Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

This moment is our home. Yet we spend so much time denying where we are. We get lost in all our storylines, believing that we are permanent, that we are separate from other beings in the world.

We chase after ideas of happiness while fearing to lose what we have. We buy a fancy convertible, work in an office with a window view, marry our high-school sweetheart, drink alcohol on Friday nights, climb a mountain, write a book, study for a bachelor’s degree, make money on the stock market, and on and on. Nothing is ever enough to satisfy our growing desire. In the end, no matter how much we resist, we are all subject to old age, sickness, and death. We cannot capture the flow of life. The more we try to hold onto time, the more it slips through our hands.

Rather than facing ourselves, we often hide from what causes us to suffer. We act out. We project our issues onto others. It is so hard for us to sit with our confusion, fear, uncertainty, and loss. It is so hard for us to soften our hearts to our grief.

“When we find ourselves in a situation in which our buttons are being pushed, we can choose to repress or act out, or we can choose to practice. If we can start to do the exchange, breathing in with the intention of keeping our hearts open to the embarrassment or fear or anger that we feel, then to our surprise we find that we’re also open to what the other person is feeling. Open heart is open heart. Once it’s open, your eyes and your mind are also open, and you can see what’s happening in the faces and hearts of other people. If you’re walking down the street and way off in the distance — so far away that you can’t possibly do anything about it — you see a man beating his dog, and you feel helpless, you can start to do the exchange. You start out doing it for the dog, then you find you’re doing it for the man. Then you’re also doing it for your own heartbreak and for all the animals and people who are abusing and abused, and for all the people like you who are watching and don’t know what to do. Simply by doing this exchange you have made the world a larger, more loving place.” (Chödrön, Pema)

We can react to suffering by hardening or softening our hearts. When we are genuine with ourselves, we can look deeply at our sorrow, our fear, our irritation, and transform that energy into compassion. Every moment, we are being tested.

“If we are wholehearted about wanting to be there for other people without shutting anybody or anything out of our hearts, our pretty little self-image of how kind or compassionate we are gets completely blown. We’re always being tested and we’re always meeting our match. The more you’re willing to open your heart, the more challenges come along that make you want to shut it.” (Chödrön, Pema)

There is no true distinction between what is inside of us and what is outside of us. When we cause other beings to suffer, we suffer. When we love others, we love ourselves. With awareness, we can use the experiences in our lives to grow.

Our mistakes are opportunities for us to become more vulnerable, honest, and kind. An irritating person is our teacher, a mosquito is our teacher, a crying baby is our teacher. We cannot be in this world without encountering the suffering of others.

Rather than reacting blindly, we can mindfully tend to where we are. We are gardeners who are planting seeds of compassion and love and peace. We can turn compost into a bloom of flowers.

“We make a lot of mistakes. If you ask people whom you consider to be wise and courageous about their lives, you may find that they have hurt a lot of people and made a lot of mistakes, but that they used those occasions as opportunities to humble themselves and open their hearts. We don’t get wise by staying in a room with all the doors and windows closed.” (Chödrön, Pema)

When we look at our own suffering, we can learn about another’s suffering as well. We practice not only for ourselves, but for every being who has ever felt pain, sadness, hatred, envy, and anger, because we have been like them before. We are them now.

When we blame and repress and act out, we alienate ourselves from the world. We stick to limited notions of who we are, categorizing all of existence into conceptual frameworks. We water the seeds of suffering in ourselves, which will harm everyone around us. Rather than moving toward what is true, we resist what is unpleasant. We cling to our expectations. Then we suffer from our ignorance, attachment, and aversion.

“It seems that we do attack our own image continually and usually that image appears to be ‘out there.’ We want to blame men or we want to blame women or we want to blame white people or black people, or we want to blame politicians or the police; we want to blame somebody. There’s some tendency to always put it out there, even if ‘out there’ is our own body. Instead of working with, there is the tendency to struggle against. As a result, we become alienated. Then we take the wrong medicine for our illness by armoring ourselves in all these different ways, somehow not getting back to the soft spot.” (Chödrön, Pema)

We are not separate from nature. We are not separate from other beings either. Rather than pushing others away, we can share who we are, even with our presence alone. We often want to escape from being aware of who we are, distracting ourselves with television and drugs and jobs and sex. We miss the sacredness of our ordinary experience when we look outside of ourselves for happiness, truth, permanence, and security.

“Because we escape, we keep missing being right here, being right on the dot. We keep missing the moment we’re in. Yet if we can experience the moment we’re in, we discover that it is unique, precious, and completely fresh. It never happens twice. One can appreciate and celebrate each moment — there’s nothing more sacred. There’s nothing more vast or absolute. In fact, there’s nothing more!” (Chödrön, Pema)

We begin to heal when we finally stop hiding from ourselves. When we are right here, right now, we are no longer resisting our confusion, fear, and pain.

Our tendency is to cling to certainty while hiding from uncertainty. We waste so many years of our lives running after achievements and rewards and goals, while never feeling entirely satisfied.

“This moving away from comfort and security, this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted, and shaky — that’s called enlightenment, liberation.” (Chödrön, Pema)

We do not have to eliminate our thoughts and feelings and perceptions. We can accept them as they are and then let them go.

We can kindly be with our vulnerabilities. As we learn more, we can open up more. Life is a dance, an ever-changing movement. We are “willing to give, willing to open, willing not to hold back. It is described as letting go of holding on to yourself, letting your stronghold of ego go. Instead of collecting things for yourself, you open and give them away.” (Chödrön, Pema)

Our maturity comes from being with what is changing, while releasing it. We can give without holding on. We don’t have to judge ourselves as winners or losers, good or bad. Our practice is to be ourselves completely.

“The truth sinks in like rain into very hard earth. The rain is very gentle, and we soften up slowly at our own speed. But when that happens, something has fundamentally changed in us. That hard earth has softened. It doesn’t seem to happen by trying to get it or capture it. It happens by letting go; it happens by relaxing your mind, and it happens by the aspiration and the longing to want to communicate with yourself and others. Each of us finds our own way.” (Chödrön, Pema)

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