When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron

Summary

This book will save your soul in difficult times. In it, Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chodron provides a guide to thriving in the face of a fundamentally groundless and painful world. 

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Key Takeaways

Things fall apart and come together

“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.”

“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.”

We want our lives to fit together like a beautiful puzzle. And often we think that if we can just solve this problem or that problem, it will finally be complete. 

But the reality is that there are always missing pieces. That’s the reality of life. And it’s our expectation that things will finally come together that makes it difficult for us to thrive in a world where things constantly come together and fall apart.

Samsara

“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.”

Suffering is created by our belief that things in our life will endure. We constantly seek pleasurable experiences and try to avoid pain with the hope that a perfect, harmonious state will emerge. But that’s not how life works, and if we keep pursuing that reality, we will continue to suffer in the hopeless cycle of samsara.

The ego is never satisfied. It will continue to reset the bar, constantly needing more. Any satisfaction will be short-lived and quickly be accompanied by a feeling of inadequacy that will plague even the most successful of people.

“No content will satisfy you, as long as the egoic structure remains in place. No matter what you have or get, you won’t be happy.”

When you are absorbed by the ego, you will constantly seek more things on your path to fulfillment. You will falsely believe that what you strive for will fulfill the lack you feel within, but in reality, you will just continue to feel hollow.

Sem and rikpa

Sem and rikpa are two helpful Tibetan words that describe the mind. 

Sem is the constant stream of discursive chatter that reinforces our image of ourselves. It’s the tape in our head that cements the narrative that we’ve chosen to believe about our lives.

Rikpa means “intelligence” or “brightness.” It’s our wise mind. When we stop the incessant internal planning, worrying, and wishing, rikpa emerges. It’s always there, but we’re not always aware of it.

Fundamental groundlessness

“Underneath our ordinary lives, underneath all the talking we do, all the moving we do, all the thoughts in our minds, there’s a fundamental groundlessness. It’s there bubbling along all the time. We experience it as restlessness and edginess. We experience it as fear. It motivates passion, aggression, ignorance, jealousy, and pride, but we never get down to the essence of it.”

Most of us stay in perpetual motion in one way or another. We talk, move, think, and so on. Rarely do we take the time to just sit and be with ourselves. We don’t do this because it can be scary. It can attune us to the precarious and groundless nature of life.

But if we learn to refrain from acting and learn to be still, we can begin to relax.

Danger of hope

“Without giving up hope – that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be – we will never relax with where we are or who we are.”

Is the grass really greener? Is what your pursuing really what will make you feel settled? Instead of looking externally to bigger and better things, sit with yourself and see if what you’re looking for can be found within. It’s only when you drop the hope that something better awaits you elsewhere that you can begin to enjoy where you are now.

Feeling the pain

“When we feel lonely, when we feel hopeless, what we want to do is move to the right or to the left. We don’t want to sit and feel what we feel. We don’t want to go through the detox.”

Instead of running from your sense of loneliness or despair, try sitting with it. In learning to be with your emotions, whatever they may be, you’ll begin to transform your relationship with them. You won’t fear loneliness – you’ll welcome it with open arms.

The four maras

The four maras explain the common ways in which we try to avoid what is happening.

  1. Devaputra mara – seeking pleasure
  2. Skandha mara – trying to re-create ourselves
  3. Klesha mara – using our emotions to keep ourselves dumb or asleep
  4. Yama mara – fear of death

Being fully alive

“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.”

You don’t really want everything to come together perfectly. Fully living is about embracing the inherent chaos and groundlessness of life. When you can learn to operate in that theatre, you’ve learned the art of fully living.

Bodhichitta

A Sanskrit word that means noble or awakened heart. It’s present in all beings.

Tonglen

A breathing practice that helps us compassionately connect with our own suffering and the suffering of all beings.

The practice starts with taking on the suffering of a person who is suffering. For example, if we know a friend is being hurt in a relationship, we breathe in with the wish to take away the pain of our friend. Then, as we breathe out, we send peace, happiness, or whatever would relieve our friend.

We can do tonglen with any type of suffering, whether it’s hunger, pain, hardship, or something else. The key idea is to breathe in the pain and to breathe out the antidote. This practice can be really useful if you’re triggered in a moment. You can begin by doing tonglen for yourself and then extend it to all beings who may be suffering in the same way that you are.

Practicing non-aggression

“You could say that not much changes through nonaggression either. However, nonaggression benefits the earth profoundly. The root cause of famine, starvation, and cruelty at the personal level is aggression. When we hold on to our opinions with aggression, no matter how valid our cause, we are simply adding more aggression to the planet, and violence and pain increase. Cultivating nonaggression is cultivating peace. The way to stop the war is to stop hating the enemy. It starts with seeing our opinions of ourselves and of others as simply our take on reality and not making them a reason to increase the negativity on the planet.”

3 methods for handling chaos

No more struggle: practice by accepting whatever comes to your mind in meditation practice and labeling it “thinking” without judgment.

Using poison as medicine: Practicing tonglen in moments of despair to help us wake up. We use difficulties to attune us to the reality of life.

Regard whatever arises as awakened energy: Learning to find the beauty and wisdom in ourselves and the world as it already is.

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