When Things Fall Apart

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When things start falling apart all around us, we are on the verge of a major transformation. We often want to run around like crazy or numb our feelings.  But like tectonic plates moving beneath the surface of the earth, there’s deep work going on.  Here’s wise sage advice from Pema Chodron, a world-beloved Buddhist nun, after her world fell apart when she accepted a new job as leader of a Buddhist abbey in Nova Scotia.  

“What happened to me when I got to the abbey was that everything fell apart.  All the ways I shield myself, all the ways I delude myself, all the ways I maintain my well-polished self-image – all of it fell apart.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t manipulate the situation.  My style was driving everyone else crazy, and I couldn’t find anywhere to hide. 

“I had always thought of myself as a flexible, obliging person who was well liked by almost everyone.  I’d been able to carry this illusion throughout most of my life.  During my early years at the abbey, I discovered that I had been living in some kind of misunderstanding.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have good qualities, it was just that I was not the ultimate golden girl. 

"I had so much invested in that image of myself, and it just wasn’t holding together anymore.  All my unfinished business was exposed vividly and accurately in living Technicolor, not only to myself, but to everyone else as well. 

“Everything that I had not been able to see about myself before was suddenly dramatized.  As if that weren’t enough, others were free with their feedback about me and what I was doing.” 

“A teacher visited during this time, and I remember her saying to me, ‘When you have made good friends with yourself, your situations will be more friendly too.’” 

Pema describes this as "a kind of testing in order to awaken our heart."  Whether an illness, death, divorce, or destructive world event, when things start shaking and nothing is working, it’s helpful to realize we are on the threshold of an inner and outer transformation.  

“Every day we are given many opportunities to open up or shut down.  The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening.  It’s too much.  It’s gone too far.” 

The work is to stay on the brink of our experience and get the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic.  Feelings like resentment, jealousy, terror, embarrassment, and impatience that often arise are not bad news.  Instead, they are “very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back, where we’re stuck.  This very moment is the perfect teacher, and lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are,” says Pema.   

“Getting the knack of catching ourselves run away from our experience, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior.” The key is to stop and breathe with tenderness and loving kindness. 

Instead of numbing ourselves with busyness or distractions, open to the energy of the experience and breathe in loving kindness.  This opens the path to patiently uncovering, discovering, and recovering our deeper truth and authentic voice.

With meditation, prayer, and reflection we can begin to see with loving kindness what’s happening -- where and how we run away and indulge or repress ourselves.  After patiently witnessing our harmful habits and patterns with compassion, the patterns get tired and wear themselves out.  A wider more spacious perspective emerges. 

We go through a death/rebirth process, letting the old parts die that no longer serve us, and giving the new authentic parts of ourselves a fresh, clear voice in our life.  We come home to ourselves. 

We shall not cease from exploration, 
and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.   ~ T. S. Eliot

Source: When Things Fall Apart, Heartful Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron