Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World

Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World

Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 2019. 160 pp., paper, $22.95.

Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön is the author of a number of highly popular books, including When Things Fall Apart, Taking the Leap, and Living Beautifully. Chödrön, an American, holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and a master’s in elementary education and has been ordained as a nun in the lineage of the famed Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa. She is resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in North America established for Westerners. She is interested in establishing the monastic tradition in the West as well as in spreading Buddhist teachings and helping those in need through the Pema Chödrön Foundation. She has also spoken at the Theosophical Society.

In her latest book, Welcoming the Unwelcome, Chödrön shares many examples of negative states of mind and offers ways to deal with them. Her ideas are gems! The book, which is easy to read and understand, comprises twenty chapters and describes three meditation techniques, which can help the reader to apply Chödrön’s ideas to everyday events.

Readers receive practical tips for improving their lives, whether they look at things from a spiritual perspective or not. Chödrön writes: “Only by learning to fully embrace all aspects of ourselves—even the most seemingly negative elements of our minds and hearts—will we learn to fully embrace others. Only by discovering the basic goodness in both our lotus and our mud”—that is, in our positivity and negativity—“will we come to see the basic goodness of all living beings.”

Chödrön discusses bodhichitta, the awakening of the heart and mind in order to benefit others. A human being longs to help others and alleviate suffering in the world, but also tends to protect his or her heart from pain, and this can be a hard habit to break. When one realizes that it is unhelpful, one generates bodhichitta to counter the tendency. One can become brave and stand up and help relieve others from suffering. This awakening, Chödrön writes, is our true nature. It can happen with awareness and practice.

Chödrön asks, “Does it matter?” She gives questions such as these to ponder: “When I eat the last piece, or throw the can out the window, or glare at someone, does it matter? What are the consequences of my behavior?” Am I causing harm to myself or others? If I go off on someone, does it matter?”

Chödrön explains how the Buddha’s main concern was to help people become free of suffering. She also reminds us that habits are like grooves in the brain. Her book enables the reader to be more aware of old ways of doing things and shows how to change them. When guided by wisdom and kindness, the process can lead to personal awakening.

Challenges can bring changes and can uncover new direction and depth in a person’s life. They are part of the process that awakens the heart. Chödrön makes these challenges in life seem like golden opportunities to improve life for others on the planet.

The late Roshi Bernie Glassman’s mission is a good example. For many years, he worked with homeless people in Yonkers, New York. “I don’t really believe there’s going to be an end to homelessness,” he said, “but I go in every day as if it’s possible. And then I work individual by individual.”

One meditation in Welcoming the Unwelcome is the tonglen practice. It is a method for relieving suffering to help another. The meditator can breathe in with the wish to take away someone else’s pain. On the exhale, he or she visualizes what the person needs and imagines the other person having it. The practice helps the meditator to have compassion for others as well as himself or herself.

Chödrön does a thorough job of explaining bodhichitta and encourages the reader to engage in the process in order to make changes on an individual and collective level. She inspires us to alter our habits, open our hearts and minds, build up our bodhichitta muscles, and share love and compassion. As its subtitle indicates, this book has the possibility of bringing wholehearted living into a brokenhearted world.

Marie Otte

Marie Otte is a writer, meditation teacher, and astrologer. Her work has appeared in Questdreamnetworkjournal.com, and Satvidya.