When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron Book Notes & Review

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My Rating: 8/10 Find it On Amazon

My Bottom Line Thoughts

I thought this book by Pema Chodron the Tibetan Buddhist monk was awesome. 

The reason I really liked it was because it was real and based on experience.

It wasn’t a philosophy or opinion but real-life teachings and wisdom about how to meet things head-on when they are hard to bear or your life falls apart.

Some of the key points that stuck with me are:

  • When things fall apart, you have no ground underneath you, and you are cornered into a situation where there is no escape and you’re up against your demons, these moments offer the greatest amounts of opportunity to break through although it takes time to be able to face them head-on
  • True discoveries have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die continually to your own delusion and face reality 
  • The spiritual path is not about theories, opinions, or sunshine and rainbows. It’s about developing the courage to stay with shakiness, a broken heart, fear, hopelessness, and meeting these tough moments head-on without closing off or panicking. Developing the ability to relax amidst chaos so you can rest in the space of don’t know. 
  • The teacher is in our everyday lives and everyday moments. Everything that arises is enlightened wisdom if we can see things clearly. 
  • When we can notice our dualistic opinions and thinking and drop them and come back to the present moment in our body we enter a different world

Summary Notes 

1: Intimacy with Fear

  • Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth
  • If we want to go beneath the surface and practice without hesitation, it is inevitable that at some point we will experience fear
  • If we commit to staying right where we are, then our experience becomes very vivid. Things become very clear when there is nowhere to escape
  • We are talking about getting to know fear, becoming familiar with it, and looking it right in the eye-not as a way to solve problems-but as a complete undoing of the old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking. The truth is that when we really begin to do this, were going to be continually humbled
  • The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually
  • If we become so intimate with fear dramas will collapse and the world around you will finally get through
  • Sometimes we are cornered and everything falls apart and we run out of options to escape. At times like that, the most profound spiritual truths seem pretty straightforward. There’s nowhere to hide. Fear will introduce us to all the teachings we have read.
  • We are going to discover again and again that nothing is what we thought. The words that we use such as courage, love, mindfulness, fear, compassion are code words for things we don’t know in our minds, but any of us can experience them. These words only point to what life really is when we let things fall apart and become nailed to the present moment

2: When Things Fall Apart

  • You will get to a place when everything falls apart. All the ways you shield and delude yourself and maintain a positive self image will fall apart. No matter how hard you try you won’t be able to manipulate the situation.
  • When you have made good friends with yourself, your situation will be more friendly too
  • When the bottom falls out and we can’t find anything to grasp it hurts a lot
  • When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality
  • Healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, relief, for misery, and joy
  • Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all
  • We don’t really know anything. We call something bad or good but we really just don’t know
  • Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly
  • We will get to the point where we instinctively know that annihilation of the old dependent, clinging self is the only way to go forward
  • To stay with shakiness-to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge-that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic- this is the spiritual path
  • All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy and the pain escalates forever. We could reflect on this and ask ourselves “am i going to add to the aggression in the world?” Everyday at the moment when things get edgy, we can pause and ask ourselves “am i going to practice peace, courage, and truth or will I just lash out in war”

3: This Very Moment is the Perfect Teacher

  • Each day we are given many opportunities to open up or shut down. The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening. It’s gone too far. We feel bad about ourselves. There’s no way to manipulate the situation to come out looking good. No matter how hard we try, it just won’t work. Basically, life has just nailed us.
  • Reaching our limit is not some kind of punishment. It’s actually a sign of health that, when we meet the place where we are about to die, we feel fear and trembling. A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. Things like disappointment and anxiety are messengers telling us that we’re about to go into unknown territory
  • We can meet our match with a raging guard dog or poodle but the real question is what happens next?
  • How do we work with our minds when we meet our match? Rather than indulge or reject our experience we can somehow let the energy of the emotion, the quality of what we’re feeling pierce us to the heart
  • One would think that after starting to see your problems and how they function more clearly that they would immediately disappear, but they don’t. So for quite a long time, we just see things clearly. To the degree that we’re willing to see our indulging and our repressing clearly they begin to wear themselves out. Wearing out is not exactly the same as going away. Instead, a wider, more generous, more enlightened perspective arises

