When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön

Read in October 2016

Rating 9/10

This beautiful book is a reflection on the human condition and is packed with actionable advice for not running away from difficult situations, facing fear and pain, and refraining from automatically filling any gap that arises. It's the second time I'm reading this book – it's a good teacher for times when things are falling apart.

My notes from the book

Fear is a universal experience.

Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.

If we commit ourselves to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape.

Anyone who stands on the edge of the unknown, fully in the present without reference point, experiences groundlessness.

No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear. We are very rarely told to move closer, to just be there, to become familiar with fear.

The most heartbreaking thing of all is how we cheat ourselves of the present moment.

So the next time you encounter fear, consider yourself lucky. This is where the courage comes in. Usually we think that brave people have no fear. The truth is that they are intimate with fear.

They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.

Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all.

Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it.

Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path.

Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, “Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?”

This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.

Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them.

All addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.

Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limit and to not get carried away by hope and fear.

A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.

We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives.

One would think that our seeing it clearly would immediately make it just disappear, but it doesn’t. So for quite a long time, we just see it clearly.

We stop talking to ourselves and come back to the freshness of the present moment.

How long does this process take? I would say it takes the rest of our lives.

There’s always more to learn.

Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.

As each breath went out and dissolved, there was the chance to die to all that had gone before and to relax instead of panic.

Meet whatever arises with curiosity and not make it such a big deal.

Our personal demons come in many guises. We experience them as shame, as jealousy, as abandonment, as rage. They are anything that makes us so uncomfortable that we continually run away.

All over the world, people are so caught in running that they forget to take advantage of the beauty around them.

The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face. When we feel resentment because the room is too hot, we could meet the heat and feel its fieriness and its heaviness. When we feel resentment because the room is too cold, we could meet the cold and feel its iciness and its bite. When we want to complain about the rain, we could feel its wetness instead. When we worry because the wind is shaking our windows, we could meet the wind and hear its sound. Cutting our expectations for a cure is a gift we can give ourselves.

It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space.

The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.

It’s a life-time’s journey to relate honestly to the immediacy of our experience and to respect ourselves enough not to judge it.

It’s the quality of not grabbing for entertainment the minute we feel a slight edge of boredom coming on. It’s the practice of not immediately filling up space just because there’s a gap.

Refraining is the method for getting to know the nature of this restlessness and fear.

The young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?” Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear.

Not causing harm requires staying awake. Part of being awake is slowing down enough to notice what we say and do. The more we witness our emotional chain reactions and understand how they work, the easier it is to refrain. It becomes a way of life to stay awake, slow down, and notice.

Theism is a deep-seated conviction that thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one.

Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.

Hopelessness is the basic ground. Otherwise, we’re going to make the journey with the hope of getting security. If we make the journey to get security, we’re completely missing the point.

Begin the journey without hope of getting ground under your feet. Begin with hopelessness.

When the day ends, when the second ends, when we breathe out, that’s death in everyday life.

We carry around a subjective reality that is continually triggering our emotional reactions.

Whether we experience what happens to us as obstacle and enemy or as teacher and friend depends entirely on our perception of reality. It depends on our relationship with ourselves.

When everything falls apart and we feel uncertainty, disappointment, shock, embarrassment, what’s left is a mind that is clear, unbiased, and fresh.

We are killing the moment by controlling our experience.

Trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.

Even though we say is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.

Running away from the immediacy of our experience is like preferring death to life.

Blame is a way in which we solidify ourselves. Not only do we point the finger when something is “wrong,” but we also want to make things “right.”

This middle way involves not hanging on to our version so tightly.

If we begin to live like this, we’ll find that we actually can’t make things completely right or completely wrong anymore, because things are a lot more slippery and playful than that.

The magic of discipline and not being swayed by moods.

What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality. In other words, discipline allows us to be right here and connect with the richness of the moment.

Discipline provides the support to slow down enough and be present enough so that we can live our lives without making a big mess.

“If you sit still, you’ll see something. If you’re very quiet, you’ll hear something.”

One of the best practices for everyday living when we don’t have much time for meditation is to notice our opinions. When we are doing sitting meditation, part of the technique is to become aware of our thoughts. Then, without judgment, without calling them right or wrong, we simply acknowledge that we are thinking.

All ego really is, is our opinions, which we take to be solid, real, and the absolute truth about how things are. To have even a few seconds of doubt about the solidity and absolute truth of our own opinions, just to begin to see that we do have opinions, introduces us to the possibility of egolessness. We don’t have to make these opinions go away, and we don’t have to criticize ourselves for having them. We could just notice what we say to ourselves and see how so much of it is just our particular take on reality which may or may not be shared by other people.

The less our speech and actions are clouded by opinion, the more they will communicate.

Use difficult situations to awaken our genuine caring for other people.

There really is no better time than right now;

Looking for alternatives—better sights than we see, better sounds than we hear, a better mind than we have—keeps us from realizing that we could stand with pride in the middle of our life and realize it’s a sacred mandala.

Our experience is the only experience there is. This is the ultimate teacher.

Now is the only time. How we relate to it creates the future.

What we do accumulates; the future is the result of what we do right now.

We feel frequently — maybe continuously — at a cross-roads, never knowing what’s ahead. It’s an insecure way to live. We often find ourselves in the middle of a dilemma—what should I do about the fact that somebody is angry with me? What should I do about the fact that I’m angry with somebody? Basically, the instruction is not to try to solve the problem but instead to use it as a question about how to let this very situation wake us up further rather than lull us into ignorance. We can use a difficult situation to encourage ourselves to take a leap, to step out into that ambiguity.

This is our choice in every moment. Do we relate to our circumstances with bitterness or with openness?