Monday, February 12, 2007

Books: When Things Fall Apart

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
by Pema Chodron

When Things Fall Apart doesn't hold the answers with a capital "A" or preach dogma or threaten consequences if certain instructions aren't followed to the letter. It quietly and non-aggressively suggests an alternative way of thinking and living. This way of thinking has to do with being gentle with yourself and being gentle with whatever situation is throwing you off-balance--whether that situation is as mountainous as the death of a loved one or as quotidian as a rough commute to work. Pema Chodron draws from traditional Buddhist teachings to lay out some essential principles for living in our chaotic and changing world.


My mother gave me a copy of this book years ago. She told me very matter-of-factly that it helped her through one of the worst depressions in her life, had changed the way she thought of herself and the way she lived, and that I should read it at some point. I have dutifully carted it around with me back and forth every semester in college, hauled it out to Portland, and shuffled it back across the country when I moved to Boston. It sat on my shelf beside the other "good for you" books (like What Color Is Your Parachute) that I knew I should probably read at some point. I picked it up a few times, but never really got much further than a few chapters. And
like the good little English major I once was, sentences here or there are dutifully underlined and marked with stars and little margin notes. But something always came up, or I got bored, or another more exciting book showed up at the library, and I never got around to finishing it. My mom never asked about it. I think she knew--as I understand now--that it's a book you have to be ready for. You have to be open to what Pema Chodron is saying and be willing to listen. I just needed to know it was there and that when the time was right, I would read what it had to say.

I found myself in this place this past winter. My work at the Noodle Factory was distinctly lacking in compassionate mindfulness and the Engineer was stressed out with finals and the weather was completely baffling (being both unseasonably warm and also dismally dark) and I was stressed out with money and with that age-old question "How the hell did I get here and where the hell do I think I'm going?" I decided to take When Things Fall Apart to work with me and read
one single chapter every morning before turning on my computer and while the entire office was still empty and silent. An empty office building is a different world and, I found, strangely conducive to meditation. And one chapter from this book is certainly not a bad way to start the day.

At root, the book is about being mindful--mindfulness being the act of being aware and honest and compassionate about what is going on around you and what is going on inside of you and what part you are playing in all of this. Chodron talks about disassociating ideas of "right" and "wrong" with the feelings, emotions, and reactions we are experiencing, and instead just accepting them as a part of the human experience and letting them go. We feel pain and fear when we cling too tightly to our idea of how things ought to be, and Chodron explains that the only way to deal with this pain is to experience it fully and to see it as an opportunity to learn something.

Up until I read this book, much of the Buddhist teachings I have encountered tend to feel a bit inaccessible and all too mysterious to an ordinary person. What's all this double-think of suffering leading to happiness and letting it all go in order to have it all? Why should I embrace hopelessness when what I really want is to feel love and happiness? Like a math equation, so much of Buddhist thinking seems to cancel itself out. This impression was probably a big factor in why it took me so long to get around to reading this book. I often think, "Oh, yeah, sure--if I were living in a monastery without worrying about how I'm going to pay rent and take care of my family and feed myself, I'm sure I could reach enlightenment too!" In the real world, things can seem a bit more complicated. Or at least insurmountable.

But one of the best aspects of this book is how grounded it stays in the real world. Perhaps because she came to Buddhism late in her life and after a difficult divorce, Chodron maintains a strong connection to the real world of bills, broken hearts, and public transit woes in her writing. This makes When Things Fall Apart accessible and understandable in a way
that no other other text has approached. And yet, don't think that Chodron's explanations are so basic and pedantic that you can just breeze through your daily lesson of compassion and mindfulness and open your Outlook inbox without another thought. There is still a lot of that Buddhist double-think that we Westerners find so hard to digest, enough to give your head a good spin. But as I forced myself to read slowly and think through what Chodron was saying, for the first time, I found it all starting to make a certain level of sense. Her basic messages are often relatively straightforward, but the meaning and layers beneath the message may require several re-readings before the subtleties are understood. Often I felt that I grasped the concept for just an instant before it slid away from me, but in a true model of Buddhist patience, I tried not to struggle to regain the understanding and instead imagined it sinking into a little storage container to be examined later.

Some of the accessibility of this book and her other writings also comes from the fact that Pema Chodron is American and a native English speaker. Unlike other Buddhist masters who are well-known in the United States (like Thich Nhat Hahn and
the Dalai Lama), Pema Chodron "speaks" the American culture and language. Since she also had to teach herself how to "think Buddhist," she understands the struggle this presents for the typical Westerner dealing with typical Western dilemmas. Pema Chodron is able to present these Buddhist teachings in a way that makes sense to her American audience and also retains the strength of the original wisdom. Her voice is personal and conversational, as if she's sitting on the couch next to you sharing a cup of tea. Her elegant writing is broken into bite-sized chapters that each focus on one simply-stated message, each able to be read in a sitting.

This is not a book that tries to convince you to become a Buddhist or that this is the only way you will ever be happy. Rather, When Things Fall Apart meets you where you are without judgment or marketing. It's a book to read slowly and carefully, while the office is empty and you have time to close your eyes, lean back in your chair, and take a few deep breaths before you start your day. And when you get to the final chapter and find you've only grasped a fragment of what you read, what's to do but start over at the beginning and read it all again.

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