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When Things Fall Apart

I have been and still am a “fan” of Buddhism. I think I am allowed to be that and still be an Episcopalian. I think it started listening to Tim Ferris’s talk about the benefits of meditation. I’m not ready to fly to Tibet and renounce all of my earthly possessions, but I do think there are some interesting ways of thinking about things that the Buddhist tradition has to offer.

So it was when I started reading Reboot that I was interested in Jerry’s connection to what he learned from his teacher and added a few of the books he mentioned to my to-read list. It was only a few days later that I found myself in the place where the universe gives me a sign of what to read next when I saw one of the books on the shelf: When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.

I am not struggling right with anything specifically right now, but that’s not what this book is about. While it can help you with a crisis, although probably not if you read it in the middle of one, the essays in this book more wake you up to the idea that things are falling apart all the time. That’s the way of things. Living is dying. It’s only our clinging to the way they are or the way we think they should be that causes problems.

We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off-limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.

There were a few essays that stood out to me. Three for ideas I found helpful and even comforting. And one that I am still struggling with.

The first in the helpful / comforting category is “The Six Kinds of Loneliness”. The message in this essay resonated with me since it gets right to the heart of how I feel before I start to subconsciously (although more a more, day by day I can at least notice it) look for a distraction.

Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we invite in….

…When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and rolling loneliness the turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.

The 6 kinds of this cool loneliness are:

  • Less desire: the willingness to be be lonely without resolution when everything in us yearns for something to cheer us up
  • Contentment: giving up the feeling that there is being able escape from our loneliness will bring any lasting happiness, joy or sense of well being
  • Avoiding unnecessary activity: notice when we are keeping ourselves busy simply as a way to avoid the pain of being lonely
  • Complete discipline: being ready at any opportunity to come back to the present moment
  • Not wandering the world of desire: noticing when we look for food, friends, entertainment and instead relating directly to things as they are
  • Not seeking security from one’s discursive thoughts: not hiding in the joy of our own inner dialog when things get lonely.

The second helpful essay was about Nonaggression and the Four Maras. This one spoke to me since it gave a label to all the ways I have tried to hide various fears and avoid what is in front of me. The four maras are:

  • Devaputura Mara involves seeking pleasure.
  • Skandha Mara has to do with how we constantly try to reinvent ourselves.
  • Klesha Mara is all about how we use our emotions to stay asleep.
  • Yama Mara is fear of death.

I have been visited by all of these Maras at various times and have not responded well. I think that knowing their names will help me see them more easily…and invite them to tea.

The final helpful / comforting essay was the final one in the book called The Path is the Goal. This was a nice wrap up that basically says…where ever you go, there you will be. The path is not preset. There isn’t a manual. The path presents itself in each moment and our only job is to be awake in that moment and do the best we can. Everything is a teacher.

The one chapter I struggled with was on Hopelessness and Death. Big surprise, eh? It actually wasn’t so much the death part as the hopelessness. Chodron seems to be arguing in favor of taking up the position of hopelessness, as it represents a rejection of how things are and/or a clinging to an idea of how they might be. Perhaps its my “American” showing through, but I struggle with the idea of hopelessness being a superior position to having and hope. How would anything ever get better if people had no hope. No clear idea of a better tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but I also know that things are better by many measures today than they were 200 years ago largely based on hope and skill. Perhaps I am missing the point. Or I still have some more work to do. Both are probably true.

Overall, I enjoyed When Things Fall Apart very much and would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the pathless path, the groundless ground and the ways we think ourselves into knots.

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