Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times has become one of my go-to resources when my life seems unbearable. This week, I’ve been re-reading it yet again, within the context of this week’s events. I have little wisdom of my own to offer today, no musings that fill me with joy and wonder—but I thought I’d share with you instead some of Pema’s thoughts. These are not easy, comforting words. But her briskness, her challenge to get my head out of the gloom, is perhaps what I need most to hear.
Pema’s advice isn’t about denial. She tells us to be clear-eyed and honest about the situation, while not letting our emotions drown us: “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. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do. We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is its texture, color, and shape?”
(Yes. I feel like a piece of shit. Even worse, the world feels like a piece of shit. But here’s a thought that occurs to me: shit makes great fertilizer; new life grows from it…)
“Nothing ever really attacks us except our own confusion,” Pema goes on to say.
(But oh, we feel attacked right now).
She continues, “Maybe the only enemy is that we don’t like the way reality is now and therefore wish it would go away fast. But what we find … is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”
(What do we need to know? What is the lesson we can learn now? I’m pretty sure it’s not to be angrier and hate more than we did before. So how can we instead find new, more powerful, and more practical ways of bringing justice to our world?)
Pema also says: “Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that.”
(Have you noticed how many people on Facebook have turned for comfort to The Lord of the Rings? The adventure that Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and all the others embarked on may make good reading—but from their perspective it was mostly bleak and terrifying. So maybe this is our moment of great adventure.)
And then finally this from Pema: “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 a 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.… To stay with that shakiness—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.… From this point of view, the only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep.”
(The rug has certainly been pulled out from under us—but let’s not shut down. Let’s not dwell on our anger and resentment. And let’s not panic. Let’s wake up! Together, we may find we are on the verge of something the world needs most in this moment.)
Ellyn Sanna is Executive Editor of Anamchara Books and author of numerous books on spirituality including All Shall Be Well: A Modern-Language Version of the Revelation of Julian of Norwich.