Book Review: Always Maintain a Joyful Mind

Pema Chodron
Shambala
2007

The aptly titled Always Maintain A Joyful Mind offers readers 59 concise slogans called Lojong by the Tibetan Buddhists who developed them. Accompanying each one is a few lines of explanatory commentary by American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.

Chodron, who has penned several books on Buddhism, gives readers a great introduction to a series of ideas designed for those who want to start on the path to enlightenment or those who simply want to become more compassionate in their lives.

One of the concepts outlined is that of the meditation practice Tonglen in which you “send out” happiness to others while “taking in” suffering. The actual teaching is: “Sending and taking should be practiced alternately. The two should ride the breath.” It’s a bit tough for the uninitiated to wrap their heads around the concept but no one said the path to enlightenment was an easy one.

As you make your way through these teachings and commentaries, you get the feeling that we’re raised in a much different way in the Western world. It’s hard to dispute that the teachings of Christ were meant to make the world a better and more peaceful place, but you don’t need to look further than the so-called Christians throughout history, especially the fundamentalists in charge south of our border, to see how those teachings have been distorted. It makes you wonder how things have gone so wrong.

Chodron isn’t trying to change anyone overnight. She recommends choosing a slogan at random, reading the commentary and then trying to live by it throughout the day. Number 25 for example states: “Don’t talk about injured limbs”. The commentary for this one is: “Don’t try to build yourself up by talking about other people’s defects.” It sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? But putting it into practice may not be. The book is filled with things like this. They make you realize that there are things you may be doing that may not seem so bad, but with time, they have a negative impact on your consciousness.

The author explains the purpose of Always Maintain a Joyful Mind in her introduction as: “We can use everything we encounter in our lives – pleasant or painful – to awaken genuine, uncontrived compassion.”

As tough as some of these teachings may be, it doesn’t take a great deal of insight to see that we’d all be better off adhering to them.

The book also contains a 42-minute CD called “Opening the Heart” which provides an introduction to Tonglen meditation. Recorded at a retreat in 1999, in it Chodron describes the three stages of Tonglen. The first is “A Moment of Openness”, in which those meditating begin with a sense of being “not caught up.” The second stage focuses on breathing in thinking about things like “hot”, “heavy”, and “dark” and breathing out “light”, “cool”, and “refreshing”. In the third stage, you focus on what you’re feeling or what’s blocking your heart in an attempt to get things flowing again.  What follows is some guidance on meditating with these in mind.

Between the wisdom contained in the book and the extra guidance on the accompanying CD, those seeking to improve their spiritual health may want to take a look at Always Maintain a Joyful Mind.

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