When we touch the center of sorrow, when we sit with discomfort without trying to fix it, when we stay present to the pain of disapproval or betrayal and let it soften us, these are the times that we connect with bodhichitta. Tapping into that shaky and tender place has a transformative effect. Being in this place may feel uncertain and edgy but it’s also a big relief. Just to stay there, even for a moment, feels like a genuine act of kindness to ourselves. Being compassionate enough to accommodate our own fears takes courage, of course, and it definitely feels counterintuitive. But it’s what we need to do.“The Places That Scare You” by Pema Chödrön
I had book club tonight with Emily and Jenny. We’re reading Pema Chödrön’s The Places That Scare You. I figured I’d use this opportunity to gather my thoughts and notes before the meeting.
One of the themes of the reading this week I thought about as control, security, and impermanence.
There is the idea that everybody seeks security. Often we do this in the form of trying to control things. But much of what we think we can control, we don’t actually have control over.
I recall in a session with my therapist last year, I realized that I don’t have control over my attention. And I’ve talked to a couple people recently who think we can control our thoughts and emotions, but I’m not convinced they’re right. (Otherwise, there would be no such thing as random thoughts or unhappiness, non?)
A related idea that I’m trying to pay more attention to now is the idea that frustration may be an indicator that we’ve failed to control (or to find security in) something. I’m sure in the moment, I’m not consciously trying to control something.
For instance, if a coworker starts questioning a choice I’ve made, I may get frustrated. However, if I can slow myself down and look for where I’ve been seeking security, I may realize what’s really going on. Perhaps I’m worried that I’m not doing the right thing, or that my coworker doesn’t trust me, or that I’m disliked by my coworker. I’m curious whether the frustration will change if I can become present to that belief that I’m subconsciously holding.
Another big theme this week is what I think about as shields.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.Suzuki Roshi
I caught myself reflecting on shields last night when I was on my evening run. As I was running down the sidewalk, I looked up and saw somebody in the distance on the wrong side of the sidewalk. They moved to the other side of the sidewalk as we approached each other, but I realized (shortly after the fact) that I was already preparing to fight (a metaphorical mood) the second I saw them on the wrong side of the sidewalk.
Reflecting on this, I saw that I follow these rules because it keeps me safe (related to the control/security I mentioned earlier). If I follow the rules, I won’t get in trouble. And if I stay out of trouble, no one has any reason to cast me out.
So when I saw this other person on the sidewalk, potentially preventing me from following the rules that I had become well-acquainted with, I felt threatened. I got frustrated because I was forced to confront the impermanence of my security.
Indeed, one of the repeated metaphors in the book is this idea that there is some Bodhichitta–an enlightened soul–inside of each of us. This represents our vulnerability, our true existence as humans. But because people avoid discomfort, we harden a protective shield around the Bodhichitta. We develop several strategies to avoid experiencing the discomfort. As was revealed last night on my run, one of my strategies is to follow the rules.
But I have other shields as well.
I have a belief that if I find a life partner, I will have found happiness and succeeded in life; I also have a belief that hook-up culture is a bad thing, probably because it impedes me in trying to find a life partner. I find myself eating whenever I experience any discomfort in my body. And I also realized while doing this reading that I also use sports as a mechanism to escape–when I’m focused on the game, it means I’m unable to think about anything else.
Another interesting thought I gained from the reading was the idea that the problem isn’t any of these beliefs or actions–the problem is that I use them to feel grounded and avoid feeling discomfort.
A fresh attitude starts to happen when we look to see that yesterday was yesterday, and now it is gone; today is today and now it is new. It is like that—every hour, every minute is changing. If we stop observing change, then we stop seeing everything as new.Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
Interestingly, one of the things in the reading that I realized I really struggle with is self-compassion.
When I catch myself in one of these patterns (or after running one of these patterns), or if I catch myself being afraid of something, I’ll usually try to convince myself that what I’m doing is stupid.
Why would you be afraid of that? What harm can it really do to you? You’re still safe right now, aren’t you?
Why are you getting angry about that? Can’t you see that you actually have this insecurity because of something that happened to you years ago? Do you really think that what’s happening now is remotely related to that?
And because I resist those patterns, those patterns persist. When I go to war with myself, I just reinforce those habits.
Meditation practice is regarded as a good and in fact excellent way to overcome warfare in the world: our own warfare as well as greater warfare.Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
In reading this book and chatting with my therapist yesterday, I realized I need to change some things up about how I’ve been meditating. In addition to changing how I relate to myself, I also need the emotional component of my meditation. I tend to look at my emotions during meditation almost like from an out-of-body perspective–I go into cognitive mode and just look at the emotion I’ve identified. Instead of doing this, I need to learn how to sit with the emotion and experience the emotion without pushing it away or trying to run away to somewhere more familiar. I haven’t exactly figured out how I’m going to do that yet, but one step at a time.
Another thing from the reading that I also talked with my therapist about is the idea of being able to trust our experiences as valid, while at the same time being able to move on and live harmoniously with the people in our lives. I haven’t quite figured this out, either. I know I tend to either hold my experience as truth and lash out at the people who I identify as threats, or I am able to get along with other people by trying to convince myself that my experience isn’t real.
So something I need to start practicing is accepting myself where I am, as I am. Once I do that and acknowledge my habits (and observe my shields), I can choose whether to continue to behave in accordance with that habit, or to try something different. This way, I’m not resisting myself, and at the same time, I’m allowing myself to soften–to see other possibilities of being or acting.
Finally, a last thought I had was some interesting parallels between the reading and stoicism.
The first has to do with the stoic notion of “the obstacle is the way.” Often with stoicism, I interpret this to mean “I have a goal, and there’s something preventing me from reaching my goal. I must address that something in order to move forward.” In the case of the reading, I find it similar. But instead of something informing the direction, it is an emotion or body sensation that informs the direction. External versus internal, I guess. I actually experienced this first hand with my therapist where a churning sensation in my gut tipped us off that I needed more structure when it came to a meditation practice that she had initially suggested; because of that, we were able to address that concern that I had.
The second has to do with the stoic notion of “sympatheia.” The idea in the reading that struck me as being parallel is the notion of “egolessness.” The idea that we are all part of the greater whole, and that it causes us great suffering that we go through life perceiving that we are each the centre of our own universe. I’m curious to see if Chödrön will talk more about this later because often my interpretation of the reading is that much of Buddhism is very solitary, and I’m interested to seeing how these two things come together.