I’ve only read a quarter of When Things Fall Apart, but it’s changed my life already
It’s a bit of a swizz, this post, because it’s based on a book I’ve only read a quarter of – and probably understood even less.
But I’m so excited by the ideas I’ve found in it already, I couldn’t wait to talk about them.
The book I’m taking about is When Things Fall Apart (Heart Advice For Difficult Times) by the American Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, which was recommended recently by Matt Haig in The Guardian.
Haig – whose own writing on mental health has helped me gather my shit together many times over the years – described it as a guide to building resilience, through embracing suffering as an integral part of life.
“Only by accepting an uncertain world can we ever experience joy,” Haig wrote, which I thought sounded a bit heavy…
But, Hell, I really could do with more resilience, and I’m always looking for a mental health tip or two.
Besides, the detective novel I was reading was pretty thin stuff, and I needed something a bit more satisfying.
So far, I’ve read precisely 44 of the 189 pages in When Things Fall Apart, but some of Chodron’s ideas have already convinced me she’s onto something special.
Disappointment and embarrassment are a sort of death”
“Basically, disappointment, embarrassment and all those places where we just cannot feel good are a sort of death,” Chodron says. “We’ve lost our ground completely; we are unable to hold it together and feel that we’re on top of things.”
As someone who suffers from feelings of self-loathing and inadequacy, there’s something liberating about this acknowledgement of how self-annihilating and hurtful they can be.
And it’s even better that, as the book goes on, Chodron tells how we can learn to co-exist more happily with difficult emotions, using meditation and mindfulness techniques.
We use all kinds of ways to escape”
Another passage that made me sit up and think was Chodron’s description of the isolated monastery in Nova Scotia where she teaches: “there are very few means of escape – no lying, no stealing, no alcohol, no sex, no exit.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve indulged heavily in at least two of those activities, and – maybe drinking aside – they never really struck me as escapes from mental pain.
Right after reading that sentence, however, I felt that Chodron had some sort of key to my psyche, and that I already understood myself better.
She expands on her theme later, saying “We use all kinds of ways to escape – all addictions stem from (a) moment where we reach our edge and we just can’t stand it.
“We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.”
Fittingly, for a book that stresses the importance of maitri – the Nepalese word for loving kindness towards oneself – reading that my questionable behaviours could in fact be attempts to escape from negative emotions has already given me greater self-acceptance and compassion.
The truth is, things don’t really get solved.”
Another thing I hate about myself is that my worst problems never seem to get solved – it makes me think of myself as some kind of loser, unable to get ‘over’ them.
And thinking like this is quite prevalent in Western society – where we’re sold on the idea of being masters of our own destinies; of being able to do anything if we want it badly enough.
Think of a Hollywood film, where the climax is usually to do with the hero achieving his – sometimes her – goal, and triumphing over their demons.
Conversely, those of us who don’t achieve a perfect life are seen as somehow weak or lacking, and made of inferior clay.
But according to Chodron, none of us ever really gets a grip on our problems: it’s part of being human that difficulties flare up for a while, get better, and then get worse again.
“We think the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is things don’t really get solved,” she writes – a statement that matches my own experience of life perfectly.
“They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and they fall apart again. It’s just like that.”
For Chodron, “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing” and, if we can accept difficult and painful feelings as part of life, it can help us feel better.
“The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy”, she writes, adding that we can learn to live with our feelings in a neutral, instead of a self-blaming, way.
Have you seen that before in the gift shop?”
Speaking of Hollywood films, buying and reading a self-help book based on Buddhist principles reminded me of the scene in Doctor Strange, when Strange dismisses the oriental philosophy of monk Tilda Swinton as a “gift shop” con.
She responds by sending him on a mind-bending, unnerving tour of the multiverse and – when he returns via the monastery roof and falls at her feet – quips: “Have you seen that before in the gift shop?”
I’ve long been lazily attracted to some aspects of Buddhism – the ‘do no harm’ aspect, in particular – but I was Strangely sceptical about buying this book, even with Haig’s recommendation.
I worried that When Things Fall Apart might be full of the useless, fluffy thinking I’ve found in far too many self-help books – but, so far, it’s been quite the opposite.
In fact, its accent on acceptance chimes in well with the work of Western therapists I like, such as the podcaster Richard Nicholls.
And although it contains sections and statements that I don’t completely understand yet, it already feels like a valuable life guide for many years to come.
* Having looked at a few reviews of When Things Fall Apart on Goodreads, I read one comment arguing that some therapists consider it a “victim-blaming book”, and “unsuitable reading for victims of rape and other traumas.” I’ve found the book gentle and soothing thus far, but I’m not a victim of traumas like these, and so thought I should include this caveat for anyone affected by them.