Part of the reading challenge I set for myself this year. For each book a creative drawing our outlet. Some typography in this case plus a book by one of the most impactful authors I’ve come across.
The importance of Pema Chodron’s teachings in my life over the past two years cannot be overstated. A shift at the core of of my self. The Places That Scare You was the second of Pema’s books that passed through my hands and also the one I gift the most to others. When Things Fall Apart was the first, and one I hope to re-read in the near future, but this one had a significant lasting impression. The simplicity and directness that Pema uses to cover such topics is one of the things that touches me the most. Distilling difficult topics down into their essence while never coming across as someone that would preach anything. Everything is a shared experience. There is no you and I as you move through this book as can seen in the opening pages:
“…we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have the choice.”
Pema’s books came to me at the suggestion of a counsellor who I had spent the previous few months meeting with following my separation. At the time my health care benefits had run out and in our last conversation she gave me a couple of book suggestions to take away, read, and think about. When Things Fall Apart was one of them and upon finishing it I immediately engrossed myself in this one. Now, reading through it a second time two years later, it once again touches me. These difficult topics of fear, anger and emotion are covered through many different authors and yet Pema has to be at the top for me. Through the introduction of the bodhichitta teachings and more specifically lojong teachings (teachings for training the mind) we encounter simple, yet effective, ways of opening ourselves up to emotions that previously would have caused turmoil both internal and external. Emotions that I personally would have stewed over, internalized, and bury deep or else looked for something external to help ignore them.
Of all the practices introduced Tonglen was the one that stuck with me the most. Tonglen is the idea of putting ourselves in someone else’s place and exchanging those strong emotions we perceive in their mind with the positive ones in our mind. It’s a simple form of compassion without the need to necessarily interact but in doing so we can begin to open up to the idea that we as people all share common fears and painful emotions. Without defiling the ideas too much I’ll pass along a short movie of Pema herself describing a Tonglen meditation.
Even just watching Pema speak or listening to one of her audiobooks is enough to put my mind at ease and the minute you see her speak you realize that these books are passing along that same energy. A seemingly endless reserve of calmness and equanimity. Providing these practices as opportunities to be with different types of emotions, Pema is then able to move into some of the deeper issues we face including anger, fear, and laziness all the while reminding us that this is a shared human experience and is normal:
“As we train in clarity and steadfastness, we see things we’d prefer to deny – judgmentalness, pettiness, arrogance. These are not sins but temporary and workable habits of mind. The more we get to know them, the more they lose their power. This is how we come to trust that our basic nature is utterly simple, free of struggle between good and bad.”
As an aside, I found Pema’s teachings so influential that in 2015 I traveled to Gampo Abbey to visit the place where she teaches to get a glimpse of the energy. Although I did not get a chance to meet her the peacefulness emanating from this small community was incredible. Simply walking the grounds and doing walking meditation brought a level of calm to the day that I will never forget. I recall sitting on a bench overlooking the ocean and just listening to the ocean. It was as serene a moment as I could ever imagine. At some point I hope to return on a dedicated trip and experience an in-house retreat that the abbey offers to individuals who are unable to make a full yearly commitment.
Pema leaves us with the idea of groundlessness and working towards our own ability to accept that we are truly not in control and through acceptance we will achieve a sense of peace:
“…”Nothing to hold on to” is the root of happiness. There’s a sense of freedom when we accept that we’re not in control.”
Accepting that we truly aren’t in control is one of the most difficult things I’ve encountered through this whole practice. Namely because the habits I’ve instilled in myself over the years are exactly designed to give my mind a sense that it’s in control. These words are encouraging though. Hopeful that through continued practice and effort that need for control will less and less take hold.
I leave you with the highest recommendation on this book, or any book, by Pema Chodron if for no other reason then a glimpse into the teachings of Buddhism in the most down-to-earth fashion available. There is no sense of preaching but rather simple teachings that you can use as you consider the ideas of the mind that are presented. These teachings have been in essence the root of my own mindfulness practice and therefore close to the heart.