“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” ~ Pema Chodron from When Things Fall Apart
Don’t run away from your fear, Pema says. Lean into it. This is her message.
It’s not the most popular or good feeling practice. Our natural tendency is to fight, flee, or freeze. We want to move away from what is uncomfortable. Get rid of it.
But she says quite the contrary. Move toward the places that scare you, that are most uncomfortable for you, and allow them to dissolve, to break apart, to open your heart.
This advice is almost opposite to what is popular in the new age arena. Get happy. Choose a different thought. Practice positive affirmations.
It is difficult.
But what do you do when you got laid off, or you lost a child, or you’re battling a terminal illness, or you don’t know how you’re going to pay your rent? How do you get through those times when you are in the thick of it with fear, dread, or worry?
Choose a different thought? Get happy? Practice positive affirmations?
Pema says no—you don’t do any of this. You lean into it. Let it inform you. Stay present. Experience your humanity. Find compassion in the midst of it.
A friend of mine was going through some challenging times and I recommended one of Pema’s books called When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.
A while after she got the book and read it, she called me and asked, “Why did you recommend that book? I found it the most depressing read. I couldn’t finish it”.
The teachings can be interpreted that way. Pema talks about embracing impermanence, about abandoning hope.
You can easily say, “Then what’s the point?”
Her point is to experience the present. To be with the now. To let yourself be affected. To grow your capacity to be human. To experience life in all of its expression.
While I found myself wanting to protest, the truth is, what choice did we have? Wherever we go, there we are.
And while we can tell a different story, choose a different thought, or hope for a better future, it doesn’t take away from the moment now, here, where we might be experiencing discomfort with ourselves, our lives or the world around us.
The practice she says is instead of letting it harden us and build walls around our heart to protect against it, let it break you, let it soften, and then let it melt the resistance. See what happens.
Our fear comes from knowing what will happen. We will die. We will not be able to handle the pain or loneliness or loss or uncertainty or the despair. It will kill us.
Or, she says it will open our heart so that we can experience what it is to be genuine. What it is to be human, what it is to experