“When we hear about compassion, it naturally brings up working with others, caring for others.
The reason we’re often not there for others—whether for our child or our mother or someone who is insulting us or someone who frightens us—is that we’re not there for ourselves. There are whole parts of ourselves that are so unwanted that whenever they begin to come up we run away.” (Start Where You Are: “No Escape, No Problem.”)
In chapter one of Start Where You Are, Pema dives right in. We’re reading because we are interested in living compassionately. We must start with maitri. We must start by extending compassion to ourselves and being fully present instead of trying to escape from parts of reality and parts of ourselves.
The intention to be present is a great starting point. Pema includes three essential tools for giving up our escape plots: Shamatha-Vipashyana meditation, Tonglen and working with slogans or lojong.
In Western culture, we like the slogan idea. We love sharing inspirational quotes (especially on Facebook!), but we often gravitate towards the superficial, happy “everything is great” style slogans. The idea of working with these slogans to train our minds is not the five-second happy contemplation we give Facebook photos and tweets. The purpose is to work with these ideas, to let them awaken our hearts and minds.
“All these practices awaken our trust that the wisdom and compassion that we need are already within us. They help us to know ourselves: our rough parts and our smooth parts, our passion, aggression, ignorance and wisdom. The reason that people harm other people, the reason that the planet is polluted and people and animals are not doing so well these days is that individuals don’t know or trust or love themselves enough.”
This is not a self-help book. This is not a book that’s intended to “make you over” or change you into someone new. This is about giving us tools to work with who we already are. This is about learning to be fully present with whoever we are and whatever is going on. That is the basis for our compassion.
If you don’t have a meditation practice, or would like help with your meditation practice, Pema’s explanations of both Shamatha and Tonglen are some of the simplest and most thorough I’ve read. My personal practice is Shamatha in the morning, and usually Tonglen before bed or when dealing with something difficult.
One important thing to note is how we grow in our compassion during our meditation practice by learning to be patient with ourselves. When thoughts come up (which they like to do) we can label them “thinking” and return to our breath. The idea isn’t that we treat ourselves like naughty children when our minds wander, but that it be another way to cultivate patient compassion. It’s another way to truly look at who we are and work with that instead of trying to escape:
“Use the labeling part of the technique as an opportunity to develop softness and compassion for yourself. Anything that comes up is okay in the arena of meditation. The point is, you can see it honestly and make friends with it. Although it is embarrassing and painful, it is very healing to stop hiding from yourself.”
What comes up for you when you are meditating? Do you fight with it, or do you label it and let it go? I find myself much more distracted during my nighttime meditation than my morning meditation. In the morning, everything is new. I haven’t spun out into the day’s busy-ness yet. I haven’t checked email and coffeed up yet. But nighttime…hmm. But then, chaos is good news! We don’t meditate because we are calm or “zen.” We don’t do it to become someone different. We do it to work with who we are and where we are. Tonglen is a great way to work with our difficult times.
After looking at the basics of meditation practice, Pema brings us to the heart of the book’s purpose: lojong practice. The purpose here isn’t to soothe away the “bad” stuff in life. The purpose is to connect to our bodhicitta, our awakened hearts, which are already in there waiting for us to discover them.
In order to do this practice, to work with the lojong teachings and wake up, we need to do the opposite of all our happy silly Facebook slogan sharing. When things are difficult or painful—that’s when we lean in, open our eyes and make friends with the present moment. That is how we soften and awaken bodhicitta.
“Lojong introduces a different attitude toward unwanted stuff: if it’s painful, you become willing not just to endure it but also to let it awaken your heart and soften you. You learn to embrace it…Whether it’s pain or pleasure, through lojong practice we come to have a sense of letting our experience be as it is without trying to manipulate it, push it away or grasp it. The pleasurable aspects of being human as well as the painful ones become the key to awakening bodhicitta.”
What did you take away from the preface and first chapter? For those who are on a first read, what questions came up? For those who are re-reading, what jumped out at you that you needed to be reminded of this time around? Anything resonate? Anywhere you disagreed or had trouble with the ideas?
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