In Start Where You Are, Pema Chodron suggests that in order to wake up, we must confront ourselves. Our self determines our relationship with the world. What we avoid and ignore in ourselves, we avoid and ignore in the world. Self-confrontation doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world in order to narrowly focus on ourselves. Rather, it means seeing oneself as the filter that determines our experience of the world. The experience of oneself and the experience of the world are correlated and interdependent. In order to continue the process of waking up, we must recognize the interdependence of the self and the world. Otherwise, we delude ourselves into thinking we are somehow outside of the world.
We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves – the heavy-duty feeling 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 of 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!
Pema Chodron is a well known spiritual leader who cares deeply about bringing Tibetan Buddhist wisdom, practices, ideas, and teachings to the Western world. She studied under Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and received Buddhist monastic ordination in 1981.
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The original version of this post was published on BetterListen on November 4, 2012.
—Matt Rosenblum, May 25, 2016