Review: When things fall apart by Pema Chödrön

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Words || James Booth

“I just really want to learn more about Buddhism”. I am sitting on the bed of my partner, and he gleefully hands me a copy of Pema Chödrön’s “When things fall apart”. He is not too keen on me taking it home, but I excitedly pack it away into my overnight bag anyway! The novel is composed of chapters inspired by a box of transcribed talks, given by the author from the years of 1987-1994, which seek to explore two main notions: Firstly the great need for maitri (a loving kindness to oneself), and secondly the notion of inviting in what we usually avoid or “leaning into the sharp points” of life.

The text is written during a 1995 sabbatical, in which Chödrön spent a 12 month period essentially “doing nothing” but navigating her own thoughts and experiences, that she describes as a completely open and uncharted time. It feels strange to be reading a novel released for an audience in the year I was born, Chödrön surely would have had no idea that I would be spending countless bus rides and walks through Sydney’s suburbs reading her words – and yet here we are, I have spent the last two weeks away from work on my own version of a sabbatical after my own world seemed to fall apart. I believe that the beauty of this work lies in the way it offers timeless advice on the very basic notions of human perception and emotional processing.

A simple fact is that I would never have guessed that a book would be the very thing that helped me navigate my breakup, particularly given that I had initially borrowed the book from the very boy who broke up with me. However, my quest to discover more about the Buddhist practices and theology of my mother’s country of origin, meant that the words of Chödrön have been a great aid in processing the grief and hurt of this situation. I don’t have the space to unpack all of the transcribed Buddhist lessons, however I will discuss the lessons I found to be the most healing.

In the second chapter “when things fall apart”, Chödrön alludes to the period of her life when it felt like her whole reality imploded and fell apart…the day in which she found out her husband had been having an affair and now wanted a divorce. While she uses this experience as a means of explaining her motivations to learn more about Buddhism, she touches on the all too familiar feeling of loss we feel when someone or something doesn’t go our way, and I believe that this sets the scene for the rest of the book to explore mindfulnessas a means of overcoming rough periods of your life. Perhaps it is this experience that has drawn me to become hooked on Chödrön’s words, especially given that my own partner had just cheated on me – the cherry on top of an already stressful semester for me, which had to be navigated alongside a perception that my own world had well and truly fallen apart.

It is the late afternoon and I’m reading chapter three “this very moment is the perfect teacher”, this chapter uses the example of Chödrön’s teacher Rinpoche and his childhood interaction with a raging guard dog. In the anecdote the comparison is drawn towards the angry, guard dog as a representation of our fears and anxiety in a present moment. When Rinpoche charges head first at the dog screaming, they are challenging their fear head on and illustrating our own role as agents of change in our lives. As I am reading the line “whether you meet your match with a poodle or with a raging guard dog”, a poodle off the leash at the park I am walking through comes charging at me barking – I utilise the opportunity as a means of applying my new knowledge and calmly kneel down and wait for the poodle to settle down. Its owners are profusely apologising to me, however I am feeling wonderful in this moment because I tackled the fear brought by that raging poodle and convinced that the author is right and that the current moment was the perfect teacher.

Perhaps my favourite lesson within the piece is the Buddhist notion of mindfulness, in which thoughts are not observed or thought of as being inherently good or bad in nature. Rather the thoughts are seen as simply the brain “thinking” and therefore allowing the processing of the emotions and thoughts, but also allowing for the reobtaining of a sense of balance. Should the thoughts be a sense of anxiety about a party; Should they be about the fact you’re going to fail an assignment; or even if the negative and anxious thoughts are concerning your partner’s infidelity. The fact is that these are all just thoughts is such an empowering notion, and something which I will definitely keep using to practice a sense of mindful emotional regulations.

There is something magical about reading something which combines your craving to learn more about your culture, and also the untimely link between Pema Chrödrön’s own experiences and my own. I would highly recommend this book if you have any interest in Buddhist perception and theory, or simply if you feel as if your life is falling apart. I hope that this novel is something which helps you to grow as much as it has done for me.