than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings."
I was sixty years old, I had practiced meditation, taken vows, lived in several spiritual communities, attended numerous intensive retreats in various traditions, and had a regular daily practice for large swathes of time over the course of 35 years.
I had never heard of Pema Chodron when a friend handed me a paperback copy of Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living that day. Longtime Director of Gampo Abbey, an American student of Chogyam Trungpa, Pema Chodron had me hooked with the very first sentence of the Preface:
"THIS BOOK IS ABOUT AWAKENING THE HEART."
Although I had read Chogyam Trungpa's classic works as a young man, and had spent a bit of time with Tibetan Buddhist communities in Madison WI and Woodstock NY over the years, my primary focus had never turned to Tibetan practices. To be honest, after being drawn to the simple aesthetic of Zen, I was pretty turned off by the somewhat cluttered and gaudy opulence of Tibetan Buddhist Temples, by "guru-worship," and by what appeared to be a highly ritualistic approach to spirituality. The relative simplicity of the American incarnations of both Zen and Theravada seemed much more in tune with my own, working-class, moderately Marxist, sensibilities.
Yet, as I poured through Start Where You Are that day, I was transfixed. An American female monk steeped in Tibetan practice, Pema Chodron offered a fresh, accessible, down to earth presentation of the traditional Lojong Teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Chapter by chapter, her teachings helped me to establish a new and deeper relationships to the dharma, to practice -- and to my life. Although many of the concepts were familiar old friends, something deep inside me shifted.
Starting Where I Was
I had always considered myself a pretty compassionate dude. I was one of the "good guys." I was dedicated to service. I had taught school, worked with troubled youth, been a peace and social justice activist, a union activist, a mediator. The Bodhisattva Vow had been the foundation of my personal practice for decades.
In Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, Pema Chodron's gentle but clear insistence that we turn toward the darker emotional energies of our life, that we open our heart to our own pain, fear, confusion, etc., was a game-changer. Although I had experienced a number of deep "heart openings" in my life, some during intensive retreats with Steven and Ondrea Levine and with Joanna Macy, they were fleeting experiences. As powerful as they were, they didn't uncover and dislodge the conditioned patterns that a chaotic and traumatic childhood had created.
With the support of a daily practice that includes casting a Lojong Slogan for the day and silent sitting meditation, I've learned to 'lighten up" more readily, to not take myself so seriously. Although I still stumble across my own deep conditioning at times, and sometimes really blow it, all in all my life has gotten smoother and more manageable.
If more of us would try this out, I think we might even survive as a species.
It just takes Practice.