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You know, when we get a book for someone we hope will help them come to terms with something it sometimes turns out that the giver needs it just as much as the receiver but just didn’t know it. That’s sort of what happened with Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. I borrowed the book from the library for my Bookman who is/was having an MS relapse and I started reading it too because I have been interested in reading Chödrön since I saw her on Bill Moyer’s Faith and Reason program a couple years ago and because, as the many little Buddhas intermingled with the turtles in my study room point out, I have an ongoing fascination with Buddhism. So I happily settled in to read When Things Fall Apart thinking I should know what I gave my Bookman to read but that this isn’t the Chödrön book that is for me.

Within the first few pages I was captured as it became clear that the book was for me too even if things weren’t currently falling apart for me personally. I think the title is deceiving, maybe one of those famous Buddhist jokes or something, because the book is for everyone.

Now, I am not a Buddhist expert so please forgive me if I get things wrong or only half right. In Buddhism everything is transitory and just because as I was reading I thought I had my shit together, it turns out it is not as great a thing as I thought. Because eventually, all the work I put into making things OK falls apart. That’s when we get pain, suffering, unhappiness. And what do we do? We work hard to put everything back together again. Then what we’ve put back together to make us feel better, safe, happy, is just going to fall apart again because nothing is permanent and it never will be.

We can continue to go through these horrible cycles, deluding ourselves into thinking that when I am this way or have this house or work at this job or have so much money in the bank all will be fine when it really won’t be. Or, we can work to give that up and try to live in the now and be comfortable with chaos and the transitory nature of all things. If we don’t have a desire to hold on to things, the pain and suffering that comes along with trying to get them in the first place and then losing them, will no longer exist:

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together.

Being willing to live in the unknown of the now is hard and terrifying and we fail at it over and over. But that doesn’t matter because Buddhism is not about reaching enlightenment, it’s about the journey, the process of becoming a more compassionate and wise person. We are all already enlightened, we just distract ourselves from that fact. If we pay attention to what life has to teach us, and life is the best teacher, and if we meditate regularly (meditation is not performed in order to relax), we will find that we have moments of awareness and being awake more often.

What I like about Buddhism and Chödrön’s approach is that it is about working on yourself and learning to be kind and compassionate to yourself. Only when you can show compassion towards your own imperfections can you be truly compassionate toward others. Being compassionate towards oneself is actually harder than it is to be compassionate toward others. We seldom feel as if we deserve to direct such kindness at ourselves but if we don’t then what we offer others is often a stunted compassion or compassion with strings attached.

There is much for thought in When Things Fall Apart. I am very glad I read it. My Bookman is still working his way through it (it didn’t help that every time I had a few minutes to read I’d ask him if I could read the book) but finding it useful too in a different way than I did I suspect. I highly recommend this book especially for anyone interested in Buddhism but also for anyone who spends a lot of time worrying or who is going through a hard time or knows someone who is.