The Places That Scare You, by Pema Chodron – Part 1

I’ve often turned to spiritual teachers during difficult times in my life, and most often I’ve found them in a book passed into my hands by a friend. One such book was given to me by a friend of my mother’s who dropped by one evening three years ago. She said as she was leaving, “Oh, by the way, I think you’ll like this.”

The book was When Things Fall Apart, Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun. I had never heard of her, but the book became a constant companion that I referred to almost every day to guide me through the ups and downs of coming back to live with my mother and sister.

I bought and read a second book by Pema, The Places that Scare You, A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, which I’ve just picked up again and begun to re-read now, as I face another challenging time in my life. This is the page I want to share with you today. It’s from the chapter about the ‘in-between state.’

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“We are told about the pain of chasing after pleasure and the futility of running from pain. We hear also about the joy of awakening, of realizing our interconnectedness, of trusting the openness of our hearts and minds. But we aren’t told all that much about this state of being in-between, no longer able to get our old comfort from the outside but not yet dwelling in a continual sense of equanimity and warmth. 

Anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness mark the in-between state. It’s the kind of place we usually want to avoid. The challenge is to stay in the middle rather than buy into struggle and complaint. The challenge is to let it soften us rather than make us more rigid and afraid. Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere only makes our hearts more tender. When we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion arises spontaneously. By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength. 

Yet it seems reasonable to want some kind of relief. If we can make the situation right or wrong, if we can pin it down in any way, then we are on familiar ground. But something has shaken up our habitual patterns and frequently they no longer work. Staying with volatile energy gradually becomes more comfortable than acting it out or repressing it. This open-ended tender place is called bodhichitta. Staying with it is what heals. It allows us to let go of our self-importance. It’s how the warrior learns to love. 

This is exactly how we’re training every time we sit in meditation. We see what comes up, acknowledge that with kindness, and let go. Thoughts and emotions rise and fall. Some are more convincing than others. Habitually we are so uncomfortable with that churned-up feeling that we’d do anything to make it go away. Instead we kindly encourage ourselves to stay with our agitated energy by returning to our breath. This is the basic training in maitri that we need to just keep going forward, to just keep opening our heart.” (p 120-121)

This has been the focus of my recent practice: finding the in-between state commonly referred to as ‘the middle way.’ I’ve been anxious and finding myself more frequently at either extreme – aggressively fighting uncomfortable challenges, or running away from them altogether (denial). I learned the old fight or flight thing by watching my parents. Dad was into taking the fight into the arena, Big Time. He burned some bridges in the process, and a lot of calories on our bare bottoms. Mom spent her time avoiding conflict, and pretending that everything was just hunky-dory, even when we all knew it wasn’t. ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ was her frequent rhetorical question. Nobody ever answered. No one knew how.

I’m an excellent learner, and have both dad’s and mom’s method down perfectly, but I find myself not happy about either. There must be a better way. So I’ve turned to spiritual teachers and people who seem to have a spirit of equanimity and joy as my guides.  How do they do that? I want to be like them!

My most recent guide, other than Pema, is the lead character in the movie, Legally Blonde. Surprised? Spiritual teacher?? Elle is friendly, honest, AND firm. She knows what she wants, and goes out to get it without stepping on other people or pushing them out of the way. She keeps her heart open even when she is judged unfairly and treated despicably. And she makes friends with the impossibly cold-hearted just by being an example of goodness. I call that a pretty good model to follow.

Role models help me. They provide the words and actions to help me out of my box of fixated responses. They give me a new script, a new way of seeing and behaving, that is far more effective. I’m not blonde, but I AM beautiful, and I can be kind AND firm, with practice.

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