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When Things Fall Apart: A Recommended Book

Posted on Nov 13, 2006 by

Pema Chodron is the first American woman to receive full ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist priest. She is now director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan monastery for westerners. And, in her book, When Things Fall Apart, she tells, among other things, how she first got started on the Buddhist path. It began, she says, on a day in early spring; she was standing out in front of her house in New Mexico when her then-husband drove up, got out of the car, shut the door, and proceeded to tell her that he was having an affair and wanted a divorce.

She describes the next moment this way (p. 10):

I remember the sky and how huge it was. I remember the sound of the river and the steam rising up from my tea. There was no time, no thought, there was nothing—just the light and a profound, limitless stillness. Then I regrouped and picked up a stone and threw it at him.

I love it that she tells us about the stone. She writes about the profound, limitless stillness. But she also writes about the stone. This makes her more human. And it’s from this very human place that she writes about how to take moments of disappointment and sorrow and loss and anger and discomfort and use them as opportunities for becoming fully awake. Not by turning away from these moments but, rather, to do something that goes a bit against the grain: turn towards them.

She writes (p. 10):

The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation. . . 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—

The most natural and ordinary thing in the world is to want to turn away from pain—or anger—or chaos—or a rumbling stomach—certainly I myself find it natural and ordinary—but when I’m reading Pema Chodron or listening to one of her tapes I feel, sometimes just for a few minutes at a time, or even a few seconds, that she’s onto something—this turning toward rather than turning away.

She’s so kind. She seems to understand how difficult it can be to turn towards discomfort. And she suggests that the way to do this—what can make it possible—is to practice something she calls maitri—this a Sanskrit word for loving-kindness or unconditional friendliness. She suggests that we practice this unconditional friendliness, first, toward ourselves. And she offers practical suggestions for how to do this in a variety of ways, including through the practice of meditation.

She writes (p. 21):

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. Like clouds in a big sky or waves in a vast sea, all our thoughts are given the space to appear.

Sometimes, when I’m reading Pema Chodron, I get a sense of that big sky, that vast sea. I get a sense that no matter what is falling apart—no matter what has fallen apart in the past—no matter what will surely fall apart in the future——I get a sense that it is all held by that big sky—that vast sea—