When Things Fall Apart
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Pema Chodron was a name I’ve been hearing pop up over and over – but for whatever reason I hadn’t picked up a book from her. It even came as a surprise to me that I was reading the words of a small, white lady: not a bearded guru from the East.
Smack on paw for being so presumptuous.
It was thanks to lovely leaguer (and pro yogi) Kesse Hodge: she recommended ‘WhenThings Fall Apart’ for last month’s LCI Book Club. A round of votes later (and a wait for an easy-going Amazon seller) I was ready to get stuck in to my first encounter with Pema.
It starts with fear
Quite honestly, I found the first few chapters a bit vague and hard to get into. I found myself underlining pithy sentences, but unable to make any real sense of them.
For example, the book begins with the subject of FEAR: one of my favourite topics (ok maybe that’s a bit strong – but it certainly interests me.)
Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth
But… what does that even mean?! I needed a practical example.
Or this one:
The next time you experience fear, consider yourself lucky.
Really? Why? How?
Anyway, I focussed on some truisms that made me feel a bit more ‘accepting’ about big bully Fear.
Like, the fact we are rarely taught to move towards fear. But, that it’s in moving toward fear where we can show courage. Where we can grow.
In that sense, it’s clear that to progress in life, we might try to welcome fear.
Oh and: brave people are not free of fear, or less susceptible to it.
The truth is that they are intimate with fear
Then, we move into the concept of uncertainty.
That misery, pain, fear and pleasure are not what we think they are.
So, this to me was a new idea but I could see it: how many times have you imagined how awful something is going to feel and it turns out just fine?
Or we think something is going to give us so much joy (insert half a dozen Kripy Kremes) and that joy lasts all of 2 minutes.
Chodron then introduces the concept of Samsara: the cycle of moving away from pain and towards pleasure.
Sidenote: That’s something I loved about this book as a whole: it gives fantastically clear explanations of what all these old Sanskrit words mean – it’s like a primer on Buddhism without any dogmatic instructions.
So, this is where I started getting ‘ golden nuggets’ I could apply to day-to-day life. Like, the idea that things are always in transition – personally, I can find great peace in that.
Finding peace amidst chaos is something that I think is at the heart of the book – in a way, the heart of the whole spiritual journey.
I guess the teachings can help direct us towards that peace – but only experiencing the chaos for ourselves – failing and trying – is how we find it.
For example, moments of temptation. The premise here is that all addictions stem from experiencing something difficult and being unable to cope.
To cope with our experience, we automatically reach for something to comfort us. Of course, these difficult experiences don’t end: and the cycle continues.
How we overcome addiction is by acknowledging whatever arises in those difficult moments, without judgement, and letting it dissolve. Then we return to the present moment.
That also happens to be my approach to meditation.
Chodron does give us some specific instructions on meditation (vipassana I believe)
To summarise her meditation instructions:
- 25% attention should be on breath
- Specifically the out breath – the in breath is like a pause, while we wait for the out breath (I loved that idea)
- There isn’t an emphasis on deep concentration: the idea is to just ‘touch and let go of the breath’
- The goal isn’t to transcend into some high spiritual realm: just to relax into the present moment
- When a thought arrives, label it as ‘thinking’ and come back to the breath
Simple instructions, again I found this very comforting!
The ‘small mind’ is an image of ourselves that we hold.
In Tibetan, there are several words for ‘mind’; sem is our internal dialogue or ego. Rikpa is our intelligence or what I would call intuition; our genuine self.
Rikpa is always there – if we can stop sem talking then we can hear it.
I loved the analogy of dogs barking: we cant stop them by throwing stones at them. Instead, we tame them with compassion. After a while there are gaps in between the barks, and the gaps get longer.
That’s basically one way of approaching sem.
Again – more Tibetan. The Tibetan word for hope is rewa. Their word for fear is dokpa. A nice portmanteau that is more commonly used is re-dok, a combination of fear and hope.
Re-dok is the source of much of our pain. The idea is: as long as there is one, there’s always the other.
So we can look at hope as an addiction; a belief there is some escape from suffering (which alas, there is not.)
