By Pema Chodron Shambhala, 2001 Review by J. E. Morris, MA, MS on Apr 30th 2003
of life that we are all looking for is just this: to develop through sitting
and daily life practice the power and courage to return to that which we have
spent a lifetime hiding from…" – Charlotte Joko Beck
Readers will be hard-pressed to
resist this book's lure. It's the title. It's the invitation and the challenge
the title extends. There are places that scare me; I could benefit from greater
fearlessness. Could you?
Pema Chodron is an American
Buddhist nun and author of several books including When Things Fall Apart.
In The Places That Scare You she pulls no punches when it comes to what
it takes to succeed. According to the author, each person always has a choice,
an opportunity to cultivate something positive or healing no matter the
circumstances. Chodron describes each person as a potential warrior. She states
that "the central question of a warrior's training is not how to avoid
uncertainty and fear but how we relate to discomfort."
Chodron explains that one becomes
a warrior through bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is an essential Buddhist practice
that opens its practitioners to the present no matter how ambiguous, foreign or
frightening it might be. She insists achieving bodhichitta requires a faithful,
intentional discipline. Those who practice can become Bodhisattvas, warriors of
a different kind; "warriors of non-aggression who hear the cries of the
world." She discusses both Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. as
examples of master warriors.
Transformation is the likely
consequence of bodhichitta. There are several bodhichitta practices – practices
for loving-kindness, compassion and joy. Another practice is tonglen. Tonglen
is a Tibetan word that "refers to being willing to take in the pain and
suffering of ourselves and others and to send out happiness to us all." In
other words, tonglen is the practice of being in uncomfortable moments. Chodron
reports AIDS and hospice patients have been known to practice it. Chodron also
predicts tonglen can identify one's prejudices and decrease them. It trains one
to soften, relax, and open up.
The text appears to be about
expanding one's comfort zone limitlessly, generously – in a disciplined and
precise manner that supports buddhistavas in the midst of fears. Throughout the
text she offers provocative psychological questions including:
·"Do we continue to believe in our same old
·"What do I do when I feel I can't handle what's
·"Where do I look for strength and in what do I
place my trust?"
She challenges readers to counter
habitual responses, which echoes Bill O'Hanlon's "Do One Thing
Different." Although Chodron never says so this perspective mirrors
systems theory in many respects. Reading it might even help new students better
understand systems theory.
Professional helpers might find
it useful to familiarize themselves with tonglen in order to teach the
principles to clients with anxiety problems. Chodron is especially insightful
in her discussions about our tendency to get "stuck," to hang on to
old experiences, patterns, behaviors, and desires. Of particular interest for
the helping professional are these critical points:
·Peak experiences are wonderful moments to be cherished
for what they meant. However, if we cannot "integrate them into the ups
and downs of our lives…they will hinder us."
·Unlock the habit of clinging because "holding onto
anything blocks wisdom."
·Don't allow external circumstances to sway you.
Additionally, there is a brief
and interesting discussion about the value of anger management. Chodron
encourages readers to hold their seats instead of sowing the seeds of
suffering. For Chodron, these practices are the path to enlightenment. At the
very least, for those who are not Buddhists, these practices might lead to
greater peace and understanding. She is most convincing when she writes
"our desire for relief and the methods we use to achieve it are definitely
not in sync." Whether Buddhism is the method is a personal decision.
Chodron certainly can be persuasive, although at times she simply seems too pollyannaish
to be realistic, but that might be my own cynicism creeping in.
Intelligence makes Chodron's
writing different than the plethora of self-help books available today. This is
not a book to be read once, then shelved. As I read I had the distinct sense
that I would increase my understanding tenfold by returning to page one. The
text is not difficult to follow generally, but I found myself stumbling through
some of the history of Buddhism. Thus, this probably is not the best text
choice for an introduction to Buddhist practice, but it is an engaging and stimulating
Finally, for those interested,
the eight-page appendix includes:  the Mind-training Slogans of Atisha; 
the Four Limitless Ones Chant;  Loving-Kindness Practice;  Compassion
Practice;  the Three-Step Aspiration;  a bibliography; and  additional
resources for meditation instruction and/or practice centers.
J. E. Morris
currently works as a program coordinator and primary counselor at Chrysalis
House, Inc., a long-term residential treatment program for women recovering
from substance abuse, in Lexington, KY.