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Getting Through Crisis with Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart”

Heart advice for hard times

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When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Hard Times” is the single most important spiritual text I’ve read to date. Shipped to me in the middle of a life crisis by one of my dearest friends, I’ve returned to the words in this book for every personal life crisis thereafter to lightly press my fingers to the powdery pages, trying to physically absorb the much needed wisdom.

It’s hard to describe the relief I find in this book. As a type-A perfectionist with high people-pleasing tendencies, I suffer from myriad anxieties about how I’m falling short in life, even when life itself presents little evidence of such a calamity. I know I’m not alone in this ailment, and it’s largely what drew me to positive psychology in the first place and what continues to motivate me to share its teachings with others. This book has become a crucial tool in my toolkit for a calm, steady mind when anxiety threatens to blow me over.   

Who is Pema Chödrön? 

Pema Chödrön is an American Tibetan Buddhist fully ordained in the Chinese lineage of Buddhism, and the author of “When Things Fall Apart.” Prior to her journey toward monastic ordination, she was a school teacher and received her masters in elementary education from Berkely. 

I’m personally interested in listening to the advice of monks and nuns because I believe they represent one of the clearest lines to finding meaning in our world, which we know from work in the field of positive psychology is one of the five core elements of well-being. Not only that, but these spiritual leaders spend a radical amount of time in meditation and stillness, which means their brains are happier, make more disparate connections, and are more self-aware and introspective.

How I Use the Quotes and Teaching in “When Things Fall Apart”

Like my anxiety medication prescription, I keep this book on hand to serve as “spot treatment” for life’s most challenging periods. It’s a tool in my toolkit that I can draw on when the waters get choppy, when it feels like the “rug has been pulled out from under me,” as Chödrön would say. It’s not an instruction manual for daily life so much as it is a menu to pick and choose from in the truly down moments. Consider the below the most popular items on the menu when I’m dining at Chez Chödrön. 

“When Things Fall” Apart Quotes

The headers and bullet points below are either direct quotes from the book, or approximations of their essence that I’d captured in journal notes while reading. I’ve done my best to distill the quotes and their teachings to their core, so that you can take them and run. 

Accept non-permanence and change

  • Nothing is ever solved.
  • Things come together and they fall apart. 
  • Security is an illusion.

This is a relief. I, like most, have been conditioned to think that if I just work hard enough – for the promotion, that body, that extra degree – then my life will fall into place and I will rise to the ranks of those who’ve got it “figured out.” The truth is, we fall in and out of “good” state. Maybe multiple times over the course of one day, or perhaps our waves are more like months-long rollercoaster rides. Up in January and February, down in March and April. I’ve noticed this is the pattern my life tends to take. This is normal. 

Relax into groundlessness

  • Give up hope of getting solid ground under your feet. 
  • The middle way is our birthright: between certain and uncertain.
  • To relax with groundlessness is to relax with hopelessness, death. 

“To be fully human and alive is to be completely out of the nest,” says Chödrön. What I take from this quote is that a fundamental part of being human is being deeply unsure and vulnerable most of the time… and being okay with that. Chödrön makes the soft but forceful argument that you’re not living fully if you’re too comfortable, if things feel too solid or certain. Part of living is facing the uncertainty of life – death, ultimately – and admitting that we’re hopeless to ever control it or beat it. 

Suffering is normal and ok. It doesn’t mean something is wrong. It just is. 

  • Relax with ambiguity, don’t reach for something to protect you
  • Hang out in the raw and tender energy 

This is a relief. Just because I feel bad does not mean something is wrong. I’m allowed to feel bad. I don’t have to do anything about it (immediately). I can learn to co-exist with suffering, to not fear it’s inevitable presence in my life. In a way, I can make friends with my suffering, simply by relaxing with it and allowing it to be there, unadorned with distractions or musings. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I never know what’s going to happen (I just think I do, because control is an illusion). Might as well relax and hang out with this pain until something does. This is how I am trying to think about suffering when I cannot change the circumstances of its cause. 

You are fundamentally alone. That is not a problem. 

  • You can have a relaxed and cooling relationship with loneliness.
  • Nothing is wrong when you feel lonely or sad. It just is.

This is a relief. My whole damn life I’ve been chasing a romantic partner who will fill this seemingly inbred void of loneliness. If being alone is so painful, how is it not a problem? While we’re born alone, we physically depend on our caregivers to protect us until we’re able to protect ourselves. We learn subconsciously that other people equal survival and have a natural, life-long instinct to seek connection as part of an ongoing survival mechanism. As we mature and become more independent, we can learn that, while at least a handful of lasting, intimate relationships are very important to your happiness, you will not and should not seek to define yourself by those relationships, nor a lack of their presence in your daily life. Thus, the relaxed and cooling relationships with loneliness. 

Have fearless compassion for yourself and others

  • Be a good friend to yourself. 
  • Gentleness through it all.
  • Enjoy fully without clinging (to jobs, relationships, your looks); release back to the ocean when it’s time. 

Through it all, we must anchor on a deep and abiding love for ourselves and for others. In fact, that compassion for others can become the ship that carries us through the seas of pain and suffering. Chödrön recommends a meditation practice known as Tonglen, in which you seek to breathe in the world’s pain and breathe out warmth and peace for all of those afflicted. It’s a way to help loosen the tightness in your own chest, and build tenderness for yourself and others, she says. 

Open to your thoughts and emotions, don’t close

  • Be open and relaxed with what arises.
  • For egolessness: Notice opinions, then let them go.

I first learned the concept of opening to our thoughts and experiences (even, and especially, the tough ones) from my exploration of Michael Singer’s “The Untethered Soul.” We suffer the greatest form of pain when we resist pain or change. In order to process and neutralize our thoughts and emotions, we must first acknowledge them fully, approaching them with a relaxed and cool non-judgement. Chödrön recommends a process of acknowledging what arises, noting “thinking” in your own mind, letting the thought dissolve (rather than wander or pick up steam), and coming back to presence. 

Relax and lighten up! Give yourself a break 

  • Approach life with honesty and humor 

This is such a relief! Perhaps the best advice Chödrön imparts throughout the whole book is to chill the heck out. She gives us permission to stop taking everything so dang seriously. The job, the relationships, the kids, the looks, the places we need to be on time, the things we must check off our to-do list…all decidedly Not That Important compared to fearless compassion for self and others and a relaxed relationship with groundlessness. Laugh at yourself when things go awry. Smile at your own silly discursive thoughts. Breathe a sigh of relief that it all just is, and will continue to be. 

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