Life is not a steady race. There are a lot of ups and downs, and they are scary! One day, you think everything is on the right track, things are going smooth, then all of a sudden, things fall apart, and if you want to keep moving, there is only one choice, keep fighting… What if we try to understand what the current situation is trying to teach us before blaming it on something, or slightly distracting us from the thoughts by seeking refuge in pleasure-inducing additions or habits to numb the pain! How about taking it all in, all the discomfort? It is painful but what if understanding the situation and embracing it could change the way we react to hardships in life, that eases the pain where we could easily move on without the need to linger? The book “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” talks about building this mindset, on how to deal with difficult times in life, and the author Pema Chödrön shows examples from her life as a Buddhist nun on learning these hard lessons.
I think, before spilling any of my opinions on a great piece of literature, I need to specify where I stand in the midst of all. From an outsider’s perspective, my life is great, full of adventures and success. I do have a lot of things to celebrate, I am extremely happy and grateful for that. But then there are demons, like everyone. I had always struggled with finding happiness, even in my childhood. As someone who grew up with ‘Anxiety’, even the smallest of struggles had taken a huge toll on me. I am slowly getting better at dealing with all that, but there is this constant image of a storm whenever life is a bit calm. Like I am constantly waiting for the next big fall and completely forgetting to live in the present moment. It is a recurring theme. As someone who constantly tries to fix everything, I needed to ground myself and try to understand my emotions and feelings on a deeper level. It is a work in progress, but I am trying hard.
I found “When things fall apart” about a month ago, into my two-years-anniversary of my life in Europe. I was struggling financially and then mentally by worrying about it. After almost half a year of painful job search and foreign language classes, I finally started at the dream job I wanted. Suddenly, everything felt great. I thought my life is on the right track. After two weeks into the job, the demons are back, this time with different reasons. I started feeling the anxiety again; thoughts were slowly churning up in my stomach and sliding up my throat..! It wasn’t easy… The words from Pema Chödrön felt like a sigh of relief. That’s how I would explain this book. It felt like the fresh deep breath you take in a cold winter morning, the smell of the first rain of the season, or the warmth of the fire in the dead of the night. The lessons are told gently, step by step, slowly encompassing the entirety of the ‘Human condition’. The basic idea is simple:
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
(Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart)
This idea is not new to me. It is the same message that is always repeated in my meditation classes. To simply acknowledge ‘thinking’ as thinking and ‘feeling ‘as feeling and let it pass. Putting it into practice is not easy. It takes a great deal of acceptance, not just for the idea to sink in, but it is not easy to tame our minds. If we allow it, it has the potential to twist and turn in any direction. But that is also the strength and realizing that the ultimate power belongs to us makes a huge difference. And this idea is well said in the book. The need for looking within when life is messy… Whenever I am having a difficult time, my first response is to numb the pain. It can go in many ways. Maybe not to the extreme as using alcohol or drugs, but calling a friend and talking about a completely different topic to take my mind off things is also an escape; an escape from addressing the problem, looking at it directly in the eye, and dealing with it. Whenever things fall apart, Pema Chödrön suggests sitting in that discomfort, try to understand what each situation has to offer because they are trying to teach us something.
“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know, nothing ever really attacks us except our own confusion, and fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth” (Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart).
Maybe you wonder how unrealistic and philosophical these messages are. May they are. But then comes your need to cross-analyze everything and you see, there is a point in that. Some of these ideas are beyond my comprehension. Inexperience in trying to understand spiritual ideas is one reason for this, but there is a huge difference between what we live as our ‘truth’ and our idea of what ‘truth’ looks like. Recently I had a conversation about this with a close friend of mine, and she had the opinion that we never accept something as truth until we actually live it. We can absorb ideas, be inspired by them, aspire that to be a part of our life, but ‘Acceptance’ happens on a whole different level. It requires our ‘thinking’, ‘feeling’ and ‘acting’ to come together on the same mindset. And to get there, it requires patience and practice, and a lot of time. The book talks about opening our minds to the bigger perspective, towards us and others around us, because “our opinions of us and others are simply our take on reality” (Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart). It is not a sudden jump to clarity but a journey through confusion. It is about being fearless to remove our masks, and according to Pema Chödrön, “the more we connect with the bigger perspective, the more we connect with energetic joy“.
When was the last time you removed yourself from everyone and thought “this only happens to me, I am the only one struggling this way and no one’s gonna get it…“..? ‘Kindness’ is the important keyword here. When we are kind enough to open our hearts towards ourselves and others, we understand that we are not that different from everyone. According to the book:
“The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes. Then this experience of opening our worlds benefits ourselves and others simultaneously. The more we relate with others, the more we quickly discover where we are blocked, where we are unkind, afraid, shut down”
(Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart).
I am quite unsure if I will ever get to live these ideas. At the moment, they are far beyond my reach and I cannot even pretend to fully grasp any of it. But I think that’s the whole point of life. We may never understand anything fully, the confusions and conflicts are parts of it, and we are constantly learning… Life is full of uncertainties. You never know what is coming next. The author describes life as a state of ‘constant disequilibrium’ and it makes sense. We can forget the philosophical connotations here but strictly from a scientific point of view, anything that is in constant equilibrium is death (Reference: ‘Living systems theory‘ in Engineering and Design). If we can accept it, then we can forget the idea that “we finally gotten it together, we finally tied up all the loose ends, we are happy… and we think that’s life. Such a situation is death, there is no room for fresh air“.
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ” (Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart).
My first reaction after reading these lines was that I don’t want this. I don’t want to be completely thrown out of the nest. But then, the more I think about it, it is not a choice we make, but that’s just how life works. Impermanence is a part of it. From the author’s perspective, “when we recognize impermanence as impermanence, we can notice our reaction to impermanence. This is called mindfulness” (Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart).
This is my biggest takeaway from the book, what I aspire to be my truth one day, with all the willingness to live by dying at all times when things fall apart..!
When things fall apart, don’t see it as the end, it could be a brand new beginning. When things fall apart, remind yourself of courage, bravery, kindness, compassion, discipline, and confidence although you may lack them. When things fall apart, notice your opinions of yourself and others. When things fall apart, just be honest with yourself. When things fall apart, lose the need to protect yourself from feeling the pain because that protection acts as armor and imprisons the softness of our hearts. When things fall apart, give up being perfect, focus on the present moment and live each moment to its fullest!
Written by Sanjay Skar based on the ideas from “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” by Pema Chödrön.