9 min read ⌚
No matter who you are, you can achieve nirvana and peace.
The only thing you need to do is just initiate the journey.
Pema Chödrön is here to lead you.
And she doesn’t care about your starting point.
In the title of one of her most important books, she says straightforwardly:
Who Should Read “Start Where You Are”? And Why?
Anyone who knows who Pema Chödrön is needs no recommendation: Start Where You Are is once again the beautiful mixture of Buddhist wisdom and American sense for applicability we’ve grown to expect from her books.
Subtitled “A Guide to Compassionate Living,” Start Where You Are is also an excellent book for everyone who wants to become a better person and develop his skills for compassion.
Interestingly enough, the inner peace and the blissfulness are byproducts of the process.
About Pema Chödrön
Pema Chödrön – born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown – is an American Tibetan Buddhist.
After obtaining a B.A. in English literature from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. in Elementary Education from Berkeley, Deirdre started studying with Lama Chime Rinpoche in London; soon after, she became one of the most prominent disciples of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in San Francisco.
In 1991, she published her first book, The Wisdom of No Escape. Three years later, in the midst of a struggle with chronic fatigue, Chödrön wrote Start Where You Are and When Things Fall Apart, perhaps the most beloved of her numerous books.
Find out more at https://pemachodronfoundation.org/
“Start Where You Are PDF Summary”
“We already have everything we need,” says Pema Chödron at the very beginning of Start Where You Are. And then she goes on to claim something which would surprise most Westerners:
There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves – the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds – never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.
In other words, self-improvement is not attaining something you don’t have; it is merely awakening something which is already inside you.
In Start Where You Are, Pema Chödrön teaches you how you can awake that hidden potential, how to achieve nirvana and bodhicitta, or the awakened heart.
Chödrön has a nice analogy (which sounds much like a novel you like): “It’s as if we were poor, homeless, hungry, and cold, and although we didn’t know it, right under the ground where we always slept was a pot of gold. That gold is like bodhicitta.”
In other words, “our confusion and misery come from not knowing that the gold is right here and from always looking for it somewhere else. When we talk about joy, enlightenment, waking up, or awakening bodhicitta, all that means is that we know the gold is right here, and we realize that it’s been here all along.”
The Surprising Beauty of Emptiness: The Story of the Empty Boat
The bodhicitta has three distinct qualities:
• Compassion, i.e., it is soft and gentle;
• Prajna, i.e., it is clear and sharp;
• Openness, i.e., it is unfilled and receptive;
This last quality is also called shunyata and can be referred to as emptiness.
Now, emptiness is not exactly something you – or any other Westerner – strives for; here, in the West, it is almost always a negative quality: cold, distant, unsatisfied.
However, as far as Buddhists are concerned, emptiness is neither of those things; on the contrary, it is a relief.
Chödrön explains what kind of relief via a very educational Zen story.
It concerns a man enjoying himself in a river at dusk. In the midst of his enjoyment, he notices another boat coming in his direction.
It bothers him not one bit: he is happy, and he supposes that the guy on that boat is happy as well, enjoying himself in much the same manner.
However, then he realizes that this new boat keeps on nearing his and at a faster pace. He starts shouting: “Hey, hey, watch out! For Pete’s sake, turn aside!”
But the boat doesn’t do that. Instead, it smashes right into him. Inside – there’s no one. It’s just an empty boat.
“This is the classic story of our whole life situation,” Chödrön concludes. “There are a lot of empty boats out there that we’re always screaming at and shaking our fists at. Instead, we could let them stop our minds. Even if they only stop our mind for one point one seconds, we can rest in that little gap.”
The Tools for Peace: Three Supportive Practices
There are many ways to learn how to not get angry at the empty boats around you. Start Where You Are is mostly focused on three of them.
The name of this meditation stems from two things Buddha valued especially: shamantha, i.e., tranquility, and vipashyana, i.e., insight.
In shamatha-vipashyana meditation, you start by sitting upright with your eyes open and your legs crossed, hands resting on your thighs.
Now, you start becoming aware of your breath.
Because that is the same as becoming aware of your most immediate environment.
And that is the goal of this practice: to relieve you from your past worries or future expectations and to allow you to experience the power of now.
Saying, “Be right there with the breath as it goes out,” – says Pema Chödrön – is the same thing as saying, “Be fully present.”
Tonglen is the practice of taking in and sending out.
It is a Tibetan word meaning “giving and taking” (or sending and receiving) – yeah, we know this made you think of Friends’ Joey – and it refers to a meditation breathing practice which should train you in being a more altruistic person.
The goal is to visualize the suffering of others on the in-breath and to give compassion in the out-breath.
Just like shamatha-vipashyana meditation, tonglen leads to the realization that opposites exist and that they aren’t in war with each other.
Lojong is the practice of working with slogans, with which Start Where You Are is filled.
These slogans – or aphorisms – are called the seven points of mind training; however, there are more than seven; in fact, there are 59 of them.
Chödrön cites and analyzes all of them in her book; unfortunately, we don’t really have the space to even list them; however, if you like, you can get acquainted with them here.
