For a book that makes such a whole lot of sense, ‘The Places that Scare You’ does surprisingly little for me.
Maybe it’s to do with the fact that things it says are things I already understand the importance of (kind of), so it doesn’t exactly ‘inspire’ or challenge. Maybe it’s because I am already putting into practice things from other book/s, and there isn’t enough bandwidth to throw this into the mix. Maybe I would have liked the book to be less theoretical and more practical, or drawing upon regular folk’s experiences. Maybe it’s that I landed in a labyrinthine maze in Venice in the middle of the night while reading this book, and it was literally a place that scared me. Maybe I’m just not brave enough.
The book is about achieving Bodhichitta or enlightened mind. And it details out practices and steps to reach there. Bodhichitta is achieved by practicing loving kindness, compassion, appreciation and so on- a higher positive emotion at every subsequent step. One of the main tools used by the ‘warrior’ at each step is tonglen- which essentially means giving and taking. (I completely support calling the practitioner as warrior, because the practices require facing and overcoming one’s own inner demons – and that requires infinitely greater strength than slaying demons on the outside.)
In using tonglen to awaken compassion, the warrior would allow him/herself to feel the suffering of oneself and wish genuinely to alleviate it. S/he would then do this for someone who they love, followed by someone they love ambivalently, to one they are neutral towards, and finally for one who irritates them. Of course the warrior can stay at any of these stages for days, or weeks, or months. The warrior breathes in the suffering- dropping the storyline eventually, but holding the feeling… and then breathes out relief and happiness for the sufferer- whether it is oneself or one’s enemy. The powerful central idea is, “Staying with pain even for a moment without trying to get rid of it, teaches us not to be scared of it.”
As I see it, the purpose of these exercises is not to become a ‘better human being’ or a ‘good person’ as some might think. The purpose is to completely unblock oneself- to have no preference or attachment to pleasure over pain, to someone we presently love over someone we presently hate etc. – so that the mind can be truly free to perceive reality as it is..
When we think of what scares us, we think of pain. But there is another thing equally, if not more, scary- uncertainty. And the path to Bodhichitta is to drop all knowing, all certainty, every belief, every conclusion… Pema Chödrön uses the word ‘groundlessness’. To give the mind absolutely nothing to hold on to- now, that’s scary! She shares a fascinating story where the Buddha asks his disciples, “How do you perceive reality?” and to every response, he simply answers, “No, look deeper”. He negates all answers, and also their opposites, and complements, and composites. Eventually he negates everything and tells them not even to believe his own teachings.
It is undoubtedly a warrior who will even try this path.