“All that is necessary then is to rest undistractedly in the immediate present, in this very instant in time. And if we become drawn away by thoughts, by longings, by hopes and fears, again and again we can return to this present moment. We are here.” -Pema Chödrön
Pema Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart contains so many gems each time it is read and reread. Although written as a Buddhist student’s guide, the wisdom and guidance provided throughout the book are relevant to any mediation practitioner, and truthfully, to any human being. Particularly sought after during challenging times, the honesty and directness that are Chödrön’s teachings in When Things Fall Apart, provide actionable ways to shift from trying to escape feelings of worthlessness, heartbreak, loneliness, or craving (addiction) into being comfortable in the present moment with compassion for oneself and those around us. Whether going through a traumatic life experience such as a divorce or coming home after a stressful workday feeling down, this book shows us that we are human in our suffering and we have everything we need to heal.
We all suffer and go through difficult times at some point in our lives, and this basic reality is what Pema Chödrön builds on from the beginning of her book. Offering meditation as a way to learn to be present with our triggers or aggression or unworthiness, the author provides basic meditation instruction from her own teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, such as placing gentle awareness on the out-breath and labeling thoughts that arise during meditation as “thinking” before returning to the present moment. Of meditation, Chödrön says “Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limit and to not get carried away by hope and fear. Through meditation we’re able to see clearly what’s going on with our thoughts and emotions, and we can also let them go. What’s encouraging about meditation is that even if we shut down, we can no longer shut down in ignorance.” Any moderately experienced meditation practitioner can attest to the fact that after practicing for a certain period of time, we become far more aware of how we react and respond to difficult situations in our lives, even if we may not immediately be able to pause and change or soften our reaction, we seemingly all of a sudden see the way we are clearly. The emphasis on loving-kindness is another key point in Chödrön’s teachings, and the practice of labeling our thoughts “thinking” is one way to cultivate this unconditional friendliness toward ourselves through our practice. “Saying “thinking” is a very interesting point in the meditation. It’s the point at which we can consciously train in gentleness and in developing a nonjudgmental attitude.” She goes on to explain that this is one of the few instances in our lives in which we can actively strengthen our capacity for compassion.
The book is chockfull of wisdom and relatable examples, as well as practical advice, including a later chapter entitled “Three Methods for Working with Chaos” in which three different ways of meditating are offered to the practitioner.
Regarding mindfulness in particular, Pema Chödrön says it poetically as always: “But mindfulness doesn’t stop with formal meditation. It helps us relate with all the details of our lives. It helps us see and hear and smell, without closing our eyes or our ears or our noses. It’s a lifetime’s journey to relate honestly to the immediacy of our experience and to respect ourselves enough not to judge it.”
This book can serve as a reference text over the course of our lives, offering solid reminders when they are most needed. Everyone will come away from reading When Things Fall Apart feeling deeply aware of our humanness, significantly more compassionate, and ready to handle whatever may come our way.
Meditation instructor Alice Lash offers mindfulness meditation in Miami. Begin or re-establish a mindfulness meditation practice by registering for a class today.