When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
By Pema Chodron
Publisher: Boston: Shambhala Publications. ISBN: 1-57062-344-9
Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, applies the classic teachings of Buddhism in straightforward language that can be easily understood and practically applied in a contemporary context. When Things Fall Apart is a compilation of talks that Chodron gave from 1987–1994 on the concept of maitri or loving-kindness toward oneself. By developing maitri, she says, we can awaken a “fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and the pain of others.”
In many of these talks Chodron encourages us to step into the unknown and relax in what she calls the “groundlessness” of our situation. She describes groundlessness as a point in our lives when, whether we want to or not, we let go of our beliefs, opinions, and concepts – when everything that we have held onto falls apart. “When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize.” By this she means not latching onto another set of concepts and beliefs when we experience uncertainty, but courageously staying with the experience of not knowing. She quotes her own spiritual teacher as saying: “Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news” because of the opportunity it provides for growth.
The basic human struggle that the book addresses is what we do when we are “nailed by life.” She says that we continually find ourselves coming to a point in life in which we feel pressured and want to escape from our circumstances. She calls this being “squeezed.” She describes some of the ways we try to escape: seeking pleasure, blaming others, holding tightly to our opinions and self-concept, closing ourselves off, and even trying to make meditation an escape from reality. Chodron quotes her first meditation instructor as saying, “Please don’t go away from here thinking that meditation is a vacation from irritation.”
Chodron explains that this place of being “squeezed” is where we experience the most growth if we don’t run away from it. If we stay with it, we will have to let go of rigid concepts and beliefs, and “all our usual schemes fall apart.” This is when the edges of our personalities soften, we become more tender and open, and we can in turn feel more compassion for others who have the same human experience. “This place of the squeeze is the very point in our meditation where we can really learn something.” She says that this is where we “begin to learn the meaning behind the concepts and the words.”
We continually find ourselves in that squeeze.… We liked meditation and the teachings when we felt inspired and in touch with ourselves and on the right path. But what about when it begins to feel like a burden, like we made the wrong choice and it’s not living up to our expectations at all?
A sense of “squeeze” may come from false expectations we hold – whether about our practice, fellow seekers, or the path we follow – expectations that leave us unsatisfied and frustrated. Chodron encourages us to stay with these difficult experiences because they can be a place of deep learning.
So how do we relate to that squeeze? Somehow, someone finally needs to encourage us to be inquisitive about this unknown territory and about the unanswerable question of what’s going to happen next.… In that awkward, ambiguous moment is our own wisdom mind. Right there in the uncertainty of everyday chaos is our own wisdom mind.
Central to Chodron’s teachings is the counterintuitive tonglen meditation practice in which the practitioner breathes in the emotions and thoughts associated with a painful experience visualizing it as hot, dark and heavy, and breathes out a feeling of cool, bright light. This correlates with a short saying quoted often in the book, “Use what seems like poison as medicine,” which means to use one’s own personal suffering as a path toward compassion for others. Chodron explains that, by taking in the pain and sending out spaciousness and relief, the practice of tonglen challenges our habitual reactions. By overcoming the fear of suffering, the tightness in the heart dissolves, it becomes softened and purified, and one can then become more open and compassionate.
People often say that this practice goes against the grain of how we usually hold ourselves together.… The practice dissolves the walls we’ve built around our hearts. It dissolves the layers of self-protection we’ve tried so hard to create. In Buddhist language, one would say that it dissolves the fixation and clinging of the ego. Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness.
The other meditation practice described in the book is the Shamatha-Vipashyana instruction. Shamatha is a stilled and stabilized state of mind, or “calm abiding,” and Vipashyana is a discerning and perceptive state of mind or “insight.” Chodron conveys the basic instruction on how one develops these qualities in formal meditation: “When we sit down to meditate, whatever arises in our minds we look at directly, call it ‘thinking,’ and go back to the simplicity and immediacy of the breath.… Whatever arises, we can look at with a non-judgmental attitude.” She says that this meditation practice is a way to stop fighting with ourselves, and to stop struggling with our circumstances, emotions, and moods. She goes on to explain, “Whatever or whoever arises, train again and again in looking at it and seeing it for what it is without calling it names, without hurling rocks, without averting your eyes.” She says that when difficult thoughts arise, they should not be rejected but simply acknowledged as “thinking” and let go.
Chodron recommends doing meditation daily. Among its other advantages, daily meditation “sows the seeds that enable us to be more awake in the midst of everyday chaos.” We learn to refrain from acting on the impulses of the “small mind” so that we don’t build up reactiveness to life’s challenges. We can “pause for a moment, … not just impulsively do the same thing again and again. It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space.”
In meditation this pause appears as a space or a silent gap in the noisy chattering of the mind.
In Nepal the dogs bark all night long. Every twenty minutes or so, they all stop at once, and there is an experience of immense relief and stillness. Then they all start barking again. The small mind can feel just like that. When we first start meditating, it’s as if the dogs never stop barking at all. After a while, there are those gaps. Discursive thoughts are rather like wild dogs that need taming. Rather than beating them or throwing stones, we tame them with compassion. Over and over we regard them with the precision and kindness that allow them to gradually calm down. Sometimes it feels like there’s much more space, with just a few yips and yaps here and there.
Throughout the book, Pema Chodron continually returns to the importance of meditation, which eventually leads one to the discovery of bodhichitta or “noble and awakened heart.”
Meditation is a totally nonviolent, nonaggressive occupation. Not filling the space, allowing for the possibility of connecting with unconditional openness – this provides the basis for real change.… When we cling to thoughts and memories, we are clinging to what cannot be grasped. When we touch these phantoms and let them go, we may discover a space, a break in the chatter, a glimpse of open sky. This is our birthright – the wisdom with which we were born, the vast unfolding display of primordial richness, primordial openness, primordial wisdom itself.