This week I wanted to write about the other book that I mentioned in my last post – When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. Someone recommended this book to me while I was struggling and it helped me feel tremendously comforted. I don’t write on such themes often but I know that many people have been struggling during the pandemic in some way or the other and thought there may be some value in sharing my learnings from the book. After all, the book’s theme is: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.
This book is based on Buddhist principles and hence, evoked my interest. In the last few years, Buddhist philosophy made a huge imprint on my thoughts about life even though I still identify myself as non-religious. The concept of accepting suffering and pain as part of life instead of something to avoid has been quite appealing to my rationalist mind. It is easier said than done though.
I tend to read reviews before starting any book. For this book, I read a Brain Pickings essay (https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/07/17/when-things-fall-apart-pema-chodron/) that convinced me about reading it further. Particularly, I loved a quote highlighted in the essay –
So simple yet so profound. That is my overall take on the book.
This book talks about some fundamental human experiences that are often not discussed or considered negative: fear, hopelessness, loneliness, death. We all go through them. Pema describes some grounding and realistic approaches to go through them and more importantly, accept them. The advice from her is rooted in Buddhist principles. She writes in a very direct, clear yet comforting language.
Sharing some excerpts from her book below. Before you go on, want to add a disclaimer that the topics below can be quite heavy. Please take them at your own pace and in a nonjudgmental or curious way 🙂
The first chapter is called Intimacy with Fear. Pema says, “It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with 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 truth.”
Pema narrates a personal experience – I have a friend dying of AIDS. Before I was leaving for a trip, we were talking. He said, “I didn’t want this, and I hated this, and I was terrified of this. But it turns out that this illness has been my greatest gift.” He said, “Now every moment is so precious to me. My whole life means so much to me.” Something had really changed, and he felt ready for his death. Something that was horrifying and scary had turned into a gift. 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. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. 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.
“To stay with that shakiness – to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with 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.”
ON REACHING LIMITS
There are situations in life, sometimes routine or at times more severe, that break us down or may cause us to feel lost. That is where Pema introduces the concept of groundlessness. It means that in reality, we don’t have much to hold on to in life – things can slip and we don’t have control. It is similar to existing in a vacuum. It is not a breakthrough revelation but we don’t realize it in its entirety until we reach certain limits. When things are going well, we feel that we have solid ground but that is kind of an illusion. The fact of life is that anything can go wrong and we don’t have much control over anything. Pema says that a place of utter hopelessness or collapse is not a bad situation but a truly human experience that helps us learn. What we need to learn is to go through the situation, give it time and accept that we cannot influence it.
“Reaching our limit is not some kind of punishment, it’s actually a sign of health that, when we meet the place where we are about to die, we feel fear and trembling. A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.”
“Each day, we’re given many opportunities to open up or shut down. The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening. It’s too much. It’s gone too far. We feel bad about ourselves. There’s no way we can manipulate the situation to make ourselves come out looking good. No matter how hard we try, it just wont work. Basically, life has just nailed us. 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.”
Pema says that there is something incredibly humane about these situations. They can arouse a great sense of empathy and love – both to ourself and the world, or alternately, they could make us quite harsh and cold.
“We look in the bathroom mirror, and there we are with our pimples, our aging face, our lack of kindness, our aggression and timidity – all that stuff. This is where tenderness comes in. When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality. There is definitely something tender and throbbing about groundlessness.”
Being okay in the gray space is what most of us are uncomfortable with. Pema writes, “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.”
“The spiritual journey is not about heaven and finally getting to a place that’s really swell. In fact, that way of looking at things is what keeps us miserable. Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly.”
“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.”
In challenging times or otherwise, meditation is a key practice as per Pema and any Buddhist practitioner that you may know. Meditation develops an “unconditional compassion” within us. “We consciously train our mind in gentleness and in developing a non-judgmental attitude. Sometimes we feel guilty, sometimes arrogant. Sometimes our thoughts and memories terrify us and make us feel totally miserable. Thoughts go through our minds all the time, and when we sit, we are providing a lot of space for all of them to arise. Meditation is about opening and relaxing with whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It’s definitely not meant to repress anything, and it’s not intended to encourage grasping, either. As meditators, we might as well stop struggling against our thoughts and realize that honesty and humor are far more inspiring and helpful than any kind of solemn religious striving for or against anything. In any case, the point is not to try to get rid of thoughts, but rather see their true nature. Thoughts will run us around in circles if we buy into them, but really, they are like dream images. They are like an illusion – not really all that solid. They are, as we say, just thinking.”
Pema adds a note of caution for beginners – it is not always exciting. “In the beginning people sometimes find this meditation exciting. It’s like a new project, and you think that if you do it, perhaps all the unwanted stuff will go away and you’ll become open, nonjudgmental, and unconditionally friendly. But after a while, that sense of project wears out. You just find time each day, and you sit down with yourself. You come back to that breath over and over, through boredom, edginess, fear, and well-being. This perseverance and repetition – when done with honesty, a light touch, humor, and kindness – is its own reward.
Meditation is not the end. “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 is a gap. 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 too quick to act. Refraining is the method for getting to know the nature of restlessness and fear. It’s a method of settling into groundlessness.”
“Not causing harm requires staying awake. Part of being awake is slowing down enough to notice what we say and do.”
I particularly loved the way Pema describes mindful speech. “Well being of speech is like a lute without strings. Even without strings, the musical instrument proclaims itself. This is an image of our speech being settled. It doesn’t mean that we’re controlling, uptight, trying hard not to say the wrong thing. It means that our speech is straightforward and disciplined. We don’t start blurting out words because no one else is talking and we’re nervous. We’ve heard it all; we have been insulted and we’ve been praised. We know what it is to be in situations where everyone is angry, where everyone is peaceful. We’re at home in the world because we’re at home with ourselves, so we don’t feel that out of nervousness, out of our habitual pattern, we have to run at the mouth. Our speech is tamed, and when we speak, it communicates. We don’t waste the gift of speech in expressing our neurosis.”.
This concept in the book hit me hard. To be honest, I considered hopelessness with great negativity. Even now I wouldn’t consider state of hopelessness as something to vie for. But reading Pema’s perspective on this topic was an aha moment for me. I was able to agree that hopelessness is an experience that most of us will go through at some point in life, that we don’t have to fight it out and that it can actually be a point of growth. Now, I am able to see that experience of hopelessness or frustration as a grounding in humility and truth!
“Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides. As long as there’s one, there’s always the other. Hope and fear come from the feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty.”
“To think that we can finally get it all together is unrealistic. To seek for some lasting security is futile. Trying to get lasting security teaches us a lot, because if we never try to do it, we never notice it can’t be done.”
ON THEISM & NON-THEISM
When Pema described this part, I felt she expressed in words what I felt deep within. “The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. It is an issue that applies to everyone, including both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves. Nontheism is finally realizing that there’s no babysitter that you can count on. You just get a good one and then he or she is gone. Nontheism is realizing that it’s not just babysitters that come and go. The whole of life is like that. This is the truth, and the truth is inconvenient.”
Pema provides a beautiful perspective on loneliness. Again, it is not something to be avoided. In fact, Pema talks about a positive kind of loneliness – cool loneliness – where we are at peace with ourselves. It is solitude. “Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a non-threatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.”
Pema says that there are six ways of describing this kind of cool loneliness. They are:
- Less desire: It is the willingness to be lonely without resolution when everything in us yearns for something to cheer us up and change our mood.
- Contentment: When we have nothing, we have nothing to lose. We give up believing that being able to escape our loneliness is going to bring any lasting happiness or joy or sense of well-being or courage or strength.
- Avoiding unnecessary activity: We get this queasy feeling that we call loneliness, and our minds just go wild trying to come up with companions to save us from despair. That’s called unnecessary activity. It’s a way of keeping ourselves busy so we don’t have to feel any pain. It could take the form of obsessively daydreaming of true romance, or turning a tidbit of gossip into the six o’clock news, or even going off by ourselves into the wilderness. The point is that in all these activities, we are seeking companionship in our usual, habitual way, using our same old repetitive ways of distancing ourselves from the demon loneliness. Could we just settle down and have some compassion and respect for ourselves? Could we stop trying to escape from being alone with ourselves?
- Complete discipline: Complete discipline is that we’re willing to sit still, just be there alone. We could just sit still long enough to realize it’s how things really are. We are fundamentally alone, and there is nothing anywhere to hold on to. Moreover, this is not a problem.
- Not wandering in the world of desire: Wandering in the world of desire involves looking for alternatives, seeking something to comfort us – food, drink, people. This form of loneliness is about not always trying to find a way to make things okay. It is about relating directly with how things are. Loneliness is not a problem. Loneliness is nothing to be solved. The same is true for any other experience we might have.
- Not seeking security from one’s own discursive thoughts: This means that we don’t even seek the companionship of our own constant conversation with ourselves about how it is and how it isn’t, whether it is or whether is isn’t, whether it should or whether it shouldn’t, whether it can or whether it can’t. With cool loneliness, we do not expect security from our own internal chatter. That’s why we are instructed to label it “thinking”. It has no objective reality.
This part can be a bit hard to digest or may feel unnecessary. We may want to avoid reading or thinking about it just because the word itself sounds depressing. But again, it brings us closer to the truth of life. Pema writes beautifully on how to think about the concept of death.
“Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation – proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life. Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time – that is the basic message.”
“If we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.”
On this note, I think it is an appropriate place for this post to conclude as well. I know this was a very heavy post but I wanted to share bites of wisdom from this book that I personally found quite impactful.
Thanks for reading and hope to continue my post streak next week again 🙂