This book isn’t a barrel of laughs, but there is a funny bit here when Chodron suggests to stick ‘abandon hope’ to your refrigerator door. It definitely sticks out amongst the ‘positive affirmations’ we’re normally told to use!
Hope and fear come from feeling we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We simply can’t relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.
The eight dharmas
These are basically four pairs of opposite conflicts:
- Pleasure / pain
- Loss / gain
- Fame / disgrace
- Praise / blame
They explain a lot of our suffering. By exploring these and noticing how we respond when they come up is the direction Chodron gives.
In defense of loneliness
As an introvert, I generally see my loneliness tolerance as very high. As a society though, we normally get told loneliness is something to avoid.
But there are advantages to it, as Chodron points out:
- Less desire
- Avoiding unecessary activity
- Complete discipline
- Not wandering in the world of desire
- Not seeking security from ones discursive thoughts
The introvert manifesto!?
Anyway, take what you will from that: I just found it interesting. I always like to think of all ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ figures: the Buddha is the ultimate introvert.
The four maras
The maras are basically obstacles that get in the way of our inner wisdom.
- Seeking pleasure
- False self – who we try to recreate ourselves as
- How we use emotions to keep us blind or asleep to reality
- Fear of death
Much of the ‘teachings’ here are really about becoming more self aware. Some points of awareness to look out for:
- To have more compassion towards others and towards ourselves
- To notice that what we reject in others what we reject in ourselves
- That when we blame ourselves and others, we put up a barrier that blocks communication
- The tendency to judge things as right or wrong: in fact, there is a middle way
- To notice how we cling to our version of events
- To stay in that space of uncertainty as to who is right who is wrong
We’re all selfish
This part reinforced my theory that basically, we’re all hardwired to be selfish.
The difference between people is…
Unwise selfish people think only of themselves and the result is confusion and pain.
Wise selfish people know the best thing is to be there for others and as a result they experience joy.
Another type of meditation, tonglen practise can be… tricky.
The general concept is to breathe in pain of others, and breathing out the wish that others can be free of pain.
My one problem with it is that it seems contradictory aren’t we meant to be accepting suffering? Not breathing it away!?
Anyway it works wonders, if you’re feeling generally kind of pissy with the world, and need a compassion boost.
There is is however a beautiful passage on armour, that made sense of tonglen for me:
When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armour, like armour that imprisons the softness of our heart.
When we breathe in pain, somehow it penetrates that armour. The way we guard ourselves is getting softened up… A kindness and a tenderness begin to emerge. We don’t have to tense up as if our whole life were being spent in the dentist’s chair.
Working with chaos
A big action-packed chapter is 19: what to do when things really are falling apart. Chodron lays out three methods:
This involves basically acknowledging the pain or whatever arises. For example in vipassana meditation, when we label our thoughts as ‘thinking’
The idea here is using poison as medicine: we breathe in the bad thing. We breathe it in for everyone, with the wish that we could all be free of it.
So, much like tonglen meditation.
This is to regard what arises as ‘awakened energy.’
Chodron talks about a charnel ground… I interpreted this to mean that from pain and suffering there breeds life and growth.
The idea that energy cannot be created or destroyed, so is the case for the energy we feel when we’re going through something shitty.
That energy will – somewhere down the line – be used for something good.
The book ends with the idea of reversing the wheel of samsara, by doing something unfamiliar; breaking the thought patterns that keep us going round and round.
This is a really powerful message; and not one that is limited to Buddhism. So much of the self-dev stuff I read – from Tony Robbins to Charles Duhigg – is centred around breaking the cycles, the patterns, that keep us stuck.
The final thing I took from the end was to simply: lighten up and relax!
We accept others easier than ourselves and that is something we can all work on.
We can practise without ‘shoulds’ and basically, just to be honest and kind.
Ultimately, there is no precise ‘goal’ in this practise: the path itself is the goal.
Phew! I think we’re done.
Can you tell I got a lot out of that one?!
I’d love to know what you think of Pema Chodron’s writing, and if any of these points spoke to you – let me know in the comments below, or send an email: firstname.lastname@example.org