When Things Fall Apart
“When Things Fall Apart” is a short, pithy collection of essays by esteemed Buddhist nun and spiritual guide Pema Chodron about facing the difficult things in life, whatever they may be.
Although Chodron sometimes discusses specific situations, and occasionally gives specific examples, sometimes rather amusing ones of her inability to live up to her own aspirations, for the most part these essays are focused on general issues that can be applied to whatever your specific situation happens to be. The book opens with “Intimacy with Fear” and continues with discussions of how to face life when things fall apart, figuratively or literally, and how to deal with the things that everyone will face, such as suffering and loneliness.
In the way of Buddhist teachings, the writing and instruction tends towards the spare, constantly pushing the reader/practitioner back onto their own devices. As Chodron says in the chapter on “Hopelessness and Death”:
“We are all inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves. We sometimes think that dharma is something outside of ourselves–something to believe in, something to measure up to. However, dharma isn’t a belief; it isn’t dogma. It is total appreciation of impermanence and change.”
Throughout the collection, Chodron gently exhorts the reader to be one with the moment, to give up on the idea of an external babysitter that will take care of everything for them, instead accepting that what they have right now is what they have right now. Readers may or may not find that comforting, but those going through hard times–and everyone goes through hard times–may find it a welcome antidote to the constant calls to be optimistic and look on the bright side. Not that Chodron’s writing is pessimistic, but the Buddhist approach to difficulty is to face it square on and accept it for what it is, rather than dressing it up or hiding from it, something that can be a refreshing change for Western readers. All in all, a short and simple introduction to some important concepts in Buddhist thought, from one of its leading contemporary practitioners.