4: Relax As It Is

  • Someone did a dance about the mind process. The dancer came and sat on stage in the meditation posture. In a few seconds thoughts of passion began to arise. The dancer moved through the process becoming more and more frenzied as just a tiny glimpse of passion began to escalate until it was full blown sexual fantasy. Then a small bell rang, and a calm voice said “thinking” and the dancer relaxed back into the meditation posture. About five seconds later, the dance of rage began, again starting as a small irritation and then exploding more and more wildly. Then came the dance of loneliness, then the dance of drowsiness, and each time the bell would ring, and the voice would say “thinking” and the dancer would simply relax for a little longer and a little longer into what began to feel like the immense peace and spaciousness of simply sitting there
  • It’s important to remind ourselves that meditation is about opening and relaxing with whatever arises, without picking or choosing or trying to control or manipulate. No repression or grasping. 
  • Point is not to try to get rid of thoughts or emotions but to see their true nature

5: It’s Never Too Late

  • It is said that we can’t attain enlightenment, let alone feel contentment and joy, without seeing who we are and what we do, without seeing our patterns and our habits. This is called maitri-developing loving-kindness and an unconditional friendship with ourselves
  • It’s not that we pat ourselves on the back and say, you’re the greatest or don’t worry sweetheart, everything is going to be fine. Rather it’s a process by which self deception become so skillfully and compassionately exposed that there’s no mask that can hide us anymore
  • We are not trying to solve a problem or striving to make pain go away or become a better person. We are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart
  • Behind all the planning and worrying, behind all the wishing and wanting, picking and choosing, the unfabricated, wisdom mind of rikpa is always here. Whenever we stop talking to ourselves it is here
  • The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face. When we feel resentment because the room is too hot or cold, or it’s raining, or a storm shaking our windows, or we are sick and disgusting, instead of running from it we can open our minds and face it, feel it, and learn what it’s like to be alive
  • Being preoccupied with our self image is like being deaf and blind. Like standing in a vast field of wildflowers with a black hood over our head or coming upon a tree of singing birds while wearing earplugs. This is how disgusting and backwards the ego is.

6: Not Causing Harm

  • Learning to not cause harm to ourselves or others is a basic Buddhist teaching of the healing power of nonaggression
  • It’s painful to face how we harm others, and it takes a while
  • Through refraining we see that there’s something between the arising of the craving-or the aggression or loneliness-and whatever action we take as a result. There’s something there in us that we don’t want to experience, and we never do experience, because we’re so quick to act
  • When we’ve seen ourselves completely, there’s a stillness of body that is like a mountain. We no longer get jumpy and have to scratch our noses, pull our ears, punch somebody, go running from the room, or drink ourselves into oblivion. A thoroughly good relationship with ourselves results in being still, which doesn’t mean we don’t run and jump and dance about. It means there’s no compulsiveness. We don’t overwork, overeat, oversmoke, overseduce. In short, we begin to stop causing harm.
  • When our speech is tamed, when we speak it communicates instead of wasting the gift of speech expressing our neurosis

7: Hopelessness and Death

  • When we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path.
  • Trying to get lasting security teaches us a lot, because if we never try to do it, we never notice that it can’t be done. When we realize it’s hopeless to try to get ground under our feet we are moving forward on the path
  • Fear of death is the background of the whole thing. It’s why we feel restless, why we panic, why there’s anxiety. But if we totally experience hopelessness, giving up hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives

8: Eight Worldly Dharmas

  • Becoming immersed in the four pairs of opposites- pleasure and pain, loss and gain, fame and disgrace, and praise and blame- is what keeps us stuck in the pain of samsara
  • Most of our mood swings are related to how we interpret what happens. If we look closely at our mood swings, we’ll notice that something always sets them off. We carry around a subjective reality that triggers our emotional reactions
  • The irony is that we make up the eight worldly dharmas in reaction to what happens to us in the world. They are nothing concrete in themselves and even more strange is that we are not that solid either. We have a concept of ourselves that we reconstruct moment by moment and try to protect
  • We can notice how what begins as a simple thought and quality of energy quickly blossoms into full blown pleasure and pain. We like to ensure that everything will come out in our favor but when we really look, we’re going to see that we have no control over what occurs at all. We have all kinds of mood swings and emotional reactions which come and go endlessly

