Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living

By: Pema Chodron
Subject Matter: Spiritual life; Buddhism; China; Tibet; Doctrines
Rating: 2.5/5

Start Where You Are book cover

I’ll start by admitting that I have NO IDEA how Start Where You Are got on my “To Read” list. None.

I am not a Buddhist; I know nothing about meditation; and I’ve never so much as heard of Pema Chodron. I’ve learned a few words from the like four yoga classes I’ve taken in my life, but that’s it.

Also, Start Where You Are is my first literary exposure to Buddhism since Siddhartha in the 9th grade (which I hated, by the way). And I will say that if nothing else, it showed me just how limited my understanding of Buddhism is – how totally incomplete and simplified. This book was a mightily refreshing glass of cold water thrown in my face that screamed, “Hey! Your world view is not the only one.”

Important note: Start Where You Are is not a call to Buddhism. In fact, Chodron even talks about the fact that Buddhism is different from the three major religions in that it distinctly isn’t evangelical.

It felt to me like this book was written for people who already know a little something about the religion, or at least meditation, or are actively learning about such. It’s not quite a guide to a specific type of meditation called tonglen as it is an exploration of what and why and how tonglen works.

Chodron’s a good writer. She’s elegant and real and smart and a joy to read, to be honest. But she’s got this strange habit of introducing these abstract characters and crazy, one-off anecdotes that’s just, frankly, weird.

That said, it felt very distant to me. Very cold, in a way. And SUPER existential. I’ve always known that Buddhism deals with zen and calmness and not making a big deal out of nothing, but it was strange to read about reducing not only negative emotions but positive ones also. I guess that makes sense; it’s sort of the opposite of “there’s no rainbow without the rain,” but it still feels a little unfulfilling.

And it’s wildly focused on neurosis, which I had no idea was such a big deal in Buddhism. Calling neurosis as neurosis and confessing neurotic action are major, major tenets in this book.

I also learned that karma is not quite “what goes around comes around.” Here’s how Chodron talks about it:

People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means they did something bad and they’re being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need in order to open your heart.

This book also, surprisingly, didn’t dwell all that much on compassion. At least not in the traditional sense. Chodron’s compassion, and I’m guessing Buddhist compassion in general(?), is much more about a mental state than “paying it forward” or volunteering, etc. “Simply by doing this exchange [of practicing tonglen] you have made the world a larger, more loving place.”

So if Buddhism is your thing, or if your curious about what meditation is about, or if you’re struggling with a lot and need a reminder to take a breath and let it go, then this book might be more for you than it was for me. It was in no way a bad book, just not one that I feel is particularly applicable to me at this point in my life.

It was a wonderful reminder to keep an open mind and a beautiful chance to get out of my box, and for that, I enjoyed it.




Enjoyed Start Where You Are? Here are some suggestions:

(for literally the only other book on Buddhism I have read)

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

(for more by Chodron)

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron

Taking the Leap by Pema Chodron

The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron

How to Meditate by Pema Chodron

(for books on bettering yourself)

The Great Path of Awakening by Jamgon Kongtrul

Changes That Heal by Henry Cloud


Coming up:

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Ground Rules by Renee Swann

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash


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