Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

We are already at home in this moment. Yet we spend so much of our lives denying what is here. 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, marry our high-school sweetheart, drink alcohol on Friday nights, climb up 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 life. It slips through our fingers, drifting away.

Rather than facing ourselves directly, we repress what causes us to suffer. We act out. We project our personal issues onto others. It is so hard for us to sit with our confusion, fear, 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 within us and what is outside of us. When we cause other beings to suffer, we are suffering. When we love others, we love ourselves. When we are aware of life, we can use all of life as a humble lesson for our growth.

Our mistakes are opportunities for us to be more vulnerable and 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, we can mindfully tend to where we are and who we are. We are gardeners who are planting seeds of compassion and love and peace. We can turn our 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 understand our own suffering, we can understand another’s suffering as well. We practice not only for ourselves, but for all the beings who have felt pain, sadness, hatred, envy, and anger, because we have been them. We are them.

When we blame and repress and protect our hearts, we alienate ourselves from the world. We stick to limited notions of who we are, categorizing existence into conceptual frameworks. We water the seeds of suffering in ourselves, which harm everyone around us. Rather than moving toward what is true, we resist what is unpleasant. We cling to our expectations and suffer through 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. Rather than pushing others away, we can share who we are, even from our presence alone. We often want to escape from being aware of who we are, of where we are, distracting ourselves with TV and drugs and jobs and sex. We miss the sacredness of our ordinary experience when we look outside 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 stop hiding from ourselves. When we are right here, right now, we are no longer resisting our confusion, our fear, our 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, 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. Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”

We can kindly be with our vulnerabilities. As we learn more, we 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)

We can be gentle with ourselves. We can be curious about the moment we’re in. Our maturity comes from being with what is unfolding, while releasing it. Giving without holding on. We don’t have to judge ourselves as winners or losers, right or wrong, 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)

Good Medicine: How to Turn Pain Into Compassion with Tonglen Meditation

We are often caught in a dualistic trap of desire, aversion, and ignorance. We make judgements about life, categorizing events as good or bad, pleasurable or painful, right or wrong, moral or immoral.

We desire what seems attractive and pleasurable, while we avoid or resist suffering, pain, distress, confusion, uncertainty, and hurt.

Then we ignore what doesn’t stimulate us, what seems uninteresting and boring. In many cases, we ignore what is too hard and painful to accept. Distracting our minds from what is.

Through tonglen practice, we can change our relationship to desire and aversion and ignorance.

Rather than being averse to pain, clinging to comfort, or ignoring what we don’t like, we can be mindful of ourselves, of all the energy in our bodies, without judgement, without attachment.

We can work with our suffering through being present. Instead of categorizing experience as good and bad, right and wrong, pleasurable and painful, we can simply be with what is.

When we drop our storylines, we can become friends with our pain and not cling to fleeting pleasures.

Then we can transform ourselves from our awareness of a changing, nuanced life.

We can inhale our suffering and exhale our joy. As we breathe, we can wish others to feel our joy and to not feel our suffering.

Rather than hiding from our sorrow and pain, we can directly engage with it—not in following the storylines of our sorrow and pain, or in justifying why we feel or think in a given way, but in seeing the energy behind everything.

When we look into ourselves with honesty and compassion, we can extend our view to others.

It is so easy to believe that we are the only ones who feel anger and pain, fear and depression, and so on, but we are not alone. Other people feel like us too.

Rather than reinforcing old habitual patterns of alienation and isolation, we can remind ourselves that we are all human and dependent on each other.

When we feel sadness, we can connect to the sadness of others, when we feel happy, we can connect to the happiness of others.

Our lives are the perfect material for our compassion. The more we focus on our patience, the more we realize how impatient we are. The more we focus on our anger, the more we discover how often we become angry. Every moment is a teacher, helping us to become better humans.

When we breathe in, we can imagine ourselves inhaling thickness, darkness, heat, heaviness, claustrophobia, or pain.

When we breathe out, we can release all that dark energy, transforming it into cool, bright light.

We can take in what is hard and let it go.

We can use our friends, our family, our troublesome associates, anyone, as material for our practice.

When we suffer, we can wish for others to not suffer as we are suffering. When we feel happiness, we can wish for others to feel happiness as we do. Through our practice, we can compassionately connect to all of life.

From “taking and sending,” we can awaken our compassion.

Instead of hiding from our suffering, we can learn to embrace it. We can visualize ourselves taking in pain, then sending out tenderness and care.

We can take in what is dark and send out the light. Through this daily practice, we will soon find that the distinction between what is given and what is taken, the inner and outer, life and death, good and evil, blurs.

For more on tonglen practice:

https://youtu.be/-x95ltQP8qQ