Books: Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart”, as reviewed by Pranada Devi
We live in an increasingly difficult time on the planet, as well as for many people on an individual level. What we do with these difficulties – or don’t do – marks how much we are willing to grow and learn from the places that scare us, and how much we can continue to serve and heal a suffering planet.
As Pema Chodron explains in her book “When Things Fall Apart”, when something unexpected happens – abandonment, loss of a job, bereavement, betrayal, or even smaller things like a bad grade, public embarrassment – our world can literally fall away. In those moments, we may actually come much closer to reality.
Chodron writes that when we are in moments of fear, “we habitually spin off and freak out […] We feel it coming and check out. […] Sometimes, however, we are cornered; everything falls apart, and we run out of options for escape. At times like that, the most profound spiritual truths seem pretty straightforward and ordinary. There’s nowhere to hide.”
She goes on to contend that from a certain point of view, “the only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep.”
Kindly and with gentle humor, Chodron guides the reader through the moments of anxiety (or abject terror) that arise when something we thought we knew turns out not to be so. She emphasizes the need for compassion and tenderness with these places in ourselves, not to judge or flip out or run away from the discomfort. She notes her teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche advised students to “lean in to the sharp places” – to be all the more present with and willing to feel the things we least want to feel.
“When Things Fall Apart” discusses the human tendency to want to engage in some sort of sensation to escape the present moment as a kind of addiction. This book can be of particular help to those who struggle with borderline or full-fledged addictions of any kind. They can learn to sit with the discomfort that lies at the root of the desire to engage with whatever substance or tendency it may happen to be, instead of obeying the ingrained desire to escape. It also helps us find compassionate understanding for addicts, recognizing that all of us carry the potential to become addicted. We too are addictive in our desire to escape the fullness of the present moment.
“To stay with the shakiness – to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge – that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic – this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. […] Every day we could think about the aggression in the world.
Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to add to the aggression in the world? […] Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?'”
“When Things Fall Apart” is a compassionate guide to ending the war within, and so easing the suffering on the earth.
Pranada Devi is a communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She is the Managing Editor of Parvati Magazine, and serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects.