Book Review: The Places That Scare You

Taking another short break from our journey through the 8 limbs of yoga, let’s look at another fantastic read.

When I saw this title, I just knew I needed to read this book. For breast cancer survivors, myself included, fear is one of the biggest hurdles we face in learning how to thrive after treatment. Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You; A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times is a must read for anyone looking to learn how to navigate the ups and downs of life with more equanimity, a more open mind, and a more peaceful heart. Whether your challenge is breast cancer or any other normal life hurdle, like divorce, financial struggles, loss of a loved one, or natural disaster, this book will help you learn to overcome the habitual thought patterns and behaviors that feed our fears, anxieties, and suffering.

Fear is one of the things I talk about a lot with my cancer thriver friends. No matter how good we feel, how far out we are from diagnosis, or how great our prognosis is, fear of recurrence is just something that is always there, lurking in the back of our minds. And fear of recurrence has so many facets: fear of more treatment and its attendant toxicities, fear of disability or loss of vitalilty, fear of having to tell our families, fear of death, fear of how that will affect our loved ones, and on and on. And these fears can crop up at any time, sometimes prompted by some new pain or other unrelated illness, sometimes prompted by annual imaging or bloodwork, sometimes when we see someone else experience a cancer recurrence, and sometimes for no reason at all. But then, for whatever reason, our brains descend into this vicious cycle of worst case scenarios, visualizing all the awful possibilities, until we make ourselves physically ill and overcome with fear and dread.

While this is a common, completely natural, and normal reaction to traversing cancer survivorship, we would all probably love to learn some tools that might help us reduce the suffering that this cycle of fear causes. And this is where this book comes in. Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun, and a prominent Buddhist teacher, known for her kind, humble, humorous, and gentle wisdom. Drawing from a number of different Buddhist teachings, she offers the reader a number of different tools meant to help us navigate life’s ups and downs with more grace and ease, and less suffering and angst.

Importantly, this teaching reminds us that it is not ideal to try to squelch or forcefully suppress our negative emotions, nor to be harsh with ourselves when we lapse again into patterns that we know are not in our best interest. We learn to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves, sometimes just learning to sit with whatever the situation is and let it be, whether that is anger or irritability or fear or sadness. When we learn to really be present with ourselves in times of difficulty (instead of trying to escape using our old habits, be they alcohol, over-exercising, busy-ness, consumerism, or what have you), we develop an openness to all of life’s experiences, an understanding of the reality of life as ever-changing, a loving-kindness toward ourselves and all of our imperfections, and a compassion for others going through similar experiences that makes us feel more connected. We learn to let go of our fixed opinions, our judgements, our attachments, and our aversions, in favor of a more open mind and heart. Instead of letting the difficulties of our lives harden us and make us jaded and closed off, we learn to lean in to the experiences and come out instead more peaceful and tender-hearted. In all of these ways, then, we begin to transform. Things that used to scare us or make us angry no longer hold that power over us, as we naturally learn to respond in healthier ways. And as we do so, our daily experience becomes more tranquil, more relaxed, and more joyful, even on the difficult days.

Going through cancer is a serious challenge. Literally life-threatening and life-changing. So it isn’t easy to just learn a trick or two and all of a sudden be fine and perfect. It takes practice. But we really can learn to overcome many of its challenges more easily if we put in the effort and the time and just believe in ourselves. We have that power.

If any of this sounds good to you, pick up this book. I just finished reading it for the second time, and I know it will be one I’ll want to read over and over again on my journey.


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