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.
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