When Things Fall Apart: The rest of the book

It’s nice when you find a book that you can sit down with and read the last half of it in one sitting, and learn a heck-of-a-lot in the process.

I want to briefly summarize what I learned from reading this book because it has been extremely helpful.  Thanks, JD!

Accept that life is ever-changing; therefore, accept that you cannot maintain stasis because it is impossible.  Therefore accept that life is groundless and you are groundless.  Therefore accept that change is inevitable and do not struggle against it.  When you find yourself struggling, remember that life is supposed to change and it is a good thing, but do not rely on habitual patterns of behavior to deal with the ever-changing state of life.  In other words, do not react the same way every time. We do this out of fear of the unknown or fear of failure or fear of something else.  The best thing to do is to face your fears head on, do not rely on old ways of dealing with things, push through it, and move past it.  Do not let your old way of doing things (including old ways of perceiving your identity) get in the way of true growth.  You cannot grow up if you stay in stasis. Your sense of reality will always be false if you never face your fears or rely on habitual behaviors. 

You must have unconditional compassion for yourself before you can have unconditional compassion for others. We put limitations and restrictions on others because we struggle with things ourselves. We pass judgments and create barriers to unconditional compassion because of our own insecurities about ourselves.  We do not give unconditionally because we do not give to ourselves unconditionally.  This is important, and difficult to overcome. 

Ultimately, we need to let go and move on. We recreate our identities so that we can keep from moving on.  We have to accept that we change as the world changes.  And that’s okay. 

We have to slow down and live in the present, and enjoy the present moment because it’s the only thing we have.  That makes a lot of sense to me because we cannot time travel either direction so clearly it is the present that matters. Yet we so easily get caught up in the past or future:  what we did or what we want to do. Or worse, what we wish we would have done.  It’s too much. We have to move on.

And most importantly, “Sometimes you just have to let everything fall apart” (170) so that you can reconnect with yourself, your groundlessness, and a clearer sense of reality.

There are a lot of things in this book that I found helpful and relevant to myself at this present moment.  I’ve gleaned a lot of strength from the words of Pema Chodron:  some of it I already knew, some of it I didn’t.  It’s just nice to “hear” it again, and again, and again….

When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron, Ch. 1-8

A very good friend of mine, JD, recommended and gave me this book because it’s always reassuring to read things like this when you’re at a liminal moment in your life.  It’s written by a Canadian Buddhist “nun” and contains many insightful thoughts on dealing with fear, uncertainty, suffering, and compassion, among other things.    It’s interesting reading this at the same time as Hawking’s book because of some overlap.

Here is the bibliographic reference for the book: 

Chodron, Pema.  When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.  Boston: Shambhala, 2005.

Here are some of Chodron’s insights, which I feel are most applicable:

