Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Places that Scare You: Book Review

I've finished the first of the two books I'm reading for Green Bean's Challenge. Here's my review of the first one....

Pema Chodron is an author whom I only recently discovered. I was browsing through my favorite used bookstore one day last Fall, and came across one of her books, entitled, "Start Where you Are." Intrigued, I picked it up. Flipping through it, I found that it was a book about Buddhism and meditation that was written in a plain, down-to-earth style. A lot of other books on such topics always seemed to be very esoteric, taking a lot of concentration to get through a few paragraphs, and not being all that enjoyable to read. (I read a lot of those kind of books while going to grad school, so I tend to avoid them these days.) But this book was different: both the topic and the writing style drew me in right away. So I bought it. And I loved it.

But that's not the book I'm supposed to be reviewing! Anyway, after reading and loving that book, I ordered two more of hers online: "When Things Fall Apart," and "The Places that Scare You." By this time I was becoming more than passingly familiar with concepts like peak oil and the rapidly escalating effects of climate change, and I thought that it would be good to know what to do when things fell apart and when I am scared. I read "When Things Fall Apart" first, and then moved on to this book. There is no way that I am going to be able to do this book justice, because I'm quite certain I don't fully understand it. But I will write about the things I did gain some understanding in.

The complete title of this book is, "The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times." Like the other two books of hers I've read, the core teaching is that we each have a vulnerable and soft heart (called "bohdichitta" in Sanskrit) and that accessing it underneath all our protective habits is what enables us to be compassionate. Removing these protective habits is difficult. Leaving our tender heart and mind out there, raw and in the open, is more than a little scary. The book moves through lessons about how we can approach this scary place and then stay there, fearlessly. Doing so, even a little bit, increases our capacity for compassion and our ability to show it.

One of the first ways of becoming more open-hearted is to get better at knowing our fears instead of resisting them. Paying attention to them, in a way that is curious and friendly, rather than judgmental and shaming. Getting to know them as part of ourselves we accept, rather than reject or at least avoid. About this, Pema Chodron says, "The radical approach of bohdichitta practice is to pay attention to what we do. Without judging it we train in kindly acknowledging whatever is going on. Eventually we might decide to stop hurting ourselves in the same old ways."

Meditation is the primary way described to engage in this curiosity, and to learn to stay with ourselves when there are things we'd really rather not think about or feel. With practice we can get better at relaxing into the realities of life, including the painful parts. Pema describes the practice of meditation beautifully: "It is a method of cultivating unconditional friendliness towards ourselves, and for parting the curtain of indifference that distances us from the suffering of others. It is our vehicle for learning how to be a truly loving person."

Once we have been able to access this "bohdichitta" in ourselves, the book describes how we can practice directing it out there, into the world. This is important because compassion "has been likened to a drop of fresh springwater. Put it on a rock in the sunshine, it will soon evaporate. If we put it in the ocean however, it will never be lost." We are all drops in the ocean: fundamentally interconnected even when thousands of miles apart.

This all sounds great, but what about when bad things happen or when we feel angry, mean and selfish? Pema says that we can look directly at the fear that comes along with these things, and use the practices she describes to maintain our open heart and natural wisdom, rather than close it back up and ignore it again. "We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us and make us increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us up and make us kinder." She describes several ways to practice getting better at responding to problematic circumstances and negative emotions, rather than habitually reacting to them.

So how might all of this apply when thinking about the changes that are happening in our world? Pema says outright that "our personal attempts to live humanely in this world are never wasted. Choosing to cultivate love rather than anger just might be what it takes to save the planet from extinction." So what I've learned is that even though I am scared and things could very well fall apart, there are things to be done and I can do them. I don't have to do the same thing I've always done in the same way I've always done it. I can learn new skills and let go of old assumptions. I can be afraid and still do what needs doing. Every word that is kind instead of angry, helps. Every seed planted helps. Every smile helps. Every skill learned helps. Every neighborly act helps. Every hungry mouth fed helps.

Every drop of water added to the ocean of interconnection helps.


Heather @ SGF said...

Wow! Sounds like a great book. Thanks for the review. I'll look for it in our library!

kale for sale said...

