When things fall apart – review

Can a short text have a meaningful impact on your life? And if so, why aren’t we reading more texts like that?

Writing is a technical procedure, but it also holds a spiritual side.

For a long time, I have contemplated about how I want to write, and more specifically how I want to write publicly.

I decided to share texts that are meaningful for me, and explain why they are meaningful.

The first text I chose is the intro to Pema Chodron’s book – “When things fall apart”.

Pema Chodron is an American Tibetan Buddhist nun, author, and teacher, who has taught for over thirty years. She is best known for her books, which offer practical teachings on how to transform suffering and find joy.

Her book “When things fall apart” is about how to apply Buddhist principles to everyday life and how to cultivate mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom in order to lead an awake life.

What I want you to notice in the following text is how Pema Chodron manages to explain three key lessons within a short text:

  • It is worth taking a break to analyze your life.
  • When she herself did that, she distilled her lectures around:
    • Maitree – or loving kindness towards yourself
    • Dismantling the dualistic tension between things by inviting the thing we avoid. When you befriend your inner demons and their accompanying lack of confidence, you become more joyful and relaxed.
  • By sharing her experience with others, and implementing the advice of others, she discovered true joy and contempt.

“In 1995 I took a sabbatical. For twelve months I essentially did nothing.

It was the most spiritually inspiring time of my life. Pretty much all I did was relax. I read and hiked and slept. I cooked and ate, meditated and wrote. I had no schedule, no agenda, and no “shoulds.”

A lot got digested during this completely open, uncharted time. For one thing, I began to read slowly through two cardboard boxes of very raw, unedited transcriptions of talks I had given from 1987 to 1994. Unlike the dathun talks that make up The Wisdom of No Escape and the lojong teachings that make up Start Where You Are, these talks seemed to have no unifying thread.

Now and then I would look at a few transcripts. I found them everything from pedantic to delightful. It was both interesting and embarrassing to be faced with such a profusion of my own words.

Gradually, as I read more, I began to see that in some way, no matter what subject I had chosen, what country I was in, or what year it was, I had taught endlessly about the same things: the great need for maitri (loving-kindness toward oneself), and developing from that the awakening of a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and that of others.

It seemed to me that the view behind every single talk was that we could step into uncharted territory and relax with the groundlessness of our situation. The other underlying theme was dissolving the dualistic tension between us and them, this and that, good and bad, by inviting in what we usually avoid.

My teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, described this as “leaning into the sharp points.” It occurred to me that for all those seven years, I’d been simply trying to digest and communicate the helpful and very gutsy instructions that Trungpa Rinpoche gave his students. As I delved into the boxes, I could see that I still had a long way to go before fully appreciating what I had been taught.

I also saw that by putting Rinpoche’s advice into practice as well as I could, and by attempting to share this experience of a student’s path with others, I had found a kind of fundamental happiness and contentment that I’d never known before. It made me laugh to see that, just as I had so often said, making friends with our own demons and their accompanying insecurity leads to a very simple, understated relaxation and joy.

About halfway through the year, my editor, Emily Hilburn Sell, happened to ask me if I had any more talks that might be usable for a third book. I sent her the cardboard boxes. She read through the transcripts and felt inspired to tell Shambhala Publications, “We have another book.” Over the next six months, Emily sifted and shifted and deleted and edited, and I had the luxury to work further on each chapter to my heart’s content.

When I wasn’t resting or looking at the ocean or walking in the hills, I would get totally absorbed by these talks. Rinpoche once gave me the advice “Relax and write.” At the time it didn’t seem like I’d ever do either of these things, but years later, here I was following his instructions.

The result of this collaboration with Emily and my year of doing nothing is this book. May it encourage you to settle down with your life and take these teachings on honesty, kindness, and bravery to heart.

If your life is chaotic and stressful, there’s plenty of advice here for you. If you’re in transition, suffering from loss, or just fundamentally restless, these teachings are tailor made. The main point is that we all need to be reminded and encouraged to relax with whatever arises and bring whatever we encounter to the path.

In putting these instructions into practice, we join a long lineage of teachers and students who have made the buddha dharma relevant to the ups and downs of their ordinary lives. Just as they made friends with their egos and discovered wisdom mind, so can we. I thank the Vidyadhara, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, for totally committing his life to the dharma and for being so eager to transmit its essence to the people of the West. May the inspiration I received from him be contagious. May we, like him, lead the life of a bodhisattva, and may we not forget his proclamation that “Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.”

PEMA CHÖDRÖN, Gampo Abbey, Pleasant Bay, Nova Scotia, 1996

Here are the points I want to make about this essay:

It is worth taking a break to analyze your life.

Taking a break to think about things… this is easier said than done. Our whole lives are structured and everything seems to be pre-built to suck all our time. This is just like how right after you put a shelf in your living room it gets filled with stuff. 

But we still have to do it. Chodron took a year off of her life. You could also choose to take a day in a week, or an hour in a day. If Chodron hadn’t taken that year, her most important book might not have been written.

We accumulate real life experience over time, and this experience needs processing. For Chodron, her lectures were documented, so it was fairly easy for her to know what to go over during her break. This might be a future topic I write about – how to make sure you document what happens to you for further examination.

Distilling insights during this time.

Going over her notes, Chodron discovered two main repeating themes: Maitree and inviting the things we avoid. These are two powerful themes she discovered not by rational thinking and choice making, but rather by summarizing what had risen in her lectures subconsciously. I think it says a lot about the power of  indeliberate effort.

By sharing her experience with others, and implementing the advice of others, she discovered true joy and contempt.

There seems to be value in connecting to mentors of the past by implementing their advice, as well as connecting to students of the future by sharing your experience with them. This “chain” method of connection brings true joy and contempt, according to Chodron.

To sum up, this is a short text that manages to hold a lot of meaning on its own. It also encourages you to read her whole book, much like I hope this essay does for you.

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