After starting Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart about a month ago, I quickly figured out that it is a book to read slowly. It’s only 150 pages, but it makes sense to take a month to read it. This is partly because it contains a lot of wisdom that is best taken in slowly; it’s a book about meditation, among other things, and it seems appropriate to read it in a slow, meditative kind of way. On a more critical note, it also contains a lot of repetition. If I were reading it fast I would find the repetition annoying, but because I was reading it slowly, the repetition became a part of the whole meditative experience. I came to like hearing similar ideas repeated over and over when they are ideas I need to hear again and again. Reading this book came to feel like reading the Christian devotional books people read — and I did too occasionally — when I was young.
The book is repetitious and it’s not terribly well written, but I find its ideas immensely valuable. It’s not an introduction to Buddhism, exactly, but more of an application of Buddhist ideas to dealing with suffering and pain. As Stefanie points out in her review of this book, the subtitle “Heart Advice for Difficult Times” makes it sound as though the book is aimed at people going through a particularly challenging time, when the truth is that its audience is much broader — it’s really directed at everybody.
It makes the argument that rather than running from bad feelings — anger, irritation, sadness — we can learn to face them directly, and by facing them directly, we can learn to relax into them. We can learn to recognize them for what they are and to see that bad feelings are inevitable and come and go just as good feelings do. As Chödrön puts it, it’s all about seeing the world around us as clearly as possible, which means recognizing that the world is constantly changing, nothing is stable, and good and bad experiences come and go and we have little if any control over them. All we can do is learn to recognize what is happening to us, to acknowledge it, and then just stay there and experience it. She urges us to resist the impulse to try to keep our lives from changing and to create a sense of safety and security. That sense of security is illusory, so it’s better to try to learn to live without it, to the extent that we can.
Meditation is the way she suggests we can begin to learn this. By meditating regularly we start to become more aware of what is happening in the moment, which is a way of becoming more attune to our thoughts and feelings so we recognize why we feel the way we do or act the way we do. It’s also a way to learn how to watch what happens to us without judging it. When meditating, we’re supposed to watch our thoughts as they come and go, and gradually we learn that that’s just what thoughts do — they come and go but they aren’t who we are and they don’t define us:
… the point is not to try to get rid of thoughts, but rather to see their true nature. Thoughts will run us around in circles if we buy into them, but really they are like dream images. They are like an illusion — not really all that solid. They are, as we say, just thinking.
As someone who has often felt hounded by my own thoughts, this idea is immensely comforting. The brain is just an organ whose job it is to produce thoughts, and so that’s what it does. My thoughts are important, of course, but they aren’t, ultimately, who I am, and I don’t have to spend my time obsessed with them.
I also found Chödrön’s chapters on compassion very moving. Although I would have resisted this idea when I was growing up — I would have found it selfish in the extreme — I now agree that the ability to care about others stems from the ability to care about oneself, and if we learn how to treat ourselves with kindness, we will be in a better place to understand and care for others. This is something that, again, we can develop through meditation; the practice of watching and accepting what is going on in our own minds can help us be open to what happens with other people.
As you can see, I found a lot that’s valuable in this book. However, I don’t think it’s the best book to read if you are unfamiliar with Buddhism or are looking for an introduction to the subject. Chödrön tends to use terms and phrases associated with Buddhism and meditation without defining them, and although she gives basic instructions in how to meditate, she doesn’t back up and explain the religious/spiritual background to her ideas. It really is more of an inspirational or devotional book than a methodical explanation of a philosophy. Some years back during an earlier period of interest in Buddhism, I came across books by Joseph Goldstein, who I think would provide a more thorough background. And perhaps Chödrön provides more background herself in one of her other books, I’m not sure. But at any rate, I learned a lot from this book, and I’m immensely glad I read it.