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Start Where You Are

by Pema Chodron

Excerpt - Chapter 1, pages 14-23

No Escape, No Problem

We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves--the heavy-duty fearing that we're bad and hoping that we're good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds--never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.

     Looking at ourselves this way is very different from our usual habit. From this perspective we don't need to change: you can feel as wretched as you like, and you're still a good candidate for enlightenment. You can feel like the world's most hopeless basket case, but that feeling is your wealth, not something to be thrown out or improved upon. There's a richness to all of the smelly stuff that we so dislike and so little desire. The delightful things--what we love so dearly about ourselves, the places in which we feel some sense of pride or inspiration--these also are our wealth.

     With the practices presented in this book, you can start just where you are. If you're feeling angry, poverty-stricken, or depressed, the practices described here were designed for you, because they will encourage you to use all the unwanted things in your life as the means for awakening compassion for yourself and others. These practices show us how to accept ourselves, how to relate directly with suffering, how to stop running away from the painful aspects of our lives. They show us how to work openheartedly with life just as it is.

     When we hear about compassion, it naturally brings up working with others, caring for others. The reason we're often not there for others--whether for our child or our mother or someone who is insulting us or someone who frightens us--is that we're not there for ourselves. There are whole parts of ourselves that are so unwanted that whenever they begin to come up we run away.

     Because we escape, we keep missing being right here, being right on the dot. We keep missing the moment we're in. Yet if we can experience the moment we're in, we discover that it is unique, precious, and completely fresh. It never happens twice. One can appreciate and celebrate each moment--there's nothing more sacred. There's nothing more vast or absolute. In fact, there's nothing more!

     Only to the degree that we've gotten to know our personal pain, only to the degree that we've related with pain at all, will we be fearless enough, brave enough, and enough of a warrior to be willing to feel the pain of others. To that degree we will be able to take on the pain of others because we will have discovered that their pain and our own pain are not different.

     However, to do this, we need all the help we can get. It is my hope that this book will supply that help. The tools you will be given are three very supportive practices:

1. Basic sitting meditation (called shamatha-vipashyana meditation)

2. The practice of taking in and sending out (called tonglen)

3. The practice of working with slogans (called the seven points of mind training, or lojong)

     All these practices awaken our trust that the wisdom and compassion that we need are already within us. They help us to know ourselves: our rough parts and our smooth parts, our passion, aggression, ignorance, and wisdom. The reason that people harm other people, the reason that the planet is polluted and people and animals are not doing so well these days is that individuals don't know or trust or love themselves enough. The technique of sitting meditation called shamatha-vipashyana ("tranquillity-insight") is like a golden key that helps us to know ourselves.


     In shamatha-vipashyana meditation, we sit upright with legs crossed and eyes open, hands resting on our thighs. Then we simply become aware of our breath as it goes out. It requires precision to be right there with that breath. On the other hand, it's extremely relaxed and extremely soft. Saying, "Be right there with the breath as it goes out," is the same thing as saying, "Be fully present." Be right here with whatever is going on. Being aware of the breath as it goes out, we may also be aware of other things going on--sounds on the street, the light on the walls. These things may capture our attention slightly, but they don't need to draw us off. We can continue to sit right here, aware of the breath going out.

     But being with the breath is only part of the technique. These thoughts that run through our minds continually are the other part. We sit here talking to ourselves. The instruction is that when you realize you've been thinking you label it "thinking." When your mind wanders off, you say to yourself, "Thinking." Whether your thoughts are violent or passionate or full of ignorance and denial; whether your thoughts are worried or fearful, whether your thoughts are spiritual thoughts, pleasing thoughts of how well you're doing, comforting thoughts, uplifting thoughts, whatever they are, without judgment or harshness simply label it all "thinking," and do that with honesty and gentleness.

     The touch on the breath is light: only about 25 percent of the awareness is on the breath. You're not grasping or fixating on it. You're opening, letting the breath mix with the space of the room, letting your breath just go out into space. Then there's something like a pause, a gap until the next breath goes out again. While you're breathing in, there could be some sense of just opening and waiting. It is like pushing the doorbell and waiting for someone to answer. Then you push the doorbell again and wait for someone to answer. Then probably your mind wanders off and you realize you're thinking again--at this point, use the labeling technique.

     It's important to be faithful to the technique. If you find that your labeling has a harsh, negative tone to it, as if you were saying, "Dammit!," that you're giving yourself a hard time, say it again and lighten up. It's not like trying to down the thoughts as if they were clay pigeons. Instead, be gentle. Use the labeling part of the technique as an opportunity to develop softness and compassion for yourself. Anything that comes up is okay in the arena of meditation. The point is, you can see it honestly and make friends with it.

     Although it is embarrassing and painful, it is very healing to stop hiding from yourself. It is healing to know all the ways that you're sneaky, all the ways that you hide out, all the ways that you shut down, deny, close off, criticize people, all your weird little ways. You can know all that with some sense of humor and kindness. By knowing yourself, you're coming to know humanness altogether. We are all up against these things. We are all in this together. So when you realize that you're talking to yourself, label it "thinking" and notice your tone of voice. Let it be compassionate and gentle and humorous. Then you'll be changing old stuck patterns that are shared by the whole human race. Compassion for others begins with kindness to ourselves.*


     The heart of this book is the lojong practice and teachings. The lojong practice (or mind training) has two elements: the practice, which is tonglen meditation, and the teaching, which comes in the form of slogans.

     The basic notion of lojong is that we can make friends with what we reject, what we see as "bad" in ourselves and in other people. At the same time, we could learn to be generous with what we cherish, what we see as "good." If we begin to live in this way, something in us that may have been buried for a long time begins to ripen. Traditionally this "something" is called bodhichitta, or awakened heart. It's something that we already have but usually have not yet discovered.

     It's as if we were poor, homeless, hungry, and cold, and although we didn't know it, right under the ground where we always slept was a pot of gold. That gold is like bodhichitta. Our confusion and misery come from not knowing that the gold is right here and from always looking for it somewhere else. When we talk about joy, enlightenment, waking up, or awakening bodhichitta, all that means is that we know the gold is right here, and we realize that it's been here all along.

     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.

     If an experience is delightful or pleasant, usually we want to grab it and make it last. We're afraid that it will end. We're not inclined to share it. The lojong teachings encourage us, if we enjoy what we are experiencing, to think of other people and wish for them to feel that. Share the wealth. Be generous with your joy. Give away what you most want. Be generous with your insights and delights. Instead of fearing that they're going to slip away and holding on to them, share them.

     Whether it's pain or pleasure, through lojong practice we come to have a sense of letting our experience be as it is without trying to manipulate it, push it away, or grasp it. The pleasurable aspects of being human as well as the painful ones become the key to awakening bodhichitta.

     There is a saying that is the underlying principle of tonglen and slogan practice: "Gain and victory to others, loss and defeat to myself." The Tibetan word for pride or arrogance, which is nga-gyal, is literally in English "me-victorious." Me first. Ego. That kind of "me-victorious" attitude is the cause of all suffering.

     In essence what this little saying is getting at is that words like victory and defeat are completely interwoven with how we protect ourselves, how we guard our hearts. Our sense of victory just means that we guarded our heart enough so that nothing got through, and we think we won the war. The armor around our soft spot--our wounded heart--is now more fortified, and our world is smaller. Maybe nothing is getting in to scare us for one whole week, but our courage is weakening, and our sense of caring about others is getting completely obscured. Did we really win the war?

     On the other hand, our sense of being defeated means that something got in. Something touched our soft spot. This vulnerability that we've kept armored for ages--something touched it. Maybe all that touched it was a butterfly, but we have never been touched there before. It was so tender. Because we have never felt that before, we now go out and buy padlocks and armor and guns so that we will never feel it again. We go for anything--seven pairs of boots that fit inside each other so we don't have to feel the ground, twelve masks so that no one can see our real face, nineteen sets of armor so that nothing can touch our skin, let alone our heart.

     These words defeat and victory are so tied up with how we stay imprisoned. The real confusion is caused by not knowing that we have limitless wealth, and the confusion deepens each time we buy into this win/lose logic: if you touch me, that is defeat, and if I manage to armor myself and not be touched, that's victory.

     Realizing our wealth would end our bewilderment and confusion. But the only way to do that is to let things fall apart. And that's the very thing that we dread the most--the ultimate defeat. Yet letting things fall apart would actually let fresh air into this old, stale basement of a heart that we've got.

     Saying "Loss and defeat to myself" doesn't mean to become a masochist: "Kick my head in, torture me, and dear God, may I never be happy." What it means is that you can open your heart and your mind and know what defeat feels like.

     You feel too short, you have indigestion, you're too fat and too stupid. You say to yourself, "Nobody loves me, I'm always left out. I have no teeth, my hair's getting gray, I have blotchy skin, my nose runs." That all comes under the category of defeat, the defeat of ego. We're always not wanting to be who we are. However, we can never connect with our fundamental wealth as long as we are buying into this advertisement hype that we have to be someone else, that we have to smell different or have to look different.

     On the other hand, when you say "Victory to others," instead of wanting to keep it for yourself, there's the sense of sharing the whole delightful aspect of your life. You did lose some weight. You do like the way you look in the mirror. You suddenly feel like you have a nice voice, or someone falls in love with you or you fall in love with someone else. Or the seasons change and it touches your heart, or you begin to notice the snow in Vermont or the way the trees move in the wind. With anything that you want, you begin to develop the attitude of wanting to share it instead of being stingy with it or fearful around it.

     Perhaps the slogans will challenge you. They say things like "Don't be jealous," and you think, "How did they know?" Or "Be grateful to everyone"; you wonder how to do that or why to bother. Some slogans, such as "Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment," exhort you to go beyond common sense. These slogans are not always the sort of thing that you would want to hear, let alone find inspiring, but if we work with them they will become like our breath, our eyesight, our first thought. They will become like the smells we smell and the sounds we hear. We can let them permeate our whole being. That's the point. These slogans aren't theoretical or abstract. They are about exactly who we are and what is happening to us. They are completely relevant to how we experience things, how we relate with whatever occurs in our lives. They are about how to relate with pain and fear and pleasure and joy, and how those things can transform us fully and completely. When we work with the slogans, ordinary life becomes the path of awakening.

     *If you've never tried sitting meditation before, you may wish to seek the guidance of a qualified meditation instructor.

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