Start Where You Are summary
I didn’t always find it easy to follow along as I wasn’t used to Pema Chödrön's use of certain Buddhist terms or her style of language... but it's probably also a sign that I still need a lot of practice in focusing on the here and now! That being said, I persevered to the end because there are some good tips here on how to live life that I feel we should all be reminded of from time to time. They’re not earth-shattering insights, but common sense maxims which we can all put into daily practice to make the world a calmer place. ✌🏻
True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings.
Compassion for others begins with kindness to ourselves.
The basic message of the lojong teachings is that if it’s painful, you can learn to hold your seat and move closer to that pain. Reverse the usual pattern, which is to split, to escape. Go against the grain and hold your seat. 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.
The first of the absolute slogans is “Regard all dharmas as dreams.” More simply, regard everything as a dream. Life is a dream. Death is also a dream, for that matter; waking is a dream and sleeping is a dream. Another way to put this is, “Every situation is a passing memory.”
In sitting practice, there’s no way you can go wrong, wherever you find yourself. Just relax. Relax your shoulders, relax your stomach, relax your heart, relax your mind. Bring in as much gentleness as you can. The technique is already quite precise. It has a structure, it has a form. So within that form, move with warmth and gentleness. That’s how we awaken bodhichitta.
When we say “Self-liberate even the antidote,” that’s encouragement to simply touch and then let go of whatever you come up with. Whatever bright solutions or big plans you come up with, just let them go, let them go, let them go.
We can rest in the fundamental openness and enjoy the display of whatever arises without making such a big deal. So if you think that everything is solid, that’s one trap, and if you change that for a different belief system, that’s another trap.
...encourage yourself not to be a walking battleground. We have such strong feelings of good and evil, right and wrong. We also feel that parts of ourselves are bad or evil and parts of ourselves are good and wholesome. All these pairs of opposites – happy and sad, victory and defeat, loss and gain – are at war with each other. The truth is that good and bad coexist; sour and sweet coexist. They aren’t really opposed to each other.
In the Buddhist teachings, the messy stuff is called klesha, which means poison. Boiling it all down to the simplest possible formula, there are three main poisons: passion, aggression, and ignorance.
Acting out and repressing are the main ways that we shield our hearts, the main ways that we never really connect with our vulnerability, our compassion, our sense of the open, fresh dimension of our being. By acting out or repressing we invite suffering, bewilderment, or confusion to intensify.
The moral of the story is, when the resistance is gone, so are the demons. That’s the underlying logic of tonglen practice and also of lojong altogether. When the resistance is gone, so are the demons. It’s like a koan that we can work with by learning how to be more gentle, how to relax, and how to surrender to the situations and people in our lives.
It’s useful to think of tonglen practice in four stages:
- Flashing openness
- Working with the texture, breathing in dark, heavy, and hot and breathing out white, light, and cool
- Working with relieving a specific, heartfelt instance of suffering
- Extending that wish to help everyone The main thing is to really get in touch with fixation and the power of klesha activity in yourself. This makes other people’s situations completely accessible and real to you. Then, when it becomes real and vivid, always remember to extend it out. Let your own experience be a stepping stone for working with the world.
...found himself empathizing with all the people throughout time who had found themselves in humiliating situations. It was a profound experience for him. It didn’t get him his jacket back; it didn’t solve anything. But it opened his heart to a lot of people with whom he had not before had any sense of shared experience. This is where the heart comes from in this practice, where the sense of gratitude and appreciation for our life comes from. We become part of a lineage of people who have cultivated their bravery throughout history, people who, against enormous odds, have stayed open to great difficulties and painful situations and transformed them into the path of awakening. We will fall flat on our faces again and again, we will continue to feel inadequate, and we can use these experiences to wake up, just as they did. The lojong teachings give us the means to connect with the power of our lineage, the lineage of gentle warriorship.
“Drive all blames into one” is saying, instead of always blaming the other, own the feeling of blame, own the anger, own the loneliness, and make friends with it. Use the tonglen practice to see how you can place the anger or the fear or the loneliness in a cradle of loving-kindness; use tonglen to learn how to be gentle to all that stuff. In order to be gentle and create an atmosphere of compassion for yourself, it’s necessary to stop talking to yourself about how wrong everything is – or how right everything is, for that matter. I challenge you to experiment with dropping the object of your emotion, doing tonglen, and seeing if in fact the intensity of the so-called poison lessens.
The slogan “Be grateful to everyone” is about making peace with the aspects of ourselves that we have rejected. Through doing that, we also make peace with the people we dislike. More to the point, being around people we dislike is often a catalyst for making friends with ourselves. Thus, “Be grateful to everyone.” If we were to make a list of people we don’t like – people we find obnoxious, threatening, or worthy of contempt – we would find out a lot about those aspects of ourselves that we can’t face. If we were to come up with one word about each of the troublemakers in our lives, we would find ourselves with a list of descriptions of our own rejected qualities, which we project onto the outside world. The people who repel us unwittingly show us the aspects of ourselves that we find unacceptable, which otherwise we can’t see. In traditional teachings on lojong it is put another way: other people trigger the karma that we haven’t worked out. They mirror us and give us the chance to befriend all of that ancient stuff that we carry around like a backpack full of granite boulders.
