the heat of a moment.
The author notes that people often start doing meditation in the belief that it will allow them to float above the discomfort of everyday life. But the way of bodhichitta requires us to go in the opposite direction: we become enlightened only by getting ourselves deeper into daily feelings, good and bad. First-time meditators sometimes find that instead of getting all peaceful, a lot of strong emotions come out. But in admitting that they exist we can start to see them more clearly. If you get a flash of anger about something, really feel it, Chodron says. By letting it happen, you don't have the usual guilt that comes with it, and so have the beginning of a better view of self.
What we don't like is simply life
The great lesson Chodron learned from the Buddha was that what we struggle against all the time is just ordinary life. She writes: "Life does continually go up and down. People and situations are unpredictable and so is everything else." What is surprising is that people are terribly disappointed when something happens that they don't want. We feel pain when we don't get things right, but we shouldn't necessarily take a setback or a failure as something personal - it is the very nature of life that we both get what we want and what we don't want.
Nothing we do in our lives that is a blind escape from insecurity or uncomfortable feelings can be of lasting value. Life is about experiencing it as it comes, not only about the good bits. When, like Chodron's teacher Trungpa Rinpoche, you can say 'I'm OK' on both good days and bad ones, you will have made progress. You will have little to fear.
We shape our lives around mental escape. We have a drink or a large meal or think about sex or go shopping to get away from some uncomfortable thought or feeling in the present moment. This feeling may be as simple as boredom or mild anxiety, but in the unwillingness to fully experience it we lose an opportunity to really get to know ourselves. We may never know that we can get more relief from fully experiencing a feeling of discomfort than immediately trying to eliminate it. Always wanting to 'take the edge off the moment' keeps us in a cycle of dissatisfaction called samsara.
Staying in the scary places
Chodron notes that we expect things to be permanent and stable. We are emotionally attached to the idea of permanence, so when it doesn't happen we feel fragile and insecure. The Buddhist way is to 'relax into change', to make the awareness of it is part of all our thoughts.
If we go further into that feeling of being afraid, not trying instantly to 'fix' it, Chodron says, somehow it loses its potency. We have to ask ourselves: what exactly are we feeling when we feel that we can't handle something? Coming to grips with what it is that we are running from is the key to growth. If we "stay present to the pain of disapproval or betrayal", she suggests - or any other painful feeling - it has a way of softening us. By suppressing it we only become a brittle person.
In Buddhism, the practitioner seeks to cultivate four limitless qualities: loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. Of the many bodhichitta practices for acquiring them, one is 'aspiration', or wishing well upon others. We wish ourselves to be free of suffering and to find the source of happiness, then the same thing for loved ones. Finally we can extend the practice to a wider circle of people, including people we dislike and others we have never even met.
Chodron tells of the time Beat poet Jack Kerouac went into the mountains to meet face to face to God. But all that happened was he came face to face with his own naked self - 'ole Hateful Me' as he wrote in a letter to a friend - for once unshielded by booze and drugs. A lot of people go looking for God, but end up with themselves. Yet right here, the author says, is the beginning of genuine enlightenment.
Every time we have a feeling of dread or fear or sorrow and don't act rashly upon it or try to suppress it, we have advanced. The great truth of The Places That Scare You is that enlarging our 'soft spot' may appear dangerous, but in fact gives our life more peace because empathy and compassion are what make us really human.
The feeling you get from many Buddhist writings is their sheer usefulness ; they bring a very rational mindset to spirituality. Most of the practices Chodron describes are over a thousand years old, and have been refined to work in an almost scientific way. You don't need to have any great interest in Buddhism to be changed by them. If you are a Christian, for instance, just put compassion in the place of bodhichitta.
Other books by Chodron include Start Where You Are, The Wisdom of No Escape and When Things Fall Apart. Each talks about life not as we'd like it but as it really is. Their clarity and directness would make them excellent works from a traditional Eastern Buddhist teacher, but the fact that they come from a Western woman who has been through the same struggle with her emotions and material desires as everyone else, makes them especially valuable.
Source: 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose, Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"If we feel distress, embarrassment, or anger, we think we've really blown it. Yet feeling emotional upheaval is not a spiritual faux pas; it's the place where the warrior learns compassion. It's where we learn to stop struggling with ourselves. It's only when we can dwell in these places that scare us that equanimity becomes unshakable."
Born in 1936 in New York, Chodron is a graduate of the University of California. She only got seriously involved with Buddhism in her mid-thirties, becoming a novice in 1974. In 1981 the author was ordained abhikshuni or Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition. Her main teacher was Chogyam Trungpa (see Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism ), who she studied with from 1973 until his death in 1987.
Chodron is the director of Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist monastic center in Nova Scotia, Canada. Further books include Be Grateful To Everyone and Tonglen.
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© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2023
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