When Things Fall Apart

Years ago, when I stilled lived in Dallas, I bought a book by Pema Chödrön, an American Tibetan Buddhist monk. A guy I had worked with years before recommended it to me during a phone conversation I initiated to reconnect with him. It took some detective work to track the guy down, but I finally did and I enjoyed the talk. I’ve not spoken to him since and, again, I’ve lost touch with him. And I’ve never finished reading the book he recommended. But I think I still have it on a shelf somewhere. The reason this is on my mind this morning is that I got one of my periodic “push” alerts from Maria Popova and her Brain Pickings newsletter this morning. This issue focused on Chödrön’s book entitled, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Several quotes Popova selected from the book struck me:

Without giving up hope — that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be — we will never relax with where we are or who we are.

“Giving up hope.” Chödrön’s twist on the phrase, coupled with some of her other insights, puts the experience of living life in an entirely different light.  Popova goes on by continuing to quote from the book:

Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.

And later:

What makes maitri [the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness toward oneself] such a different approach is that we are not trying to solve a problem. We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart. This starts with realizing that whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just the same kind of normal human experience that’s been happening to everyday people from the beginning of time. Thoughts, emotions, moods, and memories come and they go, and basic nowness is always here.

Some of these concepts are incredibly easy to grasp, some not so simple. But they seem extremely relevant to me this morning, as I attempt to find that proper, comfortable path between fighting against pain and disease and fear and anger, on the one hand, and accepting all of them, on the other. My pain and my disease and my fear and my anger are not unique to me. In fact, they are as common as leaves on trees. Yet I strive to find ways of coping with these utterly natural phenomena.

Chödrön’s perspectives encourage me to explore other ways of looking at the experience of pain and darkness and the absence of knowledge; and other ways of looking at experience itself. For example:

When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself… In the midst of loneliness, in the midst of fear, in the middle of feeling misunderstood and rejected is the heartbeat of all things.

Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

I have never contributed, financially, to Brain Pickings. Judging from the value I find in Popova’s selection of topics and the way she explores them, I owe it to her and to myself to contribute. And I will.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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