July 23, 2021

Pema Chödrön & Our Path to Fearlessness.

Maitri Pema Chodron book

I used to have this poster on the wall in my bedroom when I was growing up that boldly stated, “Don’t let your fears stand in the way of your dreams,” with a picture of a rock climber scaling a high wall.

That poster was inspiring at times, encouraging me to go out there and take on the world. At other times, it seemed to be taunting me and leaving me wondering, “What’s so wrong with just snuggling into my cozy bed and not scaling any cliffs today?”

Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, in her book, The Places that Scare You writes,

“…we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us.”

Just the title of her book scared me, but when I found the courage to open it and read the above words in the first chapter, it made a lot of sense to me. I wanted to live my life in the way that she spoke of, being present in the moment and becoming kinder and more open.

It starts with loving and having compassion for ourselves and others.

We can do this through meditation. Meditating is also called mindfulness-awareness practice. Through meditation we can learn Maitri.

Maitri is the concept of complete acceptance of ourselves as we are, imperfections and all. We can teach ourselves to work through our fears and drop our defense mechanisms. When hardships come our way, instead of hardening our hearts, we can instead allow ourselves to be vulnerable and learn from our trials in life. This is the path to becoming happier and living with less fear. This is the path of the bodhicitta in Buddhism.

For those new to Buddhism, according to Wikipedia, bodhicitta, “enlightenment-mind,” is the mind that strives toward awakening, empathy, and compassion for the benefit of all sentient beings.

We can start awakening to the bodhicitta nature that is inside all of us by training in what Chödrön describes as the “formal practice of loving-kindness or maitri” which has seven stages. First, we work on developing loving kindness for ourselves and then as we are ready, we expand it to include loved ones, friends, “neutral” persons, those who get on our nerves, all of the above as a group, and finally, Chödrön goes on to explain, “all beings throughout time and space.”

I’ve practiced loving-kindness training in my life and it has helped me to become more accepting of myself and others. The biggest challenge I’ve found is when I turn the practice to a difficult person in my life. I have used it on people who are irritating me at work and I found that by practicing this, sometimes this difficult person has the most to teach me. If I can find loving-kindness toward someone difficult in my life, then I can learn about myself and the defenses I may have built up. I can then break down barriers and become more open.

In love and relationships, uncovering our defense mechanisms and becoming more open can be the hardest thing because we are opening ourselves up to heartbreak. I’m still working on this one, focusing on loving myself so that I will be more open to the next relationship that comes along.

Losing someone we love to death can also make us want to close our hearts off because it hurts so much. I recently lost my dad going on two years this coming August after a long battle with Lewy Body Dementia and Parkinsonism. Instead of hardening my heart, I found solace in the fact that I was lucky to have a dad who I loved so much that I did miss him. It makes me want to love my mom, brother, and daughter more and appreciate them.

In her book, Pema Chödrön teaches how to awaken our basic goodness and find connection with others. She teaches techniques to accept ourselves and others wholeheartedly, faults and all. And most importantly, she explains how to stay in the present moment and not let ego cause us to resist life as it is.

Through meditating, we can learn to slow down and notice our thought processes. When a difficult situation arises, instead of having our usual habitual reaction, we can recognize the strong emotion that we are experiencing, try to understand it, learn from it, and change the way we react. We can do this with self-compassion and even take it a step further and try to connect our experience to others.

As Chödrön explains, “We could recognize that there are millions who are feeling the way we are and breathe in the emotion for all of us with the wish that we could all be free of confusion and limiting habitual reactions.”

When we realize our interconnectedness to all of humanity, we acknowledge the fact that we cannot be truly happy and free from suffering until everyone is happy and free from suffering.

In closing, a final quote from Pema Chödrön: 

“When we touch the center of sorrow, when we sit with discomfort without trying to fix it, when we stay present to the pain of disapproval or betrayal and let it soften us, these are times that we connect with bohdichitta.” 

Advice from her teacher to the Tibetan Yogini Machig Labdrön:

Confess your hidden faults.
Approach what you find repulsive.
Help those you think you cannot help.
Anything you are attached to, let it go.
Go to the places that scare you.

This is the path to fearlessness.


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