I believe that I first started to practice Buddhism on a fall afternoon in Athens, Georgia in 2003. While I had taken a course on Buddhism in college in the late 90s, it had remained a purely intellectual pursuit. Early in 2003, I started going to Al-Anon meetings, as my partner at the time had become an alcoholic before my eyes. I’d resisted going for months, terrified of going to a meeting that talked about God when I was living in the middle of the Bible Belt. Once I was desperate enough to go anyway, I met other people searching for a spiritual path when all the traditional paths had failed them. One friend I met there decided to pack up her home and go to India for a few months. I offered to help her pack, because I’d appreciated her insight and was sad I was not going to be interacting with her for months.
While at her home, she gave me Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala Classics). I knew this was a book I needed to know intimately when I turned to page 1 and read the first chapter quotation: “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” All I felt during this time was fear: fear that he would leave, even greater fear that he would stay; fear that I would do the wrong thing, fear of what would happen if I did the right thing; fear of whether he would survive without me propping him up, fear of whether I would survive a life of propping him up.
So I read and read, and learned about nonattachment, compassion, and just being with the feelings that were swirling in me. I most remember during that time feeling a strong desire to act, to fix things, to just do something, but finding the courage to do nothing. As Pema Chodron says directly, “Usually we feel that there’s a large problem and we have to fix it. The instruction is to stop. Do something unfamiliar. Do anything besides rushing off in the same old direction, up to the same old tricks” (p. 137). My old tricks had got me in a pretty miserable place, so I was willing to try something else, anything else. Sometimes the gift of suffering is that our desperation makes us try something new.
The first in the “What is Practice?” series.