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)

The Buddhist Sangha of Bucks County, met as a fourfold sangha and discussed this book at via zoom from 8-9pm after our sitting practice.   The following are reflections for each week complied by James Reis, who with Jeannie led our discussions.   The chapters are small, about 5-10 pages each.   The book is available online and at the library.

Excerpts Discussed Monday  June 22 :

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 Discussed Monday June 29

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 Discussed Monday  July 6 

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.

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  July 20  (Chapters 13, 14 and 15)

Ch 13: On Widening the Circle of Compassion: 

  • Only in an open space where we’re not all caught up in our own version of reality can we see and hear and feel who others really are, which allows us to be with them and communicate with them properly.
  • Roshi Bernie Glassman . . .  said he doesn’t really do this work to help others; he does it because he feels that moving into the areas of society that he had rejected is the same as working with the parts of himself that he had rejected.
  • We habitually erect a barrier called blame that keeps us from communicating genuinely with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who’s right and who’s wrong.  It is a very common,  ancient, well-perfected device for trying to feel better.
  • Compassion and emptiness don’t mean much until we start cultivating our innate ability simply to be there with pain and an open heart and the willingness not to instantly try to get ground under our feet.
  • We make ourselves right or wrong.   This middle way involves not hanging on to our version so tightly.   It involves keeping our hearts and minds open long enough to entertain the idea that when we make things ‘wrong’ (or ‘right’), we do it out of a desire to obtain some kind of ground or security.  Could we see, hear or feel people as they really are?  
  • How are we ever going to change anything?  How is there going to be less aggression in the universe rather than more?   We can then bring it down to a more personal level: how do I learn to communicate with somebody who is hurting me?  How do I learn to speak to someone so that some change actually occurs, ….. so that some space opens up….?

Ch 14: On The Love That Will Not Die:

  • This kinship with the suffering of others, this inability to continue to regard it from afar, is the discovery of our soft spot, the discovery of bodhichitta, …. A Sanskrit word that means ‘noble or awakened heart.’
  • Stephen Levine tells the story of a woman who was dying and feeling overwhelming pain and bitterness… she unexpectedly began to experience the pain of others in agony, a starving mother in Ethiopia, a runaway teenager dying of an overdose in a dirty flat, a man crushed by a landslide and dying alone by the banks of a river.  She said that she understood that it wasn’t her pain; it was the pain of all beings. It wasn’t just her life, it was life itself.
  • When we protect ourselves so we don’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor; armor that imprisons the softness of the heart. 
  • Because bodhichitta gives us no ground, it cuts through concepts and ideals.  It does not take gearing up or struggling to achieve.  When strategies are not yet formed and we feel uncertain about which way to turn, in those moments of vulnerability, bodhicitta is always there.

Ch 15: On Going Against The Grain:

  • Tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering – our own and that which is all around us, everywhere we go.  It is a method for overcoming our fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our hearts.
  • We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person whom we know to be hurting and wish to help. ….this practice does go against the grain of wanting things on our own terms, wanting everything to work out for ourselves. 
  • Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure.
  • First, rest your mind briefly, for a second or two, in a state of openness or stillness.
  • Second, work with texture.   Breathe in a feeling of hot, dark and heavy, a sense of claustrophobia, and breathe out a feeling of cool, bright and light.
  • Third, work with a personal situation, any painful situation that’s real to you.
  • Finally, make the taking in and sending out bigger. Breathe in their pain and send them relief.

Excerpts For Monday  July 27, 2020

Ch 16: On Servants of Peace (the six paramitas or perfections or transcendent actions): 

  • When we are training in the art of peace, we are not given any promises that, because of our noble intentions, everything will be okay.  Instead, we are encouraged to simply look deeply at joy and sorrow, at laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies.  We learn that what truly heals is gratitude and tenderness.
  • Prajna is the wisdom that cuts through the immense suffering that comes from seeking to protect our own territory.
  • If we think they are about achieving a standard of perfection, then we’ll feel defeated before we even begin.  It is more accurate to express the paramitas as a journey of exploration….
  • When we are able to be there without saying ‘I certainly agree with this’ or ‘I definitely don’t agree with that’, but just be here very directly, then we find fundamental richness everywhere.
  • The real transformation comes when we let go of our attachment and give away what we think we can’t.
  • What we discipline is not our ‘badness’ or our ‘wrongness’.   What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality.
  • Patience is the antidote to anger, a way to learn to love and care for whatever we meet on the path.  By patience, we do not mean enduring, grin and bear it. In any situation, instead of reacting suddenly, we could chew on it, smell it, look at it, and open ourselves to seeing what’s there.
  • Exertion is touching in to our appetite for enlightenment.   If we all knew how unhappy it was making this whole planet that we all try to avoid pain and seek pleasure, how that was making us so miserable and cutting us off from our basic heart and our basic intelligence, then we would practice meditation as if our hair were on fire.
  • Our birthright…. Is the wisdom with which we were born, the vast unfolding display of primordial richness….
  • When we work with generosity, we see our nostalgia for wanting to hold on.  When we work with discipline, we see our nostalgia for wanting to zone out and not relate at all.  When we work with patience, we discover our longing for speed.  Practicing exertion, we realize our laziness.  With meditation, we see our endless discursiveness.

