Go to the places that scare you

by Jack on February 2010

Confess your hidden faults.
Approach what you find repulsive.
Help those you think you cannot help.
Anything you are attached to, let it go.
Go to the places that scare you.

(Advice to Machik Labdrön from her teacher) [1]

These may be the most powerful 31 words I have ever read. As a mantra and a set of reminders for conscious growth and positive transformation, they are unparalleled.

Why is this little epigram so intense? Breaking it down, line by line, we can see that it contains quite a lot of wisdom:

  • a broad-based challenge to confront the all things that you try to avoid – both inside (“your hidden faults”), and outside yourself (“what you find repulsive”)
  • a simple and compassionate call to serve those in the world who need it most, with no expectation of outcome or reward – “help those you think you cannot help”
  • a seven word summary of the ultimate endgame of Buddhism – “anything you are attached to, let it go”
  • seven words about how to follow the path of maximum personal growth and development – “go to the places that scare you”.

These 31 words have a lot to teach us.

Confess your hidden faults.

We often present an illusory self to the world, a mask intended to communicate to others how special and important we are. By telling the truth about our faults and failings, we release attachment to pride, reputation, and the competitive story that we create to present to the world as an explanation of our uniqueness.

The reality is that many among us who appear to “have it all together” have a dark side that we might prefer to keep hidden from the world – the ultra-relaxed yoga teacher who loses his temper in a traffic jam, the always-in-control executive who surrenders decision-making ability to alcohol or drugs after a day of commanding and dominating others, the world champion sportsman who lets go of perfectionism and the stress of being a advertising icon and role model through compulsive sexual behavior. The gap between the illusion and reality can become great when the illusion presented is too much for a single human being to support.

By presenting our real self to the world – by confessing our previously hidden faults – we can reduce the tension between our image and our reality. We no longer need to pretend to be someone better than or different from who we are.

Approach what you find repulsive.

Most of us habitually associate with those who are just like us. We are most comfortable among “our own kind”, where that kind may be those of the same religion, race, level of education, professional field, level of wealth. We do not often reach across the invisible boundaries that divide us from others, and under these circumstances it is easy to ignore the essential common ground between ourselves and even the most foreign and unfamiliar of our fellow human beings.

Many people in the world are forgotten and need help. Many of them exist daily in unpleasant or extreme situations that induce a feeling of discomfort in other individuals and in society as a whole – perhaps they suffer from mental illnesses or use drugs that cause them to behave in frightening ways toward others, perhaps they are homeless and lack the opportunity to bathe regularly, perhaps they are criminals who have mistreated others.

We can choose to connect with other people or situations that at first glance seem unpleasant. These may represent our greatest opportunities for making a contribution and positive change to the world. Repulsive things are the ones that will frighten away most people. Those of us who are able to stay centered when we approach what we find repulsive may find that those things are not that bad after all. We may find that we are able to make a difference in an area of great unmet need that is ignored by most other people.

This practice can also help us transform ourselves. By approaching what we find repulsive, we overcome our instinctive desire to stay safe within our comfort zones. In so doing, we broaden our horizons – we realize that we can face the things that used to repel us as just another facet of the jewel of reality, without judgment and without trepidation.

Help those you think you cannot help.

This line is similar in intent to the one above. Those most abandoned, anonymous, and apparently beyond saving, are the ones that we should nevertheless try hardest to save. The further implication is that when we offer help to others, we should do so without expectation of outcome or gratitude. We should not judge one person worthy of our help and another not – by giving others the benefit of the doubt we offer the opportunity to surprise us with their capacity for positive change. At the same time, we release any attachment to receiving gratitude or accolades or other positive benefits from offering this help – if it is of no use, then so be it.

At the same time, we must be aware that we have the choice to help others intelligently and to be aware of our own limits. This line and the previous one cannot be a call to martyrdom. We can’t help others by letting their problems and challenges drag us down. Like the airline safety brochure suggests, we are advised to put on our own oxygen mask before helping those around us – not to give our own mask away and suffocate. Being a martyr is an immature desire that is far more about satisfying the ego – “look how much I suffer and sacrifice because of my unique convictions and concern” – than it is about achieving useful outcomes for those we are trying to help.

By transforming ourselves and becoming a source of light and peace for those around us, we may be able to help others in ways that we cannot yet understand. By having no expectation of any outcome, and creating our goals of service entirely within our sphere of control, we can target our efforts to where they will make the greatest difference over the long term.

Anything you are attached to, let it go.

Everything you attach to is going away in the end, whether you attach to it or not. If you attach to transient things, you create suffering in your heart; if you release, you have the chance of achieving inner peace.

That thing you think can’t live without? It may not go away today, but some day it will. Your family and friends, your career and social life, your car, the contents of your wallet, your fucking khakis. Will they be around in 1000 years? Or even 100? Even in ten years, the things you are attached to now will have transformed significantly.

Your life as you know it now, in the world of physical form, will end – maybe tomorrow, maybe thirty two thousand days from now – but it will end. Even the sun has an end, even the known physical universe has an end. Nothing physical lasts forever.

The prescription is simple, for any person, place, thing, idea, emotion, mindstate, learning, story, relationship, philosophy, religion, or other transient form: love them in this moment, and take pleasure in their presence, but don’t attach to them. Do not attach to the illusion of permanence, that seductive but incorrect concept that anything in the world of form will be around forever. Because it won’t.

Go to the places that scare you.

This line sums it all up. The idea of actually doing all of the above in your day to day life should truly Scare The Shit Out Of You. If it doesn’t, then I recommend one of the following: reading it again, checking your pulse, or looking above your head for a halo. (Hey, there are bodhisattvas walking among us – maybe you’re one of them? :))

No one said that a conscious path was easy. It’s easier, at least in the short term, to change channels, crack another beer, grab a slice of pizza, take the blue pill, and descend into a self-induced coma. Probably 90 percent of people do this, so it’s not as though you’ll lack for company.

Generally speaking, the path you’re most afraid of following is almost certainly the path of most rapid growth. We’re not talking about recklessness here – you’re not “afraid” to walk off a roof or crash your car, you just know that it will have significant, negative, and likely painful consequences for your physical body. On the other hand, many simple actions that present little to no physical danger induce lots of fear – cold-calling a potential mentor to accelerate your new career, approaching an attractive stranger and starting a conversation, standing in front of a crowd and making a ten minute speech. The places that scare you are the places of transformation, where you will both feel the most uncomfortable, and grow the most.

Summary

I have begun to make these words my mantra. They feel as powerful when I read them now, as they did the first time I read them. Their power comes from their generality – “what you find repulsive” or “the places that scare you” are left unspecified. We are all repulsed by something. We are all attached to something. We all have places that scare us.

These words remind us that we do not gain power by avoidance of reality, but only by facing those things that we wish we could avoid.

[1] The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, Pema Chödron

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Abby February 8, 2010 at 14:35

I have pretty much these same words written on index cards and taped to the wall behind my desk. The wording is a little different, but the essence is the same.

Great post!

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Jack February 14, 2010 at 20:34

Abby, where did you find your quote? Is it from a similar source or somewhere different?

In any case, I think it’s a very powerful and important message! 🙂

-jack

Reply

Eric Teplitz August 18, 2015 at 18:18

This is a beautiful, beautiful post. I’m so glad you wrote it, and I’m so glad I found it. You broke down these words of wisdom into relatable, actionable steps, and made a strong case for taking them seriously. Well done, and thank you for your blog!

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plakat March 1, 2016 at 05:02

great article

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Johnette Copp March 11, 2016 at 03:11

Super robota

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