By Pema Chödrön. Shambhala Publications, 2019. 192 pages. $24.95/hardcover; $16.95/paperback (available in October); $15.99/eBook.
Pema Chödrön’s Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World was an important read for me while quarantined. The “unwelcome” in the title refers to all that we find difficult, and there is so much that is difficult in this moment. Chödrön belongs to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, which focuses on cultivating bodhichitta, the awakened heart or mind. She writes, “Our aim is to fully awaken our heart and mind, not just for our own greater well-being but also to bring benefit, solace, and wisdom to other living beings.” The book focuses on the impact of respecting ourselves and others and recognizing “our interconnectedness with each other and . . . our own basic goodness.” Because of its short, focused chapters, I enjoyed integrating a chapter a day into my spiritual routine.
I delighted in the connections I discovered between the Buddhist spirituality shared in the book and the Quaker values that guide me. Much of the way Chödrön talks about the goodness and love that all people possess was reflective of the ways that Quakers think of “that of God in everyone” or the Inner Light. The connections between her language and that of George Fox made me smile. At one point, she writes, “when we change our own patterns, we help change the patterns of our culture as a whole,” which made me think of Fox’s call for Quakers to ”be patterns, be examples.” She also writes about the necessity of maintaining payu, which can be translated as “attentiveness” or “discernment,” both words that seem ever present in Quaker contexts. I particularly appreciated her sharing that “Having compassion doesn’t mean we can’t take a stand. It’s important to speak up when we’ve been hurt, when we see others being hurt, and when we observe or experience examples of abuse of power,” which reminded me of the ways that Quakers put our faith into action.
I love that the book is filled with practical advice. There are mindfulness and meditation practices offered throughout the book and in the appendices. Additionally, many of the tools I took away from the book came in the form of the wisdom that Chödrön has developed from both her spiritual exploration and her life experiences. She shares about the value of staying with uncomfortable feelings. She writes, “We may hope to get rid of all the yucky and keep only what we consider beautiful. But this approach will only intensify our struggle with ourselves and add another layer to our emotional inner conflicts.” She also advises that we engage in active discernment about ourselves, ever remaining in touch with what triggers or calms us, and ever learning from our mistakes. She encourages us to be gentle with ourselves, even when we have not been at our best with ourselves or others. As an empathic perfectionist, I feel this line will stick with me the most: “When we’re dealing with other people—other complex human beings—how can we get it right every time?” She reminds us that if we’re too hard on ourselves, we will inevitably come to hold others to those same standards. She advises that we begin our compassion with ourselves and then continue to spread it generously.
Chödrön paints a picture of the world we can build if we are able to practice being both vulnerable and kind. She believes we can all bring out the best in each other. She knows that we are in challenging times, and she advises, “How we respond will determine the way the world will go. As citizens of our world, we can help things go in the direction of wisdom, caring, and compassion.” I want to live in the world she envisions. Reading this book and sharing its messages with others have made me feel as though I am—and we are—headed in that direction.
Lauren Brownlee is a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting and an attender at Durham (N.C.) Meeting.