Ch 17: On Opinions:

  • One of the best practices for everyday living when we don’t have much time for meditation is to  notice our opinions. …. This is an extremely helpful practice because we have a lot of opinions and we tend to take them as truth.
  • I’m talking about noticing opinions as a simple way of beginning to pay attention to what we think and how much energy comes along with that.  We can rightly say that the thinning of the ozone layer is a scientific fact; it’s not simply an opinion.  But if the way we work with trying not to further harm the ozone layer is to solidify our opinion against those we feel are at fault, then nothing ever changes; negativity begets negativity.
  • Although we are going in a direction… to help reduce suffering, we have to realize that part of that helping is keeping our clarity of mind, keeping our hearts and minds open.

Ch 18: On Secret Oral Instructions:

  • You may have noticed… that there is frequently an irritating, if not depressing, discrepancy between our ideals and good intentions and how we act when we are confronted with the nitty-gritty details of life.
  • ‘Bus story’
  • How do we mix our intentions to be alert and gentle in meditation with the reality that we sit down and immediately fall asleep?….For the practitioner, this is an exceedingly important place.

Ch 19: On Three Methods for Working with Chaos (No more struggle, Using poison as Medicine, and Choicelessness):   

  • Through practice we realize that we don’t have to obscure the joy and openness that is present in every moment of existence.
  • When we sit down to meditate, whatever arises in our minds we look at directly, call it ‘thinking’ and go back to the simplicity and immediacy of the breath.  Whatever or whoever arises, train again and again in looking at it and seeing it for what it is without calling it names, without hurling rocks, without averting our eyes.
  • The three poisons are passion (this includes craving or addiction), aggression, and ignorance (which includes denial or the tendency to shut down or close out).  ….. they can become seeds of compassion and openness.
  • We are told from childhood that something is wrong with us, with the world, and with everything that comes along; it’s not perfect, it has rough edges, it has a bitter taste, it’s too loud, too soft, too sharp, too wishy washy.  We cultivate a sense of trying to make things better because something is bad here, something is a mistake here, something is a problem here.
  • We can regard ourselves as already awake; we can regard our world as already sacred.

Ch 20: On The Trick of Choicelessness:

  • From the point of view of the teachings, thinking that we have ample time to do things later is the greatest myth, the greatest hangup, and the greatest poison.
  • There is no better time than right now, there is no higher state of consciousness than this one.
  • Looking for alternatives is the only thing that keeps us from realizing that we’re already in a sacred world.
  • If we don’t think there’s a better, more inspiring, less irritating, or less disturbing sound, sounds become vivid and transparent.

Ch 21: On Reversing the Wheel of Samsara:

  • Usually we feel that there’s a large problem and we have to fix it.  The instruction is to stop.  Do something unfamiliar.  Do anything besides rushing off in the same old direction, up to the same old tricks.
  • I stopped following through with my habitual plan.
  • That’s what Dharma is all about; turning all our habits around, reversing the process of how we make everything solid….
  • My experience is that by practicing without ‘shoulds’, we gradually discover our wakefulness and our confidence.
  • Every act counts.  Every thought counts too.  This is all the path we have.

Excerpts For Monday August 10 2020

Ch 22: On The Path is the Goal:    

  • Now is the time.  What does it take to use the life we already have in order to make us wiser rather than more stuck?
  • The source of wisdom is whatever is happening to us right at this very instant.
  • …we think that the reason we’re on the path is to get rid of this painful feeling.  (“When I get to LA I won’t feel this way anymore.”)  At that level of wanting to get rid of our feeling we naively cultivate a subtle aggression against ourselves.
  • …what seems undesirable in our lives doesn’t have to put us to sleep.

AFTERWORD:  – Instead of continuing to close down and defend our own territory, we can learn to relax with the true nature of reality, which is uncertain and unpredictable.  This is the only way to transform the world from a place of escalating aggression to a place of awakening. 

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