  • SUFFERING is an inevitable part of life if we keep on believing that life is everlasting; therefore, if we give up the idea that things don’t eventually “disintegrate” or die-for-good, then we reduce or eliminate our suffering (11).  In other words, we suffer because we assume things can and should be better (tomorrow, in the afterlife, etc.). She later discusses our fear of death and I will get to that a little later.
  • She advises us to relax in the midst of chaos and UNCERTAINTY(13).  This is ironic because of the other book I’m reading (Hawking) and its discussion of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  What I take from this connection is that uncertainty is in everything and we must embrace it and be satisfied with it.
  • We should seek to lose our “EGO” by seeking neither to INDULGE or REPRESS; therefore, if we remove that “ego-balance” from between the Id and the Superego, neither will exist and all will be in balance naturally (18).
  • By seeking a state of ego-lessness, we allow all of our thoughts to arise and simply go away without indulging or repressing them (19).  This is a common theme in the book:  to embrace your thoughts (and fears) and meet them head-on, then let them melt away and not bother you.  But the main thing is to face your fears, your obsessions, your addictions, etc.
  • She talks about MEDITATION and how difficult it can be to truly clear your mind.  A way to face this dilemma is to literally  label your mid-meditation thoughts as “thinking” when they come into your mind, and then once you’ve acknowledged those thoughts, let them go and return to an empty mind (27).  In other words, acknowledge the thoughts, let them go, and relax.
  • COMPASSION is the root of Buddhist philosophy.  Chodron writes a lot about praticing GENTLENESS & LETTING GO (32).
  • ENLIGHTENMENT is attaining a wakeful state of no more DELUSION(35).
  • Chodron advises to PAY ATTENTION to life more (37).
  • MINDFULNESS is “a sense of clear seeing with respect and compassion for what it is we see” (39).
  • REFRAINING is an important concept that she reviews.  She says: “Mindfulness is the ground; refraining is the path” (39). 
  • We avoid things out of fear.  We tend to want to “[fill] up space just because there’s a gap” (40).  In other words, we can’t sit alone with ourselves because perhaps we’re afraid of what thoughts will pop into our minds so we try to fill the spaces of our lives in order to avoid GROUNDLESSNESS.
  • Chodron says we FEAR GROUNDLESSNESS (41).   But we have to face that fear head-on and be okay with the groundlessness.  The method to do this is to REFRAIN from reacting to the fear and restlessness (41).
  • Pausing helps us connect with fundamental RESTLESSNESS and SPACIOUSNESS (42).  I think this is especially important in regard to our desire to seek an answer to our questions about the universe (c.f. Hawking).
  • Chodron wants us to respect the jitters, and learn to pause and not be impulsive or react negatively; therefore move toward less compulsiveness (42-43). In other words, face things head-on without fear of being groundless. 
  • This reminds me of another book (recommended by JD), Ethics for the New Millennium, in which one of the major points the Dalai Lama focuses on is the importance of PRACTICING to be more compassionate.  It’s not about reacting perfectly every time, but rather practicing reacting more compassionately, and eventually you won’t have to “fake it til you  make it.” 
  • Ultimately Chodron wants us to refrain from reacting (emotional chain reactions or anxiety) and therefore become more clear (44-45).
  • HOPELESSNESS is a necessity.  We must give up HOPE in order to relax about where and who we are (46).  We must give up HOPE that the world is to blame for our own situation and that thinking that way brings us satisfaction (47).
  • SUFFERING dissolves when there’s nowhere left to hide; therefore, when there’s no more HOPE (47).  Ultimately, attaining lasting security in our lives is impossible (47).
  • In other words, if we sit around being HOPEFUL that our situation will eventually get better, we DENY reacting in the PRESENT to those emotions and dealing with them properly.  If we allow the idea of HOPELESSNESS into our lives, we will eliminate our SUFFERING.   
  • You really have to think about that one:  Chodron says that lasting security is an hopeless endeavor  (48).  One can never be ultimately secure because nothing in the world is permanent or doesn’t change.  Even Hawking says this about the universe because it is ever-expanding, ever-reproducing.  Therefore, if you give up HOPE that your SUFFERING will end (i.e. from ever suffering again), you will be living in a state of HOPELESSNESS, which is a good place to be because you won’t be sitting around expecting your life to never encounter any more suffering.
  • Chodron says that NONTHEISM (versus THEISM) allows for the individual to relax with the idea that life is ambiguous and uncertain and that we cannot protect ourselves from SUFFERING (48).  This is true. We cannot protect ourselves from SUFFERING, so why not just resign ourselves to the fact that it will happen and when it does happen, take it in and then let it go.
  • DHARMA is a total appreciation of IMPERMANENCE and CHANGE (48).  Life is a constant coming-and-going.
  • Chodron says that SUFFERING is not inherently bad or wrong, but our ADDICTION to HOPE leads us to the idea that SUFFERING is BAD (49).  This leads to the HOPE/FEAR dichotomy.
  • Chodron writes: “In an nontheistic state of mind, ABANDONING HOPE is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning.  You could even put “Abandon Hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better”” (50). 
  • This is an especially profound statement and it reminds me of another text in which “Abandon Hope” is used:  Dante’s Inferno!  Inscribed on the wall of the entrance to Hell is a phrase: “Abandon hope, ye who enter here.”  Now, this is used in a different way than Chodron intends it but they do overlap.  Chodron advises us to ABANDON HOPE in order to END our SUFFERING.  Dante tells those who journey into Hell to ABANDON HOPE because they will SUFFER greatly with NO END.  But, in both instances, HOPE is unnecessary and should be abandoned.  Very interesting!
  • According to Chodron, HOPE leads to a sense of lacking and when we CONFRONT and EMBRACE our own SUFFERING, we don’t resort to HOPE (50).  Even in Dante’s Hell, this rings true because the souls in Hell, in fact, EMBRACE SUFFERING and want it badly because they do not want God’s love, they want the exact opposite!
  • Chodron writes that because INSECURITY and PAIN cannot be exterminated, we must embrace HOPELESSNESS and GROUNDLESSNESS in order to resolve ourselves to the fact that when INSECURITY and PAIN occur in our lives, we meet them head-on and then move on (51).
  • FEAR OF DEATH is a profound state of being.  Death occurs whether we like it or not.  We are all aware that we will die and we fear it. We DENY that TIME is passing. Reminders of DEATH cause us to PANIC.  If we RELAX with the PRESENT MOMENT and see that everything CHANGES over TIME, that HOPELESSNESS is the preferred state of being, that DEATH is inevitable and not to be feared, then we will END our own SUFFERING (52-55).
  • We must become HOPELESS in terms of the PRESENT MOMENT and not expect it to be better, to suffer less, etc.  Becoming HOPELESS helps rectify our FEAR OF DEATH because the PRESENT MOMENT is what matters and dealing with things in the PRESENT helps END our SUFFERING in the PRESENT.  The PRESENT MOMENT is what matters.
  • If we practice our REACTIONS to our preconceived notions about these things, we will SUFFER less. If we pay attention to how we REACT when moments of PRAISE occur, we will better understand how to deal with moments when CRITICISM occur. Chodron says to be CURIOUS about your reactions to the EIGHT WORLDLY DHARMAS, and not HABITUAL (61).
  • Chodron advises us to ENJOY in the PRESENT without clinging to our preconceived/prepared REACTIONS to things, then let those MOMENTS dissolve: this is the ultimate NONATTACHMENT.

So far, Chodron’s book has given me a lot of interesting things to ponder.  Much of it I’ve read before in works by the Dalai Lama, but I think lessons like these need to be reinforced a lot because our minds can sometimes forget the obvious lessons of life.