Life Is Glorious – in All of Its Duality
“Life is glorious,” writes Pema Chödrön at one place, “but life is also wretched. It is both.”
The point is to find a way to accept them both.
“Appreciating the gloriousness inspires us, encourages us, cheers us up, gives us a bigger perspective, energizes us,” writes Chödrön. “We feel connected.”
Well, “if that’s all that’s happening, we get arrogant and start to look down on others, and there is a sense of making ourselves a big deal and being really serious about it, wanting it to be like that forever. The gloriousness becomes tinged by craving and addiction.”
The solution is straightforward: embrace the pain. Be it Jesus or Mother Teresa, they did exactly that, starting with other people and ending with themselves.
Gloriousness makes as arrogant, but wretchedness – life’s painful aspect – softens us up considerably.
Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes because you feel you haven’t got anything to lose – you’re just there.
The wretchedness humbles us and softens us, but if we were only wretched, we would all just go down the tubes. We’d be so depressed, discouraged, and hopeless that we wouldn’t have enough energy to eat an apple. Gloriousness and wretchedness need each other. One inspires us, the other softens us. They go together.
How to Embrace Your Weaknesses: the Beautiful Story of Milarepa
Now, most of the self-help books written by Western authors boil down to a simple mantra: ignore the negative thoughts and concentrate on the positive aspects of life.
Pema Chödrön and most Buddhists think otherwise.
As far as they are concerned, just like “gloriousness and wretchedness need each other” in the universe, they need each other in your being as well.
The point is not to ignore your weaknesses; but to accept them and learn to live with them.
Chödrön makes this point through the beautiful Tibetan tale of Milarepa.
A Buddhist, one evening Milarepa returned to his cave only to find it filled with demons. They had taken over his habitat, and Milarepa didn’t know how to get rid of them.
He tried talking them about dharma, and then about compassion and shunyata. Unfortunately, nothing happened. The demons were still there.
Then, he lost his patience and got angry at them. However, the demons were still there, laughing at his anger.
Milarepa didn’t know what to do. So, finally, he gave up, sat down on the floor and said: “I’m not going away and it looks like you’re not either, so let’s just live here together.”
And a miraculous thing happened: at that point, all of the demons left his cave.
Except for one.
“We all know that one,” writes Pema Chödrön. “Sometimes we have lots of them like that. Sometimes we feel that’s all we’ve got.”
Milarepa thought, “Oh, this one is particularly vicious. He will probably never live.”
And he surrendered totally: he walked over to the demon and put his head right into his mouth.
“Just eat me up if you want to,” he whispered.
And then – the final demon disappeared as well.
Key Lessons from “Start Where You Are”
1. You Don’t Need to Improve: Find the Gold Within You
2. The Three Tools to Help You Achieve Peace
3. Embracing Your Weaknesses and the Emptiness
You Don’t Need to Improve: Dig Out the Gold Within You
Contrary to what most Western self-help books advise you, Pema Chödrön explicitly states that there is no need for self-improvement. That’s just society’s way of telling you “you are not worthy.”
However, you are: the only thing you need to do is accept yourself with all of your weaknesses and flaws.
Because, in the end, the thing that matters is your happiness, peacefulness, and wellbeing; not the money you’ll earn or the gala dinners you’ll attend.
The Three Tools to Help You Achieve Peace
If you want to achieve peacefulness and lead a kinder life, then you need to use these three practices to guide yourself to that destination:
• Shamatha-Vipashyana meditation: a particular type of meditation aimed at helping you achieve tranquility and insight;
• Tonglen: a breathing practice during which you breathe in the suffering of your fellow human beings and breath out compassion and recognition;
• Lojong: a mind-training exercise based on a set of 59 aphorisms or slogans.
Embracing Your Weaknesses and the Emptiness
Nothing you ever accomplish will satisfy you: you’ll always feel like there’s a room for something more.
Stop feeling that way!
Just accept yourself the way you are, and embrace the emptiness. That way, you’ll be happy with what you already have.
That seems like the better path, doesn’t it?
Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.
“Start Where You Are Quotes”If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart. Click To Tweet True compassion does not come from wanting to help out those less fortunate than ourselves but from realizing our kinship with all beings. Click To Tweet Affirmations are like screaming that you're okay in order to overcome this whisper that you're not... maybe you're not okay. Well, no big deal. None of us is okay, and all of us are fine. Click To Tweet In truth, there is enormous space in which to live our everyday lives. Click To Tweet If we are willing to stand fully in our own shoes and never give up on ourselves, then we will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others and never give up on them. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“Pragmatic and to the point,” says a review in the Tantra magazine, “Pema Chödrön cuts to the very heart of practice, right to the tender pink spot we want to cover over and keep safe.”
And then it goes on: “In the context of being kind to ourselves, Start Where You Are shows how our greatest asset is our own vulnerability that we so desperately protect. Pema Chödrön guides us to the understanding that, rather than hiding from or resisting the pain of our existence, we can learn to relax with the situation just as it is.”Not exactly as good as When Things Fall Apart – but still exceptional.