Talk by Gayl P. Woityra
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
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
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
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
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
Chodron's book, The Places that Scare You can be ordered from Amazon.com
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