9: Six Kinds of Loneliness

  • To have no reference point would be to change a deep seated habitual response to the world: wanting to make it work out one way or the other. If I can’t go left or right I will die! When we don’t go left or right, we feel like we are in a detox center. We’re alone cold turkey with all the edginess that we’ve been trying to avoid by going left or right. That edginess can feel pretty heavy
  • We keep moving around seeking pleasure, seeking comfort, and the satisfaction that we get is very short lived
  • The process of becoming unstuck requires tremendous bravery, because basically we are completely changing our way of perceiving reality, like changing DNA. We are undoing a pattern that is not just our pattern. It’s the human pattern: we project onto the world a zillion possibilities of attaining resolution. We can have whiter teeth, a weed-free lawn, a strife-free life, a world without embarrassment. We can live happily ever after. This pattern keeps us dissatisfied and causes us a lot of suffering
  • To the degree that we’ve been avoiding uncertainty, we’re naturally going to have withdrawal symptoms-withdrawal from always thinking there’s a problem and that someone, somewhere, needs to fix it.
  • The experience of certain feelings can seem particularly pregnant with desire for resolution: loneliness, boredom, anxiety. Unless we can relax with these feelings its very hard to stay in the middle when we experience them
  • The Japanese poet Ryokan says “If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things”.
  • We can sit still long enough to realize it’s how things really are. We are fundamentally alone, and there is nothing anywhere to hold on to. Moreover, this is not a problem. In fact, it allows us to finally discover a completely unfabricated state of being. Our habitual assumptions keep us from seeing anything in a few open way
  • When you wake up in the morning and out of nowhere comes the heartache of alienation and loneliness, could you use that as a golden opportunity? Rather than persecuting yourself or feeling that something terribly wrong is happening, right there in the moment of sadness and longing, could you relax and touch the limitless space of the human heart? The next time you get a chance experiment with this

10: Curious About Existence

  •  There are 3 truths of our existence: impermanence, suffering, and egolessness
  • There’s nothing wrong with these things in fact they can be celebrated as joyful when seen clearly 
  • Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality
  • Suffering is based on our fear of impermanence and resistance to feeling life
  • Egolessness is our natural state when we don’t cover it up with our shields
  • When were not so concerned with ourselves egolessness shines out 
  • Ego can be defined as whatever covers up basic goodness
  • Egolessness is a state of mind that has complete confidence in the sacredness of the world

11: Non Aggression and the Four Maras

  • What we habitually regard as obstacles are not really our enemies, but rather our friends. What we call obstacles are really the way the world and our entire experience teach us where we’re stuck. What may appear to be an arrow or a sword we can actually experience as a flower. Whether we experience what happens to us as an obstacle and enemy or as teacher and friend depends entirely on our perception of reality.
  • The only enemy is that we don’t like the way reality is now and therefore wish it would go away fast. But what we find as practitioners is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. We can run to the other side of the continent but we will find the same obstacle waiting for us there. It keeps returning with new names, forms, and manifestations until we learn what it has to teach us about how we are resisting reality.
  • 4 maras: 
    • 1. Devaputra mara– seeking pleasure, when we feel embarrassed or awkward or feel pain we run to try to get comfortable
    • 2. Skhanda mara– Addiction to avoiding pain, when pain arises we reach again and again for something that will blot it out
    • 3. Klesha mara– strong emotions, a simple feeling will arise and instead of simply letting it be there we panic. We weave our thoughts into a storyline which gives rise to bigger emotions. Instead of letting it be there and opening we add to it and inflame it
    • 4. Yama mara– fear of death, from an awakened perspective trying to tie up all your loose ends and have everything together is death because it involves rejecting your present experiences

