James Reis on “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron

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

How can we live our lives when everything seems to fall apart – when we are continually overcome by fear, anxiety and pain?  The answer, Pema Chodron suggests, might be just the opposite of what you expect.   . . . Pema shows that moving toward painful situations and becoming intimate with them can open up our hearts in ways we never before imagined. (from the book jacket)

Starting June 22, we are discussing this book at the Buddhist Sangha of Bucks County by zoom from 8-9pm after our sitting practice.   We’ll do 3 chapters a week.   The chapters are small, about 5-10 pages each.   The book is available online and at the library. We will post a few paragraphs ahead of time to share as a discussion-starter. 

Excerpts For Monday  July 13  (Chapters 10, 11 and 12)

Ch 10: On Curious About Existence: 

  • Find out for yourself about peace and whether or not it’s true that our fundamental situation is joyful.
  • People have no respect for impermanence. We take no delight in it; in fact we despair of it.  We regard it as pain. 
  • Impermanence is a principle of harmony
  • Pain is not a punishment, pleasure is not a reward.
  • Wakefulness naturally radiates out when we are not so concerned with ourselves.
  • Egolessness is a state of mind that has complete confidence in the sacredness of the world.

Ch 11: On Non-aggression and the four Maras:

  • What we habitually regard as obstacles are not really our enemies, but are our friends.
  • Nothing ever really goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.
  • Human beings habitually become confused and lose touch with their wisdom mind.
  • We run like crazy to try to become comfortable
  • Our whole world falls apart and we are given this great opportunity, but we…. Want to get ourselves back, even our anger resentment fear and bewilderment.
  • We knock on every door asking people to sign petitions until there is a whole army of people who agree with us that everything is wrong.
  • When we talk about a good life, from the samsaric point of view, we mean that we have finally gotten it together.

Ch12: On Growing Up:

  • The wisdom of what we might call neurosis and the wisdom of unconditioned truth; can only be found in our experience.
  • Within that container of discipline (ie; meditation), why do we have to be so harsh?
  • When we begin to just try and accept ourselves, the ancient burden of self importance lightens up considerably.

Excerpts For Monday  June 22  (Chapters 1-3: Intimacy with Fear, When Things Fall Apart, and This Very Moment Is the Perfect Teacher):

Ch 1: On Intimacy with Fear: 

  • Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth
  • We cannot be present and run our story lines at the same time
  • Anyone who stands at the edge of the unknown, fully in the present without a 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.
  • I once asked a Zen master Kobun Chino Roshi how he related to fear and he said, ‘I agree, I agree’

Ch 2: On When Things Fall Apart:

  • What happened to me when I got to the abbey was that everything fell apart.  All the ways I shield myself, all the ways I delude myself, all the ways I maintain my well-polished self-image – all of it fell apart.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t manipulate the situation.
  • 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.
  • The test for each of us is to stay on the brink and not concretize.
  • …. The only time we every know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out from under us.
  • Life is a good teacher and a good friend.
  • To stay with the shakiness, the broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with a feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge, that is the path to true awakening.

Ch 3: On This Very Moment is the Perfect Teacher:

  • Those events and people in our lives who trigger our unresolved issues could be regarded as good news.
  • All addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it.
  • Reaching our limit is like finding a doorway to sanity.
  • The first thing that happens in meditation is that we start to see what’s happening.  Even though we still run away and we still indulge, we see what we’re doing clearly.  To the degree that we’re willing to see our indulging and our repressing clearly, they begin to wear themselves out.
  • We continue to make friends with our hopes and fears again and again.

Excerpts For Monday June 29 (Chapters 4-6: Relax As It Is, It’s Never too Late, Not Causing Harm)

Ch 4: On Relax as it is:

  • …not to speak of ‘concentrating’ on the out-breath but to use more fluid
    language. So we would tell students to ‘touch the out-breath and let it go’ or
    to ‘have a light and gentle attention on the out-breath’
  • If we connect with something blissful or inspiring, we might think we’ve
    finally got it and try to stay where there’s peace and harmony and nothing to
  • Just how willing are we to lighten up and loosen our grip. How honest do we
    want to be with ourselves

Ch 5: On It’s Never Too Late:

  • I get many letters from ‘the worst person in the world’.
  • What makes Maitri (Metta, Loving-Kindness) such a different approach is
    that we are not trying to solve a problem.
  • When we buy into disapproval, we are practicing disapproval
  • In the midst of the worst scenario (about ourselves), open space is always
  • Cutting our expectations for a cure is a gift we give ourselves
  • There’s so much resentment and resistance to life. In all nations, it’s like a
    plague that’s gotten out of control and is poisoning the atmosphere of the

Ch 6: On Not Causing Harm:

  • By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as
    fundamental spaciousness
  • The ground of not causing harm is mindfulness, a sense of clear seeing with
    respect and compassion for what it is we see.
  • Refraining has something to do with giving up entertainment mentality….
    We see that there’s something between the arising of the craving, or the
    aggression or the loneliness or whatever it might be, and the action we take
    as a result.
  • There has to be some kind of respect for the jitters
  • We don’t waste the gift of speech in expressing our neurosis
  • To be completely here, without anxiety about imperfection

Excerpts For Monday  July 6  (Chapters 7, 8 and 9: Hopelessness and Death, Eight Worldly Dharmas, Six Kinds of Loneliness)

Ch 7: On Hopelessness and Death: 

  • 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.
  • Believing in a solid, separate self, continuing to seek pleasure and avoid pain, thinking that there is someone ‘out there’ to blame for our pain, one has to get totally fed up with these ways of thinking
  • The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong.  What a relief
  • Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides, (and so the are…) hopelessness and confidence.
  • On renunciation:  The real thing we renounce is the tenacious hope that we could be saved from being who we are.
  • All anxiety, all dissatisfaction, all the reasons for hoping that our experience could be different are rooted in the fear of death.

Ch 8: On Eight Worldly Dharmas:

  • We might feel that somehow we should try to eradicate the 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.
  • We carry around a subjective reality that is continually triggering our emotional reactions.
  • When we become more insightful and compassionate about how we ourselves get hooked, we spontaneously feel more tenderness for the human race.

Ch 9: On Six Kinds of Loneliness:

  • … To have a non-threatening relationship with loneliness.
  • There are six ways of describing this kind of cool loneliness.  They are less desire, contentment, avoiding unnecessary activity, complete discipline, not wandering in the world of desire, and not seeking security from one’s discursive thoughts.
  • Contentment:  When we have nothing, we have nothing to lose.
  • Complete discipline means that at every opportunity, we’re willing to come back, just gently come back to the present moment.
  • Not seeking security from one’s discursive thoughts: The rug’s been pulled, the jig is up, there is no way to get out!  …. We do not expect security from our own internal chatter.