When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times - Pema Chödrön

This book’s title caught my eye at a time when I felt like things were falling apart for me. I’ve long been open to the teachings of Buddhism and so I thought I might find some insight, even comfort, in Ms Chodron’s words.


And I did, but this is not a “hand-holding,” “feel good” book. It’s blunt in its view of life as, I suppose, Buddhism tends to be. The feel of the whole was, to me, “suck it up and soldier on.” But do so with the insights of Buddhism and an enlightened point-of-view. And so when facing one of those inevitable times when we are losing it all, we can find an understanding of what we’re feeling when Ms Chodron says:


We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.


She illustrates this by describing a pivotal moment in her life when things fell apart. In her youth, her husband left her and she felt that loss of her whole world with anger and fear. But out of that experience she found Buddhism, a new life and a new vocation. She eventually became thankful for the experience, and that is a major theme of the book—the idea that life is all beginnings and endings. If we can understand that, and accept it, we can go a long way in coping with the bad times.


Fear is what we’re trying to cope with in those bad times. As she stated in the above quote, we are afraid of loneliness, death, and aimlessness. She asks us to understand that at the start of the book, and then goes on to offer insight to help us deal with it. She states what her whole book is about when she says:


What we’re talking about is getting to know fear, becoming familiar with fear, looking it right in the eye—not as a way to solve problems, but as a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking.


I could go on and on with such quotes—there are so many quotable passages in this book. Also ideas that have helped me. Such as that things are just not what we think they are; we really don’t know anything and so we must be careful in our judgments, even judgments as to what is good and what is bad (see chapter 1). Because we never know how things will turn out.


When in emotional pain, people tend to return to those places they’ve found comfort in the past. There are times, though, when those places fail us, or don’t offer enough comfort. If you’re at such a place, then this book might be of help. It is likely to be, if you can understand and accept the basic cause of our unhappiness according to Buddhism. Ms Chodron states it as:


Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly.


From there, you can go on to find out what you can do in your life to address samsara. And if you can find, ironically, that chasing happiness does not bring happiness, and running from pain does not eliminate pain, then you’ll be at a point where this book can help.