“You should never have expectations for other people. Just be kind to them,” he told me. In terms of Dan, I should just help him keep walking forward inch by inch and be kind to him – invite him for dinner, give him little gifts, and do anything to bring some happiness to his life – instead of having these big goals for him. He said that setting goals for others can be aggressive – really wanting a success story for ourselves. When we do this to others, we are asking them to live up to our ideals. Instead, we should just be kind.
...four things that help us to practice both relative and absolute bodhichitta:
- accumulating merit,
- purifying our negative actions – usually called confessing our negative actions,
- feeding the ghosts, and
- offering to the protectors, which is sometimes translated as asking the protectors to help you in your practice.
Resistance to unwanted circumstances has the power to keep those circumstances alive and well for a very long time.
Surrendering, letting go of possessiveness, and complete nonattachment – all are synonyms for accumulating merit. The idea is to open up rather than shut down.
Confessing your neurotic actions has four parts to it:
- regretting what you’ve done;
- refraining from doing it again;
- performing some kind of remedial activity such as the Vajrasattva mantra, taking refuge in the three jewels, or tonglen; and
- expressing complete willingness to continue this fourfold process in the future and not to act out neurotically.
You invite them back because they remind you that you’ve spaced out. The döns wake you up. As long as you are mindful, no dön can arise. But they’re like cold germs, viruses; wherever there’s a gap – Boom! – in they come. The dön will refuse your invitation to come back as long as you’re awake and open, but the moment you start closing off, it will accept your invitation with pleasure and eat your cake anytime. That’s called feeding the ghosts.
Befriending emotions or developing compassion for those embarrassing aspects of ourselves, the ones that we think of as sinful or bad, becomes the raw material, the juicy stuff with which we can work to awaken ourselves.
This is the classic story of our whole life situation. There are a lot of empty boats out there that we’re always screaming at and shaking our fists at. Instead, we could let them stop our minds. Even if they only stop our mind for one point one seconds, we can rest in that little gap. When the story line starts, we can do the tonglen practice of exchanging ourselves for others. In this way everything we meet has the potential to help us cultivate compassion and reconnect with the spacious, open quality of our minds.
The point is that the happiness we seek is already here and it will be found through relaxation and letting go rather than through struggle.
Ego is like a really fat person trying to get through a very narrow door. If there’s lots of ego, then we’re always getting squeezed and poked and irritated by everything that comes along. When something comes along that doesn’t squeeze and poke and irritate us, we grasp it for dear life and want it to last forever. Then we suffer more as a result of holding on to ourselves.
So lighten up. Don’t make such a big deal. The key to feeling at home with your body, mind, and emotions, to feeling worthy to live on this planet, comes from being able to lighten up. This earnestness, this seriousness about everything in our lives – including practice – this goal-oriented, we’re-going-to-do-it-or-else attitude, is the world’s greatest killjoy. There’s no sense of appreciation because we’re so solemn about everything. In contrast, a joyful mind is very ordinary and relaxed.
Notice everything. Appreciate everything, including the ordinary. That’s how to click in with joyfulness or cheerfulness. Curiosity encourages cheering.
In addition, when things are really heavy and you feel stuck in either your joy or your misery, just do something different to change the pattern.
One of the most powerful teachings of the Buddhist tradition is that as long as you are wishing for things to change, they never will. As long as you’re wanting yourself to get better, you won’t. As long as you have an orientation toward the future, you can never just relax into what you already have or already are.
There’s a life-affirming teaching in Buddhism, which is that Buddha, which means “awake,” is not someone you worship. Buddha is not someone you aspire to; Buddha is not somebody that was born more than two thousand years ago and was smarter than you’ll ever be. Buddha is our inherent nature – our buddha nature – and what that means is that if you’re going to grow up fully, the way that it happens is that you begin to connect with the intelligence that you already have. It’s not like some intelligence that’s going to be transplanted into you.
It all starts with loving-kindness for oneself, which in turn becomes loving-kindness for others. As the barriers come down around our own hearts, we are less afraid of other people. We are more able to hear what is being said, see what is in front of our eyes, and work in accord with what happens rather than struggle against it. The lojong teachings say that the way to help, the way to act compassionately, is to exchange oneself for other. When you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, then you know what is needed, and what would speak to the heart.
By making friends with yourself, you make friends with others. By hurting others, you hurt yourself.
Taking responsibility for your own actions is another way of talking about awakening bodhichitta, because part of taking responsibility is the quality of being able to see things very clearly. Another part of taking responsibility is gentleness, which goes along with not judging, not calling things right or wrong, good or bad, but looking gently and honestly at yourself.
When you connect with your own suffering, reflect that countless beings at this very moment are feeling exactly what you feel. Their story line is different, but the feeling of pain is the same. When you do the practice both for all sentient beings and for yourself, you begin to realize that self and other are not actually different.
We work on ourselves in order to help others, but also we help others in order to work on ourselves.
In general, we should pay heed that gratitude and appreciation for everything that happens to us never wane. Whether we consider what happens to us good fortune or ill fortune, appreciation for this life can wake us up and give us the courage we need to stay right there with whatever comes through the door.