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Review of "The Places That Scare You"

By Pema Chodron
Shambhala, 2001
Review by J. E. Morris, MA, MS on Apr 30th 2003
The Places That Scare You

"The 'secret' of life that we are all looking for is just this: to develop through sitting and daily life practice the power and courage to return to that which we have spent a lifetime hiding from?" ? Charlotte Joko Beck

Readers will be hard-pressed to resist this book's lure. It's the title. It's the invitation and the challenge the title extends. There are places that scare me; I could benefit from greater fearlessness. Could you?

Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun and author of several books including When Things Fall Apart. In The Places That Scare You she pulls no punches when it comes to what it takes to succeed. According to the author, each person always has a choice, an opportunity to cultivate something positive or healing no matter the circumstances. Chodron describes each person as a potential warrior. She states that "the central question of a warrior's training is not how to avoid uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort."

Chodron explains that one becomes a warrior through bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is an essential Buddhist practice that opens its practitioners to the present no matter how ambiguous, foreign or frightening it might be. She insists achieving bodhichitta requires a faithful, intentional discipline. Those who practice can become Bodhisattvas, warriors of a different kind; "warriors of non-aggression who hear the cries of the world." She discusses both Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. as examples of master warriors.

Transformation is the likely consequence of bodhichitta. There are several bodhichitta practices ? practices for loving-kindness, compassion and joy. Another practice is tonglen. Tonglen is a Tibetan word that "refers to being willing to take in the pain and suffering of ourselves and others and to send out happiness to us all." In other words, tonglen is the practice of being in uncomfortable moments. Chodron reports AIDS and hospice patients have been known to practice it. Chodron also predicts tonglen can identify one's prejudices and decrease them. It trains one to soften, relax, and open up.

The text appears to be about expanding one's comfort zone limitlessly, generously ? in a disciplined and precise manner that supports buddhistavas in the midst of fears. Throughout the text she offers provocative psychological questions including:

·        "Do we continue to believe in our same old dramas?"

·        "What do I do when I feel I can't handle what's going on?"

·        "Where do I look for strength and in what do I place my trust?"

She challenges readers to counter habitual responses, which echoes Bill O'Hanlon's "Do One Thing Different." Although Chodron never says so this perspective mirrors systems theory in many respects. Reading it might even help new students better understand systems theory.

Professional helpers might find it useful to familiarize themselves with tonglen in order to teach the principles to clients with anxiety problems. Chodron is especially insightful in her discussions about our tendency to get "stuck," to hang on to old experiences, patterns, behaviors, and desires. Of particular interest for the helping professional are these critical points:

·        Peak experiences are wonderful moments to be cherished for what they meant. However, if we cannot "integrate them into the ups and downs of our lives?they will hinder us."

·        Unlock the habit of clinging because "holding onto anything blocks wisdom."

·        Don't allow external circumstances to sway you.

Additionally, there is a brief and interesting discussion about the value of anger management. Chodron encourages readers to hold their seats instead of sowing the seeds of suffering. For Chodron, these practices are the path to enlightenment. At the very least, for those who are not Buddhists, these practices might lead to greater peace and understanding. She is most convincing when she writes "our desire for relief and the methods we use to achieve it are definitely not in sync." Whether Buddhism is the method is a personal decision. Chodron certainly can be persuasive, although at times she simply seems too pollyannaish to be realistic, but that might be my own cynicism creeping in.

Intelligence makes Chodron's writing different than the plethora of self-help books available today. This is not a book to be read once, then shelved. As I read I had the distinct sense that I would increase my understanding tenfold by returning to page one. The text is not difficult to follow generally, but I found myself stumbling through some of the history of Buddhism. Thus, this probably is not the best text choice for an introduction to Buddhist practice, but it is an engaging and stimulating read.

Finally, for those interested, the eight-page appendix includes: [1] the Mind-training Slogans of Atisha; [2] the Four Limitless Ones Chant; [3] Loving-Kindness Practice; [4] Compassion Practice; [5] the Three-Step Aspiration; [6] a bibliography; and [7] additional resources for meditation instruction and/or practice centers.


© 2003 J. E. Morris

J. E. Morris currently works as a program coordinator and primary counselor at Chrysalis House, Inc., a long-term residential treatment program for women recovering from substance abuse, in Lexington, KY.

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