“Start Where You Are”

I decided to devote one post apiece to each of the two bits of advice that I find myself repeating most often when doing readings for people — this post will feature one of those bits of advice, and the next post will focus on the other.  Both are actually short quotes taken from specific authors.  Today’s is a phrase that’s actually also the title of a book which was written by Pema Chodron, a noted American figure in the realm of Tibetan Buddhism.  The quote, and the bit of advice that it captures so well, are: “Start Where You Are.”

Pema Chodron on the cover of her book, "Start Where You Are."  For me, the title alone was worth the price of admission...
Pema Chodron on the cover of her book, “Start Where You Are.” For me, the title alone was worth the price of admission…

The book itself — originally recommended to me by my sister a few years ago — concentrates on presenting the reader with 59 Tibetan Buddhist maxims meant to help cultivate compassion (these maxims are guidelines or slogans such as, “Don’t seek others’ pain as the limbs of your own happiness.”).

One of the greatest principles that I took away from the book was this idea that we can gain and grow immeasurably by doing something that would seem to be very counterintuitive: that is, Ms. Chodron recommends that when we attain something dear to us, we should release it (rather than clinging to it like grim death), and when we encounter something that frightens or enrages or annoys us, we should approach it, meditate upon it, force ourselves to actually spend time with it, and examine the why’s and the wherefore’s of our negative reactions to it (as opposed to just fleeing from the offending stimulus, or ignoring it, or lashing out at it).  In our culture, we’re essentially trained to do the exact opposite: if we find something good, we grab it and keep it for ourselves, and if we bump up against something bad, we hit the “eject” button as soon as is humanly possibly.  We want to maximize our pleasure and minimize our pain.  Ms. Chodron asks us to consider exploring, to some degree, the very opposites of these responses.

Pema Chodron asks us to consider something that actually seems sort of quietly radical...
Pema Chodron asks us to consider something that actually seems sort of quietly radical…

The idea is that by releasing out into the world that which gives us pleasure, others, too, can then gain pleasure from it, which is beneficial for the greatest overall good.  And by confronting that which we find unpleasant, we learn why it bothers us, and how we might come to deal with it in healthy fashion (as such things are often reflections of that which most offends us about ourselves) — so rather than the short-term relief of temporary escape (until the next time that a similar offending stimulus presents itself in our path…), we can arrive at a longer-term adjustment or solution that will spell much greater serenity for us in the big picture.

And all of this is excellent and thought-provoking advice.  It’s of course far easier to say it, or to write it down in a few easy sentences, than it is to actually do it, but these are still terrific ideas, and well worth contemplating, and maybe even attempting…

Instead of fleeing from that which repels us, can we stay and examine the root causes of our aversions...?   Image shows Victor Frankenstein late for the door, as his dark creation fills him with horror -- illustration is public domain imagery by Theodore Von Holst, 1831.
Instead of fleeing from that which repels us, can we stay and examine the root causes of our aversions…? Image shows Victor Frankenstein late for the door, as his dark creation fills him with horror — illustration is public domain imagery by Theodore Von Holst, 1831.

But even before arriving at the maxims that comprise the meat of Pema Chodron’s book, there’s that great title, and the piece of advice that I find myself dispensing — to myself repeatedly, as often as to others:

“Start Where You Are.”

How many times have you, or has someone you know, started to explain why you/they can’t do something, and the reasoning launches with some variation of, “I’m too old,” or “It’s too late for that”…?

It’s true that quite often, we’ve passed beyond the point at which society would most likely deem our efforts’ starting point as optimal.  There are undeniably times for starting things, processes, programs, actions that would seem pretty close to ideal.  If you want to be a professional gymnast or ballet dancer or primary member in a boy-band, then starting when you’re in your 50’s is quite likely veering into impracticality, and even most probably into outright impossibility.  But is it too late by all definitions to take up any and every new skill or new profession, or to move to a new land and make a fresh start?  It may be more difficult than it would have been if you’d attempted these things when you were fresh out of your teens, sure, but is it out of the question entirely…?

Consider the case of famed character-actor Lance Henriksen, who never even learned to read until he was 30 years old, and only after that graduated from film school and began acting in earnest — many people in the industry would look at an actor’s teens and twenties as their personal “prime time” years, and would assume the 30’s to be the start of a rapid decline in bankability.  Henriksen, however, has built up a very long and successful career as a beloved presence in film, in television, and in voice acting work.  Then there’s the possibly even more convincing case of celebrated author Raymond Chandler: after losing his job as an oil company executive, Chandler decided — at age 44!! — to become a writer of crime fiction.  And despite this seeming like an obvious schematic for crushing disappointment, Chandler went on to become a giant in the field, with no less than Humphrey Bogart playing Chandler’s iconic detective, Philip Marlowe, in the film version of The Big Sleep.  In fact, Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, a contemporary of his, went on to become basically the Coke and Pepsi of hard-boiled crime fiction, with the entire genre today tracing virtually every root, branch, and offshoot back to the seeds sprinkled about by those two writers.  But would a career counselor have told Henriksen or Chandler that their intended vocational choices were wise…?

The world would have been deprived of Bogey/Bacall, Philip Marlowe, and a gargantuan host of admirers and imitators had Raymond Chandler not started where he was...
The world would have been deprived of Bogey/Bacall, Philip Marlowe, and a gargantuan host of admirers and imitators had Raymond Chandler not started where he was…

“Start Where You Are.”

The idea is that no, you can’t go back in time and redo everything so that you can start something at a younger age, and then enjoy the nice, slow growth and buildup you might have enjoyed had you only started the thing at that younger age in the first place…but you can start it now, and move forward with it.  If you’re 49, no, you can’t go back and initiate it at age 29…or better yet, age 19…but doesn’t starting it at age 49 still offer you more time and more opportunity to explore it than if you wait until age 69, or age 89, or if you never, ever start it at all…?  You may not turn out to be the Lance Henriksen or the Raymond Chandler of your chosen field…but then again, you might.  They did.

By example, Lance Henriksen says, "Start Where You Are."  Do you want to argue with this guy...?
By example, Lance Henriksen says, “Start Where You Are.” Do you want to argue with this guy…?

I’ve said this before in other venues, but in my own belief, with very, very few exceptions, it’s almost never too late to try something, and you’re almost never too old.  The only time when it’s always too late, and when you’re always too old…is when you’re already dead.

Until then…”Start Where You Are!!”

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