Book: The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times
Author: Pema Chödrön
Genres: Non-fiction, Self-Help, Meditation, Buddhism
Synopsis (from Amazon book page):
“We always have a choice, Pema Chödrön teaches: We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us and make us increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder. Here Pema provides the tools to deal with the problems and difficulties that life throws our way. This wisdom is always available to us, she teaches, but we usually block it with habitual patterns rooted in fear. Beyond that fear lies a state of openheartedness and tenderness. This book teaches us how to awaken our basic goodness and connect with others, to accept ourselves and others complete with faults and imperfections, and to stay in the present moment by seeing through the strategies of ego that cause us to resist life as it is.”
Notes of Interest:
I bought this book because I’ve been at a very tough place for the past four years, and my gut instinct tells me things are going to get worse before they get better. Meditation has been a real game-changer for my depression and anxiety. But lately I’ve been feeling I’m going to need a deeper practice to get me through the next several bumps in life. This book was among some Goodreads recommendations by Elizabeth Gilbert, and at a glimpse, seemed to be just the dose of wisdom I need and will continue to need for future reference.
This book has a Buddhist spiritual context because the author is a Buddhist monk. But meditation itself can be used as a secular and scientifically proven psychological aid. And the advice presented here can serve as tool for coping with secular, psychological obstacles without having to be Buddhist.
What could have made it better for me:
I honestly had no negative notes or feelings about this book. The language is clear. The content is well-organized. Pragmatic examples of the principles discussed are clearly illustrated. And it’s technically flawless. But most importantly, it’s exactly what I needed. And I think that might be key to anyone considering purchasing it. If you are looking for a quick fix for your anxiety and phobias, this is not it. This is not a book for people offended at Buddhist principles or terminology, either. Nor is this a book for people who are not ready and willing to look in the mirror and begin making changes within themselves to overcome their problems.
What I liked about it:
I think this work has earned the most highlights I have ever given to a book. Seriously. There is probably at least one highlight on every page. I loved it that much and found it that relevant. That makes it extremely difficult for me to pull out the shiniest pearls of wisdom to show off in my review. But I will attempt to summarize the basic concept behind this book as I understand it.
The Buddhist concept of the compassionate warrior presented here can be used on a secular level, or dug into deeper as a study of “bodhichitta” or enlightenment. I’m going to speak of it on a secular level because I feel so many people could benefit from it, regardless of faith, or lack thereof.
In a nutshell, the practice of the compassionate warrior is this. You have to train yourself to confront what you fear in order to make it lose its power over you. To sit with your discomfort, your anger, your fear, all your negative emotions takes courage. After all, it’s uncomfortable. But all emotions, good and bad, are fleeting. So, training comes in learning to not hold onto the “good” ones or shy away from the “bad” ones. Grasping and aversion is what causes suffering. We’re not happy when we can’t have what we DO want. And avoiding what we DON’T want is running away from problems, so that doesn’t solve anything.
We start with meditating on self-compassion because if we do not have compassion for ourselves, we cannot generate compassion for anyone else. We often criticize ourselves for our reactions to things that frighten us, make us anxious, or otherwise put us in that place of discomfort. We often reach for exterior comforts (food, alcohol, escapism, etc.) because we never truly learned how to love and comfort ourselves. So, the compassionate warrior sits with discomfort until she can let it go, and this is an act of self-love, self-compassion because holding onto past hurts or running from future worries causes more suffering.
When we can face our fears, being kind and forgiving of ourselves for having those negative reactions, and learn to let go, the next step is learning how to support our loved ones in a similar fashion (rather than reacting with criticism when things don’t go the way we want). When you can do that and you’re ready for a challenge, the next arm of the outward spiral is to train with compassion for the difficult people in your life. (Yeah, that person that gets under your skin every time he opens his mouth, or every time she backs you into a corner.) This in itself is a means of confronting, staying, and releasing any fear or other negative emotions associated with our difficult people, so that compassion has a chance to create a different dynamic in the relationship. And if you train long enough to build that muscle of compassion, you can learn to develop compassion for strangers and finally all living beings.
Sounds easy, right? It’s not. Human nature is reactive. We get upset when our desires are blocked or not met. So, training the mind to react differently is a lifetime challenge, even for the meditation expert. Moving your mental practice from the mat into your daily life is always going to be difficult because you have no way of knowing what life is going to throw at you every day. Every day will present at least one opportunity for you to practice staying with and letting go of negative reactions. But the goal is to gain enough experience diffusing difficult situations that it becomes easier and more natural over time. This is how fear loses its power over us.
I highly recommend this book for anyone struggling through difficult times, particularly for anyone coping with anxiety issues. I will be buying her other book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times next. And I’m sure I will consult both books frequently over the coming years because our society does not teach children (or adults) how to fail, how to have resilience. The goal is always to win, to succeed, to not appear weak in any way … perfection. Our parents tell us this. Our teachers tell us this. The business world tells us this. The media tells us this.
But that picture of success is not the same thing as integrity. So when things fall apart — and they WILL — the more tools we have for coping and then moving beyond the difficulties, the better.
If you were ever curious about meditation or the study of Buddhism, this book provides a simple and clear introduction to terms and practices. But one need not be Buddhist to benefit from the psychological advice given here.