The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chodron


The renowned Buddhist nun and author of the best-selling When Things Fall Apart (Shambhala, 1997) returns with more sage advice, this time on cultivating bodhichitta (“awakened mind” or “enlightened attitude”), that expansiveness of heart and spirit which recognizes the suffering of all beings and intends only that suffering diminish.

Chodron discusses various components of the practice prescribed by the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for engendering compassion, including tonglen (“sending and taking” or “being willing to take in the pain and suffering of ourselves and others and to send out happiness to us all”), “the four limitless qualities” (loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity), and the lojong teachings for training the mind, embodied in 59 pithy “warrior slogans” (e.g., “Be grateful to everyone” and “Don’t expect applause”).

Chodron’s voice is calm and reassuring to the point that a reader new to the subject might at first find it difficult to reconcile her sensibility with the world of current news headlines (or even disputes with neighbors). But here is where Chodron’s insight really shines, for it is penetrating and helpful precisely because she sees the same world we all do—she just declines to believe in it as we tend to do.

She includes countless anecdotes from her own life (which was tumultuous enough before she was initiated), her work as a teacher, and spiritual literature; she also refrains from abstraction by rewording aphorisms and affirmations to make them less lofty and more congruent with the junk of daily life: “May this really annoying person enjoy happiness and the root of happiness. May this woman who gives me the creeps awaken bodhichitta.”

Her title, taken from a saying by a twelfth-century Tibetan teacher, is both a wink and an admonition to “stop struggling against the nature of reality” and to realize that, as she notes, “The irony is that what we most want to avoid in our lives is crucial to awakening bodhichitta. These juicy emotional spots are where a warrior gains wisdom and compassion.” Fans of When Things Fall Apart will welcome these additional lessons, and those new to Chodron’s work will come away grateful for having encountered her good heart.