Pema Chodron's Places That Scare You

Pema Chodron's book, The Places that Scary You,  has been extremely helpful to me over the past six months. I came across the book in the Amazon jungle, when I was on an ayahuasca retreat last October. There was a bookshelf in the dining area, and Chodron's book caught my eye. I picked it up after the third ceremony, which had been quite scary for me, bringing up old fears of losing my mind. The fourth ceremony was that evening, and I was wondering what my intention should be.

I took the book back to my jungle hut and read it, and it really hit home. It inspired me to set my intention for that evening's ceremony: 'Help me open my heart and make friends with my fears'. And I feel I'm slowly making progress in that process, that my heart is opening gradually, like a reluctant oyster.

Chodron is an American lady in her 80s, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, and former student of controversial teacher Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche. She's one of a handful of excellent female Buddhist teachers who have arisen in Western Buddhism - along with Sharon Salzberg, Roshi Joan Halifax, Tara Brach, Tenzin Palmo and others. We're in a golden age for female Buddhist teachers.

The Places That Scare You teaches you how to cultivate bodhichitta, or open heartedness. In other words, how to keep your heart soft and open, rather than following our natural tendency to close and harden our hearts when we run into adversity.

This is one of life's great challenges. When our hearts are truly open, we are connected to other beings and to the limitless dynamism of reality. But very often, we turn away from pain and uncertainty, and close off. We try to protect our heart, because it's raw and sensitive. Yet this closing off and shutting down only makes our situation worse - it aggravates our sense of separation and loneliness and cuts us off from the energetic flow of reality.

I closed my heart down for about a decade, and have been working to open it for about a decade. It's slow work, but rewarding. Each little inch you open it let's the light and warmth back in (as well as the wind and the rain).

We can train ourselves to keep our hearts open even when the wind blows and the rain falls down. Pema Chodron calls this 'warrior training' - you're training yourself to become a bodhisattva, a warrior dedicated to reducing the suffering of all beings.

We can teach ourselves warrior practices, kung fu for the heart and mind. Tibetan Buddhist practices are quite similar to Stoic spiritual exercises. For example, Pema Chodron describes the '59 Lojong mind-training slogans' introduced into Tibetan Buddhism by a monk called Atisha (so-called because he got terrible hay fever). The slogans are short, memorable phrases that the trainee warrior memorizes to arm themselves in challenging moments, like the maxims of ancient Greek philosophy.

Things like:

Regard all dharmas as dreams; although experiences may seem solid, they are passing memories.

Don't expect applause.

In all activities, train with slogans.

But there's a difference between Tibetan Buddhism and Stoicism, in their attitudes to the emotions. Stoicism teaches that emotions are basically wrong judgements. Once we remove the judgements, we should become apathetic, emotionless, completely tranquil. To me this sounds like having one's limbs chopped off. Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana / Tantric Buddhism, teaches instead that emotions are 'thoughts plus energy', as Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche put it.

We can train ourselves, when difficult emotions like fear or anger arise, to remove the thought / story / label and just sit with the emotion. We can observe it, feel it, taste it, without solidifying it into a story. We can taste its energy and realise it's not bad, it's actually vibrant, pulsating. When we recognise the raw energy of emotions, we can re-integrate it, and turn an enemy into an ally. We can rest in the fiery dynamic energy of mind - which seems different to me to the apathy and weary duty of Stoicism.

With the warrior mentality, we can learn to welcome difficult situations as opportunities for training (this reminds me of Seneca's line, 'the Stoic sees all adversity as training', or Epictetus' 'Difficulties reveal men's characters'.) We can completely transform our attitude to suffering.

Usually, when difficult emotions arise, we may feel downcast because they suggest our life is going badly in some way, that we're not advancing as successfully as we thought. We think 'not this bloody sadness again!' or 'aaaargh, fear is back!' We get negative about the negative emotion. We double down.

But what if we welcome negative emotions as teachers and potential allies? What if it is precisely this pain, this anger, this fear, this disappointment, which point the way to the soft, warm, tender heart of bodhichitta?

That is the Vajrayana or tantra attitude to negative emotions - ah! Here's some wonderful coal to stoke up the fire! For example, Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche calls disappointment 'a chariot for the spiritual journey'. I love that.

When I was in the jungle, I read and copied out this passage from Chodron's book:

We are, as the 8th-century Buddhist master Santideva pointed out, very much like a blind person who finds a jewel buried in a heap of garbage. Right here in what we'd like to throw away, in what we find repulsive and frightening, we discover the warmth and clarity of bodhichitta.

That reminded me of Jung's idea of confronting the Shadow, which I have written about previously. In both, there is the idea of confronting pain and darkness, overcoming one's habitual desire to run away, and instead sitting with it, thereby performing an act of alchemy or transmutation. 'Just as alchemy changes any metal into gold', Chodron writes, 'bodhichitta can, if we let it, transform any activity, word or thought into a vehicle for awakening our compassion.'

One finds a similar alchemy in Sufism, in Rumi's poetry for example:

Learn the alchemy true human beings know.

The moment you accept what troubles have been given you

The door opens.

Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.

Joke with torment brought by a Friend.

In both Vajrayana Buddhism and Jungian psychology there is the idea of turning the daemon or Adversary into a helper and ally. The 11th-century Buddhist nun Machik Labdron taught: 'In other traditions demons are expelled externally. But in my tradition demons are accepted with compassion.' She developed a visualisation technique, called Chod, where you visualise your inner demons, become them, and then transform them with compassion.

This idea of recognising all scary monsters as manifestations of your mind is central to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And it's central to Jungian psychology, in the idea of recognising, accepting and transforming your Shadow - I believe Jung developed his theory independently of Tibetan Buddhism, although later in his life he was quite inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Check out this book about the similarities between Tibetan Buddhism and Jungian psychology.

Anyway, Chodron's book was hugely helpful to me during the fourth ayahuasca ceremony, which was even scarier than the one before. It helped me face very difficult emotions, and welcome them as a purifying fire. I went back to my hut that night, picked up her book, and cried with gratitude.

The week after the retreat was even scarier. I thought I was in some alternate reality - a dream, or the afterlife. Her book helped me enormously then too. It was the only book I could understand - I couldn't understand novels, or Asterix comics, or movies, but her book rang out clear and loud as a bell. The warrior training she taught worked no matter how altered my consciousness. It worked even when I didn't know if I was alive or dead. That's the point - the Tibetans say that the spiritual training we do in this life still works in the bardo of drying and the bardo of rebirth, and after taking ayahuasca, I'm prepared to believe that.

And her book has helped me in the six months since going on that retreat, when I've dealt with a fair amount of disappointment and uncertainty. I've turned 40, and am not sure what direction my life will develop - will I start a family, write another book, stay in academia, move country? She has taught me not to run away from uncertainty, nor rush to shut it down, but rather to accept it as an inescapable part of life and as coal for the fire of transmutation. Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche once said to her: 'All life is transition. If you can accept that, you'll be fine.' Making peace with uncertainty seems pretty crucial to me at this stage in my life.

As a postscript, I planned to make a video for you on this topic, as part of a new initiative to make short philosophical movies for YouTube. I bought lots of fancy new equipment and set it all up. Yesterday I shot a video of me talking about working with negative emotions. Then I realised it was all blurry - my brand new camera wouldn't bloody auto-focus! I set off for Tottenham Court Road, asked various electronics gurus their advice, and they couldn't help me. I felt such sadness and rage at the fact my shiny new technology wasn't working. What would I have to show for this week? Where was I going in life? I wandered through Kings Cross, feeling drawn to some of my habitual comforting mechanisms - booze, fags, junk food, casual sex.

And then, sitting in the cafe at Friends House, I realized, what a hilarious joke. I'd just made a video on dealing with negative emotions that very morning, and I'd already forgotten to practice! I'd literally been speaking on camera about welcoming difficult emotions as teachers and allies just a few hours earlier, yet here I was, buffeted by the winds of rage and sadness, being swept along to my habitual bad habits. How marvellous! How ludicrous! So I sat there, in the Quaker cafe, and just felt the sadness. And it didn't overwhelm me.

Thank you to Pema Chodron for her wonderful book.