As the current year draws to a close, I’ve found myself reflecting on how far I’ve come, and where I hope to be in the coming year. In the spirit of change, I recently read a couple Pema Chodron books, but the one that stuck with me the most was Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living. Now I’ve always considered myself fairly compassionate of others, but Start Where You Are means starting with YOU – with not only complete accountability for your actions, but complete compassion for yourself as well. Now that was something I had never considered before.
The past couple of years have been full of changes, and many that happened at the start of this calendar year were not so good. March was a particularly bad month, full of family health issues, increasing stress around the wedding and the recognition, and subsequent severing, of toxic areas of my life. But I stayed strong and good things started to fill the new-found space I had created – since then I have made some great friends, involved myself in worthy organizations and have become (mostly) content with life in general.
I’ve never been one to follow any one religion or practice, but Buddhism has interested me* ever since a junior highschool project unearthed the angst-friendly gem that “life is full of suffering.” Anyone who leads a normal, uncharmed life knows this is the truth, but Buddhists use this suffering/adversity to learn a thing or two about themselves. And so learn I did, and what I found was not always pretty. But it wasn’t particularly ugly either – just very human.
But since reading Chodron’s books, I’ve learned to “drop the storyline” during stressful times and focus on exactly what I was feeling, not who/what I was reacting to. As Chodron writes: “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 and to relate to that wound.” She continues: Don’t “act out” and don’t “repress” – find that middle road where the only person that matters is you. And when you start to drift into the sidelines, gently steer yourself back to the path. A difficult task for someone like me who’s not accustomed to holding back, but that’s apparently where the compassion for myself comes in.
It’s difficult to “be grateful to everyone” – especially to those who mistreat you – but everyone is a teacher. Chodron’s guru, Trungpa Rinpoche, said “The role of the spiritual friend is to insult you.” That statement blew me away. I am a fiercely loyal friend, and would never consciously take the opportunity to kick someone I cared about when they were down, so the idea of allowing someone like that to be in my life seems toxic and damaging. But Trungpa Rinpoche isn’t interested in the warm and fuzzy kind of friend – he wants you to recognize the kind whose main purpose in your life is to bring things to the surface that you’d rather bury beneath the mud. It could be someone you’ve known for years, and their motives might be less than noble, but the only thing that matters is what you can learn from the relationship. Now I’ve had a few of these “spiritual friends” in my life over the years, but I never keep them around for long – I guess I feel that I do a good enough job of recognizing my own faults without the help of anyone else! This is definitely an area that needs more contemplation in the future.
Deep thoughts aside, I have high hopes for the new year. I’ve been organizing a lecture series through the North Country Arts Council (keep your eyes open for me on Channel 7 news!), and have a few projects of my own in the works. Also, a (potential) major change has been brewing beneath the surface since October, and I should be hearing a definite answer within the next couple of weeks. But in the meantime, I’m learning to be happy starting where I am. And armed with the knowledge that everything I need is within, I feel better equipped to travel this path no matter what does (or doesn’t) come my way.
*Ignorant Westerner Disclaimer: I am in no way pretending to be an expert, or even a student, of Buddhism. I do understand that “karma” does not mean that anyone who’s ever pissed me off will get what they deserve. I also know better than to name a restaurant after a Buddhist phrase that means “endless suffering” just because it sounds spiritual (true story)!
Book Cover from Shambhala Publications