12: Growing Up

  • From the beginning to the end pointing to our own hearts to discover what is true isn’t just a matter of honesty but also of compassion and respect for what we see
  • The reason there are talks and books are to encourage us to understand this teaching: all the wisdom about how we cause ourselves to suffer and all the wisdom about how joyful and vast and uncomplicated our minds are- these two things, the understanding of what we call neurosis and wisdom of unconditioned, unbiased truth-can only be found in our own experience
  • 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 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

13: Widening the Circle of Compassion

  • The essence of compassionate speech or action is to be there for people, without pulling back in horror or fear or anger
  • What we reject outside is what we reject in ourselves. If we find ourselves unworkable and give up on ourselves, then we’ll find others unworkable and give up on them. What we hate in ourselves we will hate in others. To the degree we have compassion for ourselves we will also have compassion for others
  • Can our minds and hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we’re not entirely certain about who’s right and who’s wrong?
  • Trying to find absolute rights and wrongs is a trick we play on ourselves to feel secure and comfortable
  • If we are willing through life and meditation to be mindful not only of what feels comfortable but what feels painful then something begins to change
  • We can begin to contemplate that there is a larger alternative to either of those, a more tender shaky place where we could live
  • If we can touch this place it will help train us throughout our lives to open further to what we feel rather than shut down. As we celebrate this and accept the things that felt impossible before something will start to change permanently in us. Our habitual patterns will soften and we will begin to see the faces and hear the words of people we are talking to

14: The Love That Will Not Die

  • When inspiration becomes 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, fear, of feeling misunderstood or rejected is the heartbeat of all things
  • Just as a jewel that has been buried in the earth for millions of years is not discolored or harmed, in the same way this noble heart is not affected by all of our kicking and screaming
  • We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole. This separateness becomes like a prison for us, a prison that restricts us to our personal hopes and fears and to caring only for the people nearest to us
  • Unwise selfish people think only of themselves and the result is pain and confusion. Wise selfish people know that the best thing they can do for themselves is to be there for others. They experience great joy.
  • When we see a woman and her child begging on the street, a man beating his terrified dog, a teenager who has been beaten badly or see fear in the eyes of a child, do we turn away because we can’t bear it?
  • When something is precious, instead of holding it tightly, we can open and share it 
  • Rumi writes of night travelers who search the darkness instead of running from it to know their fear. In the tenderness of pain itself, night travelers discover the light. 
  • We keep having the courage to step into the pain, into the reality of the world, right besides everyone else with no separation and in the thick of things we discover the love that will not die

15: Going Against the Grain

  • Tonglen: breath in others and our pain and breath out relaxation, love, or whatever we feel will bring relief
  • Use the poison as medicine and take it in for all the people suffering the same problems
  • Use your personal suffering as a path to compassion for all beings 
  • As you practice tonglen more you will be more and more able to be there for other people in their suffering

16: Servants of Peace

  • Prajna is a way of seeing that continually dissolves any tendency to use things to get ground under our feet, a kind of bullshit detector that protects us from becoming righteous
  • The real transformation in giving takes place when we let go of our attachments and give away what we think we can’t. What we do on the outer level has the power to loosen up deep-rooted patterns of holding on to ourselves
  • To the degree we can give like this we can communicate this ability to others. This is called giving the gift of fearlessness
  • What we work on disciplining is any form of  escape from reality because if we really rest in reality it will show us it’s magic over time
  • The more we sit with impossibility the more we find it’s always possible after all

17: Opinions

  • When we hold on to our opinions with aggression, no matter how valid our cause, we are simply adding more aggression to the planet, and violence and pain increase. Cultivating nonaggression is cultivating peace.
  • All ego really is is our opinions which we hold to be solid and absolute truth about how things are. To see that we do have opinions and have a few seconds of doubt about our opinions introduces us to the possibility of egolessness
  • We can let the opinions go and come back to the immediacy of our experience. We can come back to looking at someone’s face in front of us, tasting our coffee, or whatever we are doing. If we can see our opinions as opinions and let them go we may discover that we are in a brand new world, that we have new eyes and ears
  • We can also begin to realize how solid we make things and how easy it is to get into war in which we want our opinions to win and someone else’s to lose. It’s especially tempting to do this when engaged in social action
  • It’s up to us to sort out what is opinion and what is fact. Then we can see intelligently. The more clearly we can see things without our own opinions clouding them the more powerful our speech and actions will be
  • If you find yourself becoming too aggressive about your opinions, notice that. If you find yourself being non aggressive, notice that too. Cultivating a mind that does not grasp at right and wrong, you will find a fresh state of being. The ultimate cessation of suffering comes from that. Finally, never give up on yourself then you will never give up on others.

