Pema Chödrön

When Things Fall Apart

“When the rivers and air are polluted, when families and nations are at war, when homeless wanderers fill the highways, these are traditional signs of a dark age. Another is that people become poisoned by self-doubt and become cowards.”

Peace and happiness will have a reckoning, the poets tell us.

“Things fall apart” cried the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats during First World War, “The centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…” Around the same time T. S. Eliot served us trees without shade, half a century after Rimbaud pierced the veil of comfort.1

Whether a mix of personal despair or a reflection of world decay, our quest for peace and contentment must have a reckoning.

Things fall apart.

Through that crumbling space, Buddhist nun and spiritual guide, Pema Chödrön (born July 14, 1936) offers us a guide: When Things Fall Apart.2

When the rivers and air are polluted, when families and nations are at war, when homeless wanderers fill the highways, these are traditional signs of a dark age. Another is that people become poisoned by self-doubt and become cowards.

It begins with fear, fear as a signpost, fear as a gateway. Fear, according to Chödrön, is soul-hollowing groundlessness.3

What we’re talking about is getting to know fear, becoming familiar with fear, looking it right in the eye – not as a way to solve problems, but as a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking. the truth is that when we really begin to do this, we’re going to be continually humbled.

For the fear to be embraced, one must summon an abundance of personal tenderness. “I learned to forgive myself first” wrote Maya Angelou in her open letter of love.

Like Angelou, Chödrön admits that When Things Fall Apart was the product of facing her self with open arms.4

This is where the tenderness comes in. 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 the 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. There is definitely something tender and throbbing about groundlessness.5

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
British artist Charlie Mackesy, author of the now-iconic The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, leaves signed books and drawings around England, where they will be seen and where people will feel loved. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The magic of Chödrön’s work is not so much what she tells us to do but rather, how to do it.

She sits in the fear with us, by going through practice of meditation, the understanding of the Buddhist approach to contentment (like the concept of bodhichitta, a tenderness for life) and what it actually means to relate to others compassionately.

To do this requires openness, which in Buddhism is sometimes called emptiness6 – not fixating or holding on to anything. Only in an open, nonjudgmental space can we acknowledge what we are feeling. Only in an open space where we’re not all caught up in our own version of reality can we see and hear and feel who others really are, which allows us to be with them and communicate with them properly.

Photo of Pema Chödrön for Chödrön's "When Things Fall Apart" in the Examined Life Library.
Pema Chödrön. Courtesy of Shambhala Publications.

By lingering in the cracks, in the pockets of time before being and becoming, Chödrön delivers some of her most beautiful writing. It is from which I offer you this single, critical thought:

Peace is not the opposite of war, it is the well-being that comes when we see infinite pairs of opposites as complementary. If there is beauty, there must be ugliness. If there is right, there must be wrong. Cultivating moment-to-moment curiosity, we just might find that day to day this kind of peace dawns on us.

Eroding sand dunes. Featured in Pema Chödrön's "When Things Fall Apart" in the Examined Life Library.
As these dunes erode my heart weeps. And yet, they are stunning as they fall apart. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Peace is the presence of all things and therefore suffering is a critical part of peace.7

In her almost journalistic account of California in the 1960s, Joan Didion said it was the first time she became aware of the “atomization of things” as a line, a circle that is made up of points. A society is made up of points, its people. Every relationship, points.

Wislawa Szymborska - Here
Human reflections in the dome of the British Museum. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

What Chödrön is actually doing, perhaps unwittingly, is softly challenging our assumption that a cohesive whole is the best thing.

In his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus presented a wasteland of his own and in that place he imagined laughter. Well, derision, but still.

I thought of Sisyphus when reading Chödrön, an unlikely companion, perhaps. But both argue for letting go of one’s most deeply held positions, even if that position is the quest for peace and happiness. A quest to hold everything together.

Instead of making others right or wrong, or bottling up right and wrong in ourselves, there’s a middle way, a very powerful middle way. We could see it as sitting on the razor’s edge, not falling off to the right or the left. This middle way involves not hanging on to our version so tightly. It involves keeping our hearts and minds open long enough to entertain the idea that when we make things wrong, we do it out of a desire to obtain some kind of ground or security… Could our minds and our 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?

The goal is not to stop pushing the boulder up the hill. The goal is to accept that we must push the boulder up the hill. And laugh, suggests Camus, or, urges Chödrön, soften and love.

The path is the goal. All pieces are whole. Love is the answer.