Therapy Books

Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron

By Dr Rhian Lewis

Book cover for Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living by Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron.

I first read this book in the late noughties. I was nearing the end of my counselling psychology training and having always been interested in Buddhism, Pema’s writing offered me an alternative way of thinking about how and why we suffer, as well as ideas on helping my counselling clients to step out of their thinking and see how outdated narratives and resistance to what is, can turn a difficult situation into a fresh hell.

Back then in my late twenties with everything seemingly still open to me, the inspiration that I took from this book was purely intellectual. However, returning to it now at mid-life, with a back catalogue of disappointments, losses and failures to my name and some key doors now on the close, the wisdom hits viscerally.

If you’re familiar with or are a practitioner of mindfulness, this book provides the next step – how to respond compassionately to the thoughts and feelings that we bear witness to. Pema guides us through the Buddhist practice of lojong to support us to build self-compassion, acceptance and emotional resilience.

Lojong practice is based on the understanding that much of our suffering is caused by our resistance to ourselves, our feelings or the reality of the lives we are living.

Resistance can cause us to live inauthentically, displace our feelings, self-medicate and rage against reality and other people, all which inevitably serve only to add an extra layer of crap on top of an already painful situation. Worse still, as Carl Jung advised, “what we resist persists”, so we can get trapped in this self-constructed hell.

With lojong we are encouraged to befriend all the bits of our inner and outer worlds that we dislike and reject. Breathe the uncomfortable feelings in. Sit with the pain. Sit with the judgement. Give it space and then breathe it all out. Let it humble you and open your heart to what it is to be human. We’re all sat in the same boat together.

Dandelion clock with seeds blowing away in the breeze against a sunset

Our knee jerk reaction to anything uncomfortable is usually to run, or to fix it so it goes away, and we will often encounter this desperate plea for immediate alleviation in the counselling room. The advice here though is to sit still, lean forward, see what the pain can teach you and let it soften you. Everything is a potential teacher.

When the good times come, we’re encouraged to share them with others, allow the good feelings to pass over in the same way as the challenging ones, without clinging on to try to keep them with you. In this way we become less fearful of the future and each other. We don’t have to wall ourselves up quite so much.

As you might expect, Start Where You Are uses a fair bit of Buddhist terminology and, although I personally think that Pema does a great job of putting these ancient ideas into accessible, layman’s terms, for this reason it’s not a book that I will necessarily recommend to my clients.

I’ve found it invaluable however in my own self-care and in informing the ways I support any clients who are struggling with the existential givens of life. 

I think we could all benefit from its incisive wisdom.

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