In “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times“ American Tibetan Buddhist. Pema Chodron suggests that moving toward painful situations and becoming intimate with them can open up our hearts in ways we never before imagined. Drawing from traditional Buddhist wisdom, she offers life-changing tools for transforming suffering and negative patterns into habitual ease and boundless joy.
When Things Fall Apart Themes:
- We all need to be reminded and encouraged to relax with whatever arises and bring whatever we encounter to the path.
- The great need for Maitri (loving-kindness toward oneself), and developing from that the awakening of a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and that of others.
Intimacy with Fear
Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.
Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it. We wade in the tidal pools and put our finger near the soft, open bodies of sea anemones and they close up. Everything spontaneously does that. It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.
If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.
In fact, anyone who stands on the edge of the unknown, fully in the present without reference point, experiences groundlessness. That’s when our understanding goes deeper, when we find that the present moment is a pretty vulnerable place and that this can be completely unnerving and completely tender at the same time.
Nothing is what we thought it was
The trick is to keep exploring and not bail out, even when we find out that something is not what we thought. That’s what we’re going to discover again and again and again. Nothing is what we thought.
Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness nor fear. Compassion—not what we thought. Love. Buddha-nature. Courage. These are code words for things we don’t know in our minds, but any of us could experience them. These are words that point to what life really is when we let things fall apart and let ourselves be nailed to the present moment.
When Things Fall Apart
When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test of each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize. The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell.
Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
We really don’t know
When we think that something is going to bring us pleasure, we don’t know what’s really going to happen. When we think something is going to give us misery, we don’t know. Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. We try to do what we think is going to help. But we don’t know. We never know if we’re going to fall flat or sit up tall. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.
Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.
To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation—harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.
Running away from our pain
“Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape—all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain. In fact, the rampant materialism that we see in the world stems from this moment. There are so many ways that have been dreamt up to entertain us away from the moment, soften its hard edge, deaden it so we don’t have to feel the full impact of the pain that arises when we cannot manipulate the situation to make us come out looking fine.
Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limit and to not get carried away by hope and fear. Through meditation, we’re able to see clearly what’s going on with our thoughts and emotions, and we can also let them go.
Saying “thinking” is a very interesting point in the meditation. It’s the point at which we can consciously train in gentleness and in developing a nonjudgmental attitude. The word for loving-kindness in Sanskrit is Maitri. Maitri is also translated as unconditional friendliness. So each time you say to yourself “thinking,” you are cultivating that unconditional friendliness toward whatever arises in your mind. Since this kind of unconditional compassion is difficult to come by, this simple and direct method for awakening it is exceedingly precious.
It’s Never Too Late
The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves. Yet it’s never too late or too early to practice loving-kindness. It’s as if we had a terminal disease but might live for quite a while. Not knowing how much time we have left, we might begin to think it was important to make friends with ourselves and others in the remaining hours, months, or years.
It is said that we can’t attain enlightenment, let alone feel contentment and joy, without seeing who we are and what we do, without seeing our patterns and our habits. This is called maitri—developing loving-kindness and an unconditional friendship with ourselves.
Types of Awakening
There is a teaching on the three kinds of awakening: awakening from the dream of ordinary sleep, awakening at death from the dream of life, and awakening into full enlightenment from the dream of delusion. These teachings say that when we die, we experience it as waking up from a very long dream,
The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face. When we feel resentment because the room is too hot, we could meet the heat and feel its fieriness and its heaviness.
Running from our pain
Our personal demons come in many guises. We experience them as shame, jealousy, abandonment, rage. They are anything that makes us so uncomfortable that we continually run away.
All over the world, people are so caught in running that they forget to take advantage of the beauty around them. We become so accustomed to speeding ahead that we rob ourselves of joy.
We do the big escape: we act out, say something, slam a door, hit someone, or throw a pot as a way of not facing what’s happening in our hearts. Or we shove the feelings under and somehow deaden the pain. We can spend our whole lives escaping from the monsters of our minds.
On Self Consciousness
“Being preoccupied with our self-image is like being deaf and blind. It’s like standing in the middle of a vast field of wildflowers with a black hood over our heads. It’s like coming upon a tree of singing birds while wearing earplugs.”
Mindfulness is the ground; refraining is the path. Refraining is one of those uptight words that sound repressive. Surely alive, juicy, interesting people would not practice refraining. Maybe they would sometimes refrain, but not as a lifestyle. In this context, however, refraining is very much the method of becoming a dharmic person. It’s the quality of not grabbing for entertainment the minute we feel a slight edge of boredom coming on. It’s the practice of not immediately filling up space just because there’s a gap.
