Friday, August 20, 2010

The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times

Book Review: The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chodron (Shambhala 2001)

This is predominantly a practical book – a set of how to teachings for handling difficult emotional situations. It is based on a set of traditional Mahayana Buddhist teachings called – Mind Training – or Lojong – brought from India to Tibet by the famous teacher Atisha Dipamkara. The main subject of Mahayana is the Wish-Fulfilling Jewel – called Bodhicitta – the sincere wish to become enlightened – totally free of neuroses – in order to help others.

The jist of the book is to abide with your difficult emotions – to soften –to find the tender spot and stay – without hardening to typical habitual reactions. The key practice is to keep one’s discipline of non-harming.

In a chapter called – The Facts of Life – she covers the Buddha’s teaching on – the Three Marks of Existence: impermanence, egolessness, and dissatisfaction/suffering. The main practice is traditional sitting meditation – simply watching the breath. This brings us closer – more in touch – with our thoughts, emotions, and our body – for better or worse. This simple practice is a good training ground for exploring and abiding with our own discomfort.

The lojong mind training practices involve training with slogans passed on by Atisha and later the monks of the Kadampa tradition in Tibet. Through constant reminders we are more likely to apply the antidotes – the practices – in situations where we are overcome by emotions. In Buddhism it is said that suffering arises due to our fixation on our idea of self. Through working with what are called the – Four Limitless Qualities – happiness, freedom from suffering, sympathetic joy, and equanimity – one can become able to reduce the fixation on self. This is done by wishing these four qualities to be bestowed on others. Loving-kindness is the wish for others to be happy, compassion is the wish for others to be free from suffering, rejoicing in the happiness and good fortune of others is the sympathetic joy, and being free from attachment and aversion is equanimity. These four qualities are called the Brahmavihara – the Four Abodes of Brahma.

The title of the book comes from one of slogans of the famous Tibetan dakini-practitioner Machik Lapdron that were advice from her teacher – Padampa Sangye:

“Confess your hidden faults
Approach what you find repulsive
Help those you think you cannot help
Anything you are attached to, let it go
Go to the places that scare you.”

One of the practices introduced in this book is called – tonglen – or sending and taking – a sort of new age style practice of breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out energy to relieve their suffering. It is a method of training in compassion – strengthening the habit of reducing ego. This is done with oneself, loved ones, friends, neutral people, enemies, all of those together, and all beings in succession. The essence of the practice can be done at any time in many situations – recalling that the goal is to reduce the fixation on the self. When one is happy – one can wish that all are happy. When one is angry one can wish that all can control their dangerous anger reactions. When one is sad one can wish to relieve the sadness of all. When one is overindulgent one can wish that others avoid overindulging. When one has good news one can wish for all to have good news. It is the same for any strong emotion – positive or negative. It is a way of balance – a way of reducing ego – of practicing the discipline of non-harming for indulging in strong emotions often causes harm to oneself and others. She says that effective compassion is not a situation of healer and wounded but of equals. “Only when we know our own darkness can we be present with the darkness of others.”

There are other traditional Mahayana teachings here as well. One is the four qualities of maitri – or loving-kindness that are cultivated during meditation: 1) steadfastness – developing the ability to stay with the technique no matter what comes up, 2) clear seeing – developing the ability to see through one’s own self-deceptions – when we meditate properly we become more intimately aware of our discomforts, we see more clearly – although often people see this as failure it is actually success – we have increased our ability to notice our own states of being, 3) experiencing our own emotional distress – our unstable states can teach us to explore their nature rather than fight or flight reaction- doing this in little ways in a controlled environment – sitting meditation – can help us to develop the same habit in more difficult situations, 4) attention to the present moment – genuine love requires attention – being present with all situations is the goal – merely waking up – simple idea, difficult practice – by making the effort over and over – second by second, day by day, year by year – perhaps it will work and we can become open and present to all situations.

The next practice comes from Atisha’s slogan, “Practice the five strengths.” These are: 1) strong determination (to practice the four limitless qualities) 2) familiarization with the bodhicitta teachings and practices – this familiarity comes from applying them over and over in whatever little ways we are able. 3) the seed of goodness – this seed is our innate capacity for loving-kindness and compassion – our basic goodness. We water the seed by noticing our own reactions , by gentleness, by self-honesty, by realizing our kinship with all. 4) reproach – applying this to ourselves with loving-kindness in order to overcome negative habits. When we catch ourselves falling into a negative habit we can use the energy of humor or self-respect in order to steer clear. If we are aware and smart enough to know the unpleasant results of our actions perhaps we can avoid them. 5) aspiration – we can aspire to be successful in overcoming our psychologically unhealthy patterns. We can do this before a situation comes up or during a situation if we know we are unable to succeed, sort of planting a seed for next time.

Next she goes over the – Three Kinds of Laziness – 1) comfort orientation – “based on our tendency to avoid inconvenience.” We tend to get mad when someone or something takes our comfort away. We become so concerned with our own comfort that we miss the amazing details of life around us. 2) loss of heart – a sense of hopelessness – basically our pity party. 3) couldn’t care less – a deeper kind of loss of heart in which we apply what she calls the 3 futile strategies for relating to laziness or troubling emotions – attacking, indulging, and ignoring. We attack ourselves by wallowing in guilt. We indulge ourselves by wallowing in our low self-esteem. We ignore ourselves by avoiding or purposely not noticing our own negative reactions.

Next she goes over the famous practices of bodhisattvas – the six perfections – which she summarizes thusly:

1)“Generosity - Giving as a path of learning to let go.
2) Discipline – Training in not causing harm in a way that is daring and flexible.
3) Patience – Training in abiding with the restlessness of our energy........
4) Joyful Enthusiasm – Letting go of our perfectionism and connecting with the living quality of every moment.
5) Meditation – Training in coming back to being right here with gentleness and precision
6) Prajna – cultivating an open inquiring mind.”

(prajna is called Wisdom or Discriminating Wisdom or Discriminating Awareness)

She goes through the Buddha’s teachings at Vulture Peak on emptiness and prajnaparamita – where the nature of reality is revealed as being groundless. These are the teachings on Prajna – Wisdom – the teachings on letting go of all teachings – of dwelling in the groundlessness of being. These are the teachings on dwelling in egolessness – and fearlessness – on being comfortable with uncertainty. The main text is called the Heart Sutra. Incidentally – the shortest prajnaparamita sutra is this: A. The letter A – pronounced Ah is pronounced with an open mouth and represents the essential openness of ultimate reality. Perhaps that is why it is a tradition in several different Mahayana Buddhist traditions to meditate on the letter A – whether Sanskrit, Tibetan, or even English.

She says that as one practices on the meditative path one’s patterns intensify: “In vajrayana Buddhism this is called “heightened neurosis” She says this is a natural result of practice – one gets closer and closer to one’s negative habits in order to break through. The Bodhisattva is called the Awakening Hero or Warrior and often ends up in a constant state of anxiety. For only then can one learn to rest in that state as well. Traditionally one has a teacher – or spiritual friend – whose job is not only to evaluate the student but also to stress the student. She says that the awakening warrior often dwells in the in-between state of not taking sides – not embracing opinions or emotions. Hello Darlin.

“As we continue to train, we evolve beyond the little me who continually seeks zones of comfort. We gradually discover that we are big enough to hold something that is neither lie nor truth, neither pure nor impure, neither bad nor good. But first we have to appreciate the richness of the groundless state and hang in there.”

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