This is a beautiful review. A friend said recently that we can do every green thing there is to do perfectly but if we don't get along it doesn't matter. I was so focused on my sustainable tasks I was forgetting that part and she woke me up. As did your write here. Thank you.

CindyW said...

What do you mean by "Choosing to cultivate love rather than anger just might be what it takes to save the planet from extinction?"? I love my anger!

I am kidding of course. I know that anger is less than constructive in the longer run. However anger does push me to do things that I may feel otherwise lukewarm - anger towards the irresponsible corporations pushed me to write letters to senators and donate to environmental organization; anger towards one lying political candidate pushes me to canvass for another.

I do realize that after I calm down, letters are better written and persuasion for a candidate is more rational and objective. It's just that the initial anger tips me to a direction. Maybe I just have too much inertia. Clearly I have a lot of work to do :)

Theresa said...

I think it's ok to have angry feelings - who doesn't! I think she's saying that it's better not to cultivate it - i.e., nurture or foster it to the point where it festers into aggressive thoughts or actions. Sort of like if you're planting a garden. There's going to be some unwanted 'weeds' in there, but that's not what you're intentionally cultivating. You're cultivating the plump and juicy cantaloupe of kindness :)

Maggie said...

I am still reading Pema's book Start Where You Are. It is like you said very easy to read and understand.
Her first sentence in the book is "WE ALREADY HAVE EVERYTHING WE NEED".
Towards the end of her book Pema says "appreciation for this life can wake us up and give us the courage we need to stay right there with whatever comes through the door".
I look forward to reading her other books and doing the practices mentioned in them.
Lets learn to relax, lighten up, smile and enjoy each moment as we live this short precious gift of life right now.
" notice everything. Appreciate everything, including the ordinary. That's how to click in with joyfulness or cheerfulness."
Hey just go get a copy of this book! Thanks theresa.

Theresa said...

Maggie - thanks for coming by! That first sentence really says it all, doesn't it.

Eylon Israely said...
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Theresa said...

Elyon, do I have a book for you! It's called "Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership" by Canadian environmental activist Stephen Legault. This book is from a Taoist, not a Buddhist perspective, but it would definitely be in the ballpark of what you're looking for. The author has translated the entire Tao Te Ching with reference to activists and the work they do, and then he goes on to talk about how he's used Taoist principles to avoid burnout in his work.

I have been reading this book in fits and starts over the past several months and it's next on my reading list after I'm done "Blue Gold" for the Challenge. I can review this one too, afterwards.

Here is a quote from it to give you some idea what it's like:

"I was the portrait of the angry young activist -- seething at times, letting the hurt that I felt for the Earth, struggling under the weight of humanity, propel me forward. These emotions made me want only one thing: to win at any cost....Now, to win so that the victory last is my goal. To win so that in five, ten or twenty years, we don't' have to fight the same battles all over again...."

It's an awesome book, I'm sure you would like it!

Theresa said...

Actually this makes any review I would write about Carry Tiger to Mountain quite unnecessary!

Green Bean said...

What a wonderful review, Theresa. This sounds like a book we all need to be reading right now. I can really see how letting go of the negative feelings and opening ourselves up to kindess and softer emotions will progress us forward. Politics in the US, for example, has become such a bitter game of buying and backstabbing. Nothing can get done in that atmosphere and nothing can get down, on the global scale, when we hold on to our anger. I'll definitely add this to my to-read list and also have linked to your reivew in my sidebar of Bookworm Book Reviews. Thank you, Theresa.

Erikka said...

I've just read The Wisdom of No Escape and I completely agree with your review of her writing - easily accessible and grounded. Many other books on Buddhism can be esoteric and too out there for me; she makes it fit right into every day life, language, and experience.

Dagny McKinley said...
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melanietai said...

this is just what i needed to read tonight. thank you. sometimes when i'm thinking about the future, i can really get myself worked up and scared. i try to remember to come back into I HAVE ENOUGH RIGHT NOW. Because I do, we all do. then i try to imagine the best possible future, we all get it: peace with each other, the planet, and ourselves.

thanks for a little positivity!

Theresa said...

You're welcome, melanietai! Thanks for coming by :) Another book that helps calm me down and not panic is Thich Nhat Hanh's Peace is Every Step. Actually everything I've read by him so far has been very settling to my mind.

I'm waiting for the day when we all 'get it' too.