It may seem a bit hyperbolic to say that I am writing a review of one of the best books ever, but… yeah, this is a review of one of the best books ever.
I recently finished re-reading Pema Chödrön’s 2000 work, When Things Fall Apart. Chödrön is an American-born Buddhist nun, and this book is meant to be a collection of advice and guidance for Westerners on how to deal with suffering and times of challenge. Notice I don’t say it is a book for Buddhists, because I don’t think it is. Chödrön’s advice and teachings are relevant for individuals of all faiths, though there is some discussion of religion that might ruffle feathers, and some of the book’s chapters rely heavily on Buddhist teachings and principles. The central themes of this work, developed from notes and talks that Chödrön gave in the years leading up to its publication, are about how to use adversity as a catalyst for introspection and growth (“poison as medicine,” she calls it in one chapter), cultivating mindfulness, and developing acceptance and compassion. All of these skills that I, and many of us in today’s society, are in dire need of.
The good news, according to Chödrön, is that we already have all the tools we need to cultivate these desirable qualities: our minds, and the world around us. Buddhists believe that life is suffering, and that suffering is caused by attachment (two of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths). But there are two sides to every coin: We develop attachments to the good things, too. Praise, love, wealth, and the positive things in life are also addictive, and our attachment to the good things causes suffering as well when those good things disappear. All things are impermanent. Bummer. So, we have to eliminate all of our attachments if we are ultimately going to see the world for what it is and transcend suffering. Sounds easy, right?
Chödrön recognizes we are no saints, and this is where mindfulness and compassion come into play. The meditation techniques outlined in the book are aimed at helping us to better understand ourselves (and our emotions), and to accept ourselves as we are in the moment. “In practicing meditation,” she says, “we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal—quite the opposite. We’re just being with our experience, whatever it is.” (17) Understanding where we are and living in the moment is key: She often tells us to stop running from what scares us, stop trying to escape “feeling,” stop seeking solace in drinking or drugs or whatever makes you feel better. The moment is the perfect teacher, and she tells us that by sitting in the bad places, feeling what we feel, we become more keenly aware of our attachments and the habitual emotional patterns that keep us stuck. At the same time, we can also use these teaching moments to develop empathy. Realize that these negative emotions are part of the human experience. If we feel fear, sadness, loneliness, or anger, imagine the other millions of people in the world that are going through the same emotions. Couldn’t we enrich everyone if we stepped a little outside ourselves? Here’s one of my favorite passages:
“All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever. Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?’ Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?’” (11)
This was my third time reading this book, and it’s been through some difficult times with me. This time, though, it spoke to me on a deeper level than it has before. For me, at least, it seemed like every time I picked up the book I turned to a page with exactly the advice I needed to hear. Want a drink? Here’s why it’s a bad idea. Angry about that guy who broke my heart? Here’s how to deal with it. Thinking about sending him a nasty e-mail? Here’s why I shouldn’t. This book just works for me. It is short, written in plain language, but carries a powerful message. It all sounds lofty, sure, but part of what makes this book special is that Chödrön herself seems to “get” it. She gets the “first world problems” that hook us in. She had a cheating spouse. She went through a divorce. She struggles with colleagues. She sometimes thinks her way is the only right way. She is open about these experiences, and that makes her relatable in a way that some authors aren’t. By sharing her challenges along the path, she gives us a subtle message: You can do this too. And you know what? After a few weeks of daily meditation practice and nearly a month without drinking, I’m starting to believe it.