In the current age of anxiety, Pema Chödrön is both a refreshing and challenging voice. Basically, she encourages us to see problems as spiritual opportunities. Instead of trying to run from discomfort, she advocates staying put and learning about ourselves. Instead of habitually reaching for whatever palliative gives relief -- always temporary -- she suggests feeling and observing our discomforts, becoming more fully present in our lives, learning how to be truly here now. Only through this process, she says, can we experience the deep joy of being alive.
This is a great companion volume to her book "When Things Fall Apart." It elaborates on themes introduced there, describing several practices of Tibetan Buddhism, some ancient and long forgotten, which help us not only cope with anxiety but use it to overcome fearfulness. This is an important spiritual effort because while we typically think of hate as the enemy of love, it is really fear that makes love difficult. Fear immobilizes us, makes us pull the covers over our heads, and isolates us from others.
Chödrön, a student of Chögyam Trungpa, encourages the consistent practice of meditation. And she discounts the usual results-driven expectations people associate with it, pointing out that as we confront our true selves in meditation, it often becomes more and more difficult, not easier. And for those who have found meditation fiercely frustrating, as I have, she has alternatives. The practice of "tonglen" is one simple spiritual ritual that can be done anywhere, anytime, providing a dramatic and freeing shift in emotional perspective. Learning not to let disappointment, anger, and hurt trigger our personal melodramas, which sap our energy, we can find our way to greater equanimity and become a less destructive presence in the world.
I strongly recommend this book as a welcome spiritual tonic in troubled times, whether that trouble originates elsewhere or from within. As with her other books, you can read and reread it, each time discovering much to learn and reflect on -- and in her words, "this is news you can use."
I love Pema Chodron's work. "When Things Fall Apart" has become a bible of sorts for me. I keep reading it over and over again, underlining more of it each time. Her recent "The Places That Scare You" is far less tangible, somewhat more esoteric, more traditional in the sense of feeling more removed from our everyday reality. It just doesn't cut to the bone like her earlier book, didn't speak to me at as deep a level, and certainly didn't provide what I'd hoped for in terms of a continuation of the meaty advice of "When Things Fall Apart." It's more of a rehash of Buddhist thinking and meditation practice than it is a book that grabs you and shakes you to experience your life as deeply as you can.