Start Where You Are

A Guide to Compassionate LivingRita Stillman

Pema Chodron
Shambhala Publications: Boston and London, 1994.
154 pp., $12.00 (paper).

From its first sentence—"We already have everything we need"—to its last, Start Where You Are stops us in our tracks. An American nun in the Tibetan tradition, Pema Chodron, in a down-to-earth, uncompromising style, takes subtle Tibetan teachings and translates them into clear, straight talk. Throughout the book Chodron uses arresting statements such as "There is no need for self-improvement" to confront and erode the habitual self-help impulses—get thin, get rich, get enlightened—that dominate Western society. The title of the book itself is a mandate, a clarion call to wake up and get to work. But Chodron's directives are never strident or judgmental; instead they are reminders uttered with encouragement, patience, and lighthearted humor.

Start Where You Are builds on themes developed in Chodron's first book, The Wisdom of No Escape (1991), which emphasized that the development of compassion begins with an attitude of non-aggression toward the self. The key to feeling true compassion for others, according to the author, comes from having compassion for our own pain; it stems from a recognition that "your pain and my pain are the same," rather than from a desire to help an "other." Chodron stresses that only to the degree that we've come to know our personal pain can we be willing to be there for others. Picking up where her earlier book left off, Start Where You Are offers detailed instructions for specific practices to develop compassion, gentleness, and a light touch. Chodron sets forth a threefold path: sitting meditation, tonglen (a practice in which you exchange yourself for others, taking in their pain and giving away your joy), and lojong, a practice involving mind-training slogans derived from The Seven Points of Training the Mind, by Chekawa Yeshe Dorje.

Chodron bases her book on Dorje's work (included in the appendix) and on commentary by the nineteenth-century Tibetan teacher Jamgon Kongtrul. The verses of The Seven Points of Training the Mind have been broken down into fifty-nine slogans or maxims (also known as "Atisha's slogans"), such as "Be grateful to everyone" and "When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi." Chodron then expands on these sayings, elaborating their meanings with concrete examples from her own life and the lives of her students. By using situations and aggravations as opportunities to feel the heart, Chodron teaches that we can contact the soft spot—the addiction, self-loathing, anger. As an anecdote to back that up she recounts her own experience of becoming annoyed by seeing undone dishes while on a retreat. She describes the way she self-righteously walked up to the dishes in question only to see the name of their owner—"Pema"—and take in that it's her own mess. Also helpful is her acknowledgment throughout the book of her own doubts: she says, for example, "I have experimented with this because I didn't believe that it would work." Her stress on the actual practices and her experience with them, rather than on the rhetoric, is reassuring: of tonglen she says, "You can talk about lightening up till you're purple in the face, but...there is actual practice, a method that you're given, a discipline."

All three of the practices she describes—sitting meditation, tonglen, and lojong slogans—are means to uncover the interconnectedness at the heart of practice. But she is never easy or sappy about this interconnection, nor does she underestimate the struggles involved. "At the root of feeling like a fully adult person is the premise that you're not going to try to make anything go away, that what you have is worth appreciating. But this is hard to swallow if what you have is pain." And when she makes a distinction between idiot compassion and true compassion, saying, "trying to smooth everything over to avoid confrontation...is not what's meant by compassion or patience. It's what's meant by control," her honesty further inspires our trust.

Chodron's teachings skillfully interpret difficult concepts. In a section on "accumulating merit" she explains a traditional incantation that might go along with the practice of accumulating merit. One such saying might be, "If it is better to be sick, so be it. Better to recover, so be it." But Chodron quickly removes any Judeo-Christian overlay a Westerner might inadvertently apply: "It's not that you're asking some higher power to grant the blessings; basically you're just saying, 'let it happen, let it happen.'''

The product of two one-month practice sessions held in 1992 and 1993 at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, the book suffers from lax editing. Certain turns of phrase—the preponderance of "juicy" and "smelly," for example—are distracting. There are other places, too, where a judicious editorial hand is noticeably absent: instead of referring to practicing with others, there is a continuing reference to "Mortimer, Juan, and Juanita," as those others, those people who annoy, provoke, or wake you up. While naming them in the course of a talk may have worked, it seems corny continued all the way through the book. Other colloquial language that may have succeeded in the context of a dharma talk simply doesn't cut it on paper: Milarepa's demons are described as having "taken over the joint," and practice is described as "like orange juice concentrate—that thick orange stuff in the can—and life is like water." This carelessness, however, does little to diminish the significant impact of the book.

Each page seems to bear some memorizable treasure, a phrase to be underlined, earmarked. And the slogans ("Whatever you meet unexpectedly, join with meditation," for example) and Chodron's words ("Searching for happiness prevents us from ever finding it," or "There is no need for self-improvement") share a common style: both are no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase directions for life. But Chodron is never content to let us rest easy. She encourages us to go further than the book, further than her words: "It doesn't stop with slogans. No slogan, no meditation practice, nothing that you can hear in the teachings is a solution. We're evolving."

 

Rita Stillman is a novelist living in Oxford, Mississippi.

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