18: Secret Oral Instructions

  • We can kid ourselves for a while about how we understand meditation and wisdom teaching but at some point we have to face our suffering. None of what we’ve learned seems relevant when our lover leaves us, when our child has a tantrum at the store, when we are insulted by a colleague or experience intense fear we can’t escape from.
  • The place of the squeeze is the very point in our meditation and our lives where we can really learn something and make meaningful change
  • The next time there’s no ground to stand on dont consider it an obstacle. Consider it a remarkable stroke of luck. We have no ground to stand on and at the same time it could soften us and inspire us
  • When she was a child she had a picture book called lives of the saints. It was filled with stories of men and women who had never had an angry or mean thought and had never hurt a fly. I found the book totally useless as a guide for how we humans were supposed to live a good life. For her, the life of milarepa is a lot more instructive. Milarepa was a murderer who wanted to be free and atone for his errors. Like most of us, he frequently fell flat on his face

19: 3 Methods for Working with Chaos

  • The main point of these methods is to dissolve the dualistic struggle, our habitual tendency to struggle against what’s happening to us or in us. These methods instruct us to move toward difficulties rather than back away We don’t get this kind of encouragement often
  • 1. No more struggle– whatever arises we look at it with a non judgemental attitude and inviting what scares us to introduce itself and stay for a while
  • 2. Using poison as medicine– we use difficult situations as fuel for waking up, everything that occurs is usable and workable and actually the path itself
  • 3. Seeing whatever arises as enlightened wisdom– try to learn not to split ourselves between our good and bad side or pure or impure side. 
  • Whether we regard our situation as heaven or hell depends on our perception 
  • Practice relaxing and lightening up. Bring in humor and do this when we meditate as well

20: The Trick of Choicelessness

  • We don’t experience the world fully unless we are willing to give everything away. Samaya means not holding anything back, not preparing our escape route, not looking for alternatives, not thinking that there is ample time for doing things later
  • Even if every inch of our being wants to run in the opposite direction, we stay here. There is no other way to enter the sacred world. We have to stop thinking that we can get away and settle somewhere else. Instead we can just relax with exhaustion, indigestion, insomnia, irritation, delight or whatever
  • The things we see all the time can pop us out of the cycle of samsara 
  • Our experience is the ultimate teacher and our teacher is not separate from our experience
  • Very few of us ever allow ourselves to be in a situation that doesnt have at least a teensy-weensy little exit, a place where we can get out if we have to 
  • Somehow, feeling that we are ready to have no exit just occurs by itself
  • To what do we really commit ourselves? Is it to playing it safe and manipulating our life and world so that it will give us security? Or is our commitment to deeper and deeper levels of truth. Do we take refuge in small self satisfied actions, speech, and mind or do we take refuge in warriorship, in taking a leap, in going beyond our usual safety zones

21: Reversing the Wheel of Samsara

  • Usually we feel that there’s a large problem and we have to fix it. The instruction is to stop. Do something unfamiliar. Do anything besides rushing off in the same old direction, up to the same old tricks.
  • Until we stop clinging to the concept of good and evil, the world will continue to manifest as friendly goddesses and harmful demons
  • The source of wisdom is whatever is happening right now or today
  • There are two ways to go to the gas chamber, free or not free. This is our choice at every moment. Do we relate with bitterness or openness?
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Josh is a writer and entrepreneur who runs a small digital content publishing business. His main interests are in topics related to developing personal and financial freedom. When not working he enjoys reading, yoga, surfing, being outdoors, meditating, exploring, and hanging with friends.