Book Club Review: When Things Fall Apart

Book Review When Things Fall Apart Pema Chodron“Everything that ends is also the beginning of something else. Pain is not a punishment; pleasure is not a reward.”

When Things Fall Apart was recommended to me by a therapist friend after we caught up on the past year over coffee. I guess it was clear that things had seriously fallen apart.

I wasn’t familiar with author Pema Chödrön at the time, but the title was spot on, so I pinned the book for December’s book club selection without so much as glancing at the table of contents.

I was humbled and a little amazed at how timely and impactful the content.

Pema is an American Tibetan Buddhist and much of the book centers around the practice of meditation and making shifts in our beliefs so as to find peace in the midst of the inevitable chaos.

Because, every once in awhile, or all the time as is my case lately, everything does fall apart.

The timing was beautiful for me, a new student of meditation having completed my first coaching session in November, as well as setting a wonderful foundation for my mindset as I headed out on my retreat trip to Thailand, a country where 90%+ of the population practices Buddhism.

It was also a sincerely helpful book for several book club members as we all experienced the overwhelming negativity resulting from the U.S. election of President Trump.

Ultimately, When Things Fall Apart makes a very compelling argument for a personal paradigm shift: an “awakening of a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and that of others.”

Pema’s teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, aptly frames this as “leaning into the sharp points.”

This isn’t terribly comfortable at first.

For me, I had been in a near-constant battle for more than a year following a volatile divorce.

I had been searching for months for a solution that would allow me to breathe again. Hence, meditation. Yet, my mind always found it’s natural path to strategies that would give me a sense of control.

What comes through crystal clear in When Things Fall Apart is that this is utter nonsense. 

We never have control. We are always groundless. And when things literally fall apart, that’s when the groundlessness of our lives really freaks us out and we go searching for the warm comfort of perceived control.

“We’re so used to running from discomfort, and we’re so predictable. If we don’t like it, we strike out at someone or beat up on ourselves. We want to have security and certainty of some kind when we actually we have no ground to stand on at all.”

Step 1. Accept groundlessness.

In and of itself, this acceptance relieves so much unnecessary tension – the exhausting pursuit of security, and the fear of what would happen if we let go.

But that would make for a very short book. The bigger picture is that by leaning into those sharp points in our lives, we can find what we’ve been looking for all along: peace.

Step 2. Embrace fear…and pain…and uncertainty – as the necessary pairs of hope and peace and wisdom.

“Sometimes…we are cornered; everything falls apart, and we run out of options for escape…There’s nowhere to hide…This is where the courage comes in.”

“One of the concepts that I’ve been pondering a lot from this book—that Chodron introduces right at the beginning—is that of hope and fear being two sides of the same coin. Having been raised in a tradition that shuns fear but embraces hope, this has been a hard concept to wrap my head around.”

– Bob A., in the book club discussion

How often do we find ourselves running from fear and chasing the next high that will confirm that we are happy? The next day off, the next vacation, the next adrenaline rush?

“Thinking we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly.”

The hypothesis: Each of us can learn to sit still with our pain and restlessness, to learn to love ourselves and our lives, even and especially during the dark moments. By practicing this stillness, we stop reacting and running from the sharp points, and can find peace.

It’s held true for me. When I would normally jump into reaction mode, I’ve been able to be still and just wait it out, and this has made all the difference. 

Since Rockstar Comeback is at it’s core about building resiliency, we’ll end with my favorite imagery from the book – an ideal that I come back to often to find space and peace in the midst of the chaos that has continued to wreak havoc in my life:

“A lot happens on a mountain. It hails, and the winds come up, and it rains and snows. The sun gets very hot, clouds cross over, animals shit and piss on the mountain, and so do people. People leave trash, and other people clean it up. Many things come and go on this mountain, but it just sits there. When we’ve seen ourselves completely, there’s a stillness of body that is like a mountain.”

Step 3. In the next chaotic moment, when anxiety or anger or uncertainty boil up into that compulsive need to act, be the mountain.

Favorite Quotes From When Things Fall Apart:

“If you want to see your future, look at your present thoughts and actions.”

“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found within us.”

“When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.”

“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”

“Sometimes we meet someone who seems to have a great sense of well-being, and we wonder how that person got that way…That well being is often a result of having been brave enough to be fully alive and awake to every moment of life, including all the lack of cheer, all the dark times, all the times when the clouds cover the sun.”

“All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever…Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?'”

“We habitually erect a barrier called blame that keeps us from communicating genuinely with others, and we fortify it with our concepts of who’s right and who’s wrong…It is a very common, ancient, well-perfected device for trying to feel better. Blame others. Blaming is the way to protect our hearts, to try to protect what is soft and open and tender in ourselves. Rather than own that pain, we scramble to find some comfortable ground.”

“When we hold on to our opinions with aggression, no matter how valid our cause, we are simply adding more aggression to the planet, and violence and pain increase…The way to stop the war is to stop hating the enemy. It starts with seeing our opinions of ourselves and of others as simply our take on reality and not making then a reason to increase the negativity on the planet.”

“…to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge – that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic – this is the spiritual path.”

“Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.”