Books: Pema Chodron’s “Start Where You Are”, as reviewed by Pranada Devi
Many of us aspire to live a life with more compassion. It may inspire us to volunteer in soup kitchens, to eat less meat (or even go vegan), or just to try to be more patient and loving with the people around us. Yet, somehow, our best intentions fall away in the moment and we find ourselves frustrated, despairing, furious, contemptuous, impatient, or any of a hundred other things besides compassion with the people or situations we face. This is especially true in the way we relate to ourselves – which can occasion yet another round of frustration or despair as we notice that we are “failing” at compassion. How do we defuse these tendencies and start to practice compassion?
Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and the founder of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada, and whose book When Things Fall Apart was the subject of a previous review in Parvati Magazine, wisely suggests that we start where we are.
Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living is a down-to-earth and wryly humorous guide to befriending the moment and ourselves, informed by traditional Buddhist teachings referred to as lojong. Lojong includes the meditation practice of tonglen, which involves breathing in the pain of others (or ourselves) and breathing out healing and compassion. It also includes a collection of fifty-nine traditional Tibetan Buddhist maxims from an old text called Seven Points of Training The Mind.
Chodron helps to seat each ancient teaching into the context of our day-to-day interactions, showing that they are just as timely as ever. We are not at all alone in our struggle to become more compassionate (or even just feel more sane). These challenges have been faced over the centuries and millennia by everyone else who has sought to live more harmoniously with themselves and others. And the teachings to respond to them are simultaneously accessible, yet very deep and – if we are willing – profoundly destabilizing to the ego, allowing us to live in greater fullness and presence for ourselves and others.
Chodron makes the case that no matter what we feel about ourselves and where we are at, it is a good place to begin. We could be an angry drunk, a neurotic procrastinator, a compulsive liar. We could be the worst person in the world, and that would be a good and “juicy” place to start. Instead of rejecting the things in ourselves we don’t like, we can find honesty and compassion in relation to them, allowing us to learn to be honest and compassionate with others who share these traits we may wish would just disappear.
With great kindness and understanding, Chodron articulates the intense discomfort we may have as we come to see the gap between our ideals and our reality – something that is reflected to us over and over the more we commit to a spiritual path. She notes, “It’s worth talking about because when we find ourselves in that place again and again, usually we want to run away; sometimes we want to give up the whole thing. […] We have the aspiration to awake up and to help and at the same time it doesn’t seem to work out on our terms. It feels impossible for us to buy our situation and also impossible to throw it out. Being caught in the big squeeze humbles you, and at the same time, it has great vision.”
Start Where You Are gives compassionate guidance for being present with the reactivity of the mind, the challenges we feel at times in being with others, and the moments we may simply feel as though we are going crazy or falling apart. Chodron has been seasoned by long practice with true teachers and it’s clear that she understands from experience the intense feelings and struggles we may encounter. Her book can be a great friend on the path.
Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Managing Editor of Parvati Magazine, and serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects. She is the editor for Parvati’s book “Confessions of a Former Yoga Junkie: A Revolutionary Life Makeover for the Sincere Spiritual Seeker”.