Refraining—not habitually acting out impulsively—has something to do with giving up entertainment mentality. Through refraining, we see that there’s something between the arising of the craving—or the aggression or the loneliness or whatever it might be—and whatever action we take as a result. There’s something there in us that we don’t want to experience, and we never do experience, because we’re so quick to act.
“Refraining is the method for getting to know the nature of this restlessness and fear. It’s a method for settling into groundlessness. If we immediately entertain ourselves by talking, by acting, by thinking—if there’s never any pause—we will never be able to relax. We will always be speeding through our lives.Mindfulness is the ground; refraining is the path.
Well-being of mind is like a mountain lake without ripples. When the lake has no ripples, everything in the lake can be seen. When the water is all churned up, nothing can be seen. The still lake without ripples is an image of our minds at ease, so full of unlimited friendliness for all the junk at the bottom of the lake that we don’t feel the need to churn up the waters just to avoid looking at what’s there.
At the root of all the harm we cause is ignorance. Through meditation, that’s what we begin to undo. If we see that we have no mindfulness, that we rarely refrain, that we have little well-being, that is not confusion, that’s the beginning of clarity. As the moments of our lives go by, our ability to be deaf, dumb, and blind just doesn’t work so well anymore. Rather than making us more uptight, interestingly enough, this process liberates us. This is the liberation that naturally arises when we are completely here, without anxiety about imperfection.
No one is coming to the rescue
To think that we can finally get it all together is unrealistic. To seek for some lasting security is futile. To undo our very ancient and very stuck habitual patterns of mind requires that we begin to turn around some of our most basic assumptions. Believing in a solid, separate self, continuing to seek pleasure and avoid pain, thinking that someone “out there” is to blame for our pain—one has to get totally fed up with these ways of thinking. One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.
Fear of Death
All anxiety, all dissatisfaction, all the reasons for hoping that our experience could be different are rooted in our fear of death. Fear of death is always in the background. As the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said, life is like getting into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink. But it’s very hard—no matter how much we hear about it—to believe in our own death. ”
Denial of Death
The one thing in life that we can really count on is incredibly remote for all of us. We don’t go so far as to say, “No way, I’m not going to die,” because of course, we know that we are. But it definitely will be later. That’s the biggest hope.”
Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation—proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life. But most of the time, warding off death is our biggest motivation. We habitually ward off any sense of the problem. We’re always trying to deny that it’s a natural occurrence that things change, that the sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing. It’s as natural as the seasons changing and day turning into night. But getting old, getting sick, losing what we love—we don’t see those events as natural occurrences. We want to ward off that sense of death, no matter what.
Eight Worldly Dharmas
We might feel that somehow we should try to eradicate these feelings of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace. A more practical approach would be to get to know them, see how they hook us, see how they color our perception of reality, see how they aren’t all that solid. Then the eight worldly dharmas become the means for growing wiser as well as kinder and more content.
One of the classic Buddhist teachings on hope and fear concerns what are known as the eight worldly dharmas. These are four pairs of opposites—four things that we like and become attached to and four things that we don’t like and try to avoid. The basic message is that when we are caught up in the eight worldly dharmas, we suffer.
- First, we like pleasure; we are attached to it. Conversely, we don’t like pain.
- Second, we like and are attached to praise. We try to avoid criticism and blame.
- Third, we like and are attached to fame. We dislike and try to avoid disgrace.
- Finally, we are attached to gain, to getting what we want. We don’t like losing what we have.
We want to know our pain so we can stop endlessly running. We want to know our pleasure so we can stop endlessly grasping.
Then somehow our questions get bigger and our inquisitiveness more vast. We want to know about loss so we might understand other people when their lives are falling apart. We want to know about gain so we might understand other people when they are delighted or when they get arrogant and puffed up and carried away.
The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 percent healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life.
Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together. So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.”
We want to be perfect, but we just keep seeing our imperfections, and there is no room to get away from that, no exit, nowhere to run. That is when this sword turns into a flower. We stick with what we see, we feel what we feel, and from that we begin to connect with our own wisdom mind.
When we discover the Buddha that we are, we realize that everything and everyone is Buddha. We discover that everything is awake, and everyone is awake. Everything is equally precious and whole and good, and everyone is equally precious and whole and good. When we regard thoughts and emotions with humor and openness, that’s how we perceive the universe. We’re not just talking about our individual liberation, but how to help the community we live in, how to help our families, our country, and the whole continent, not to mention the world and the galaxy and as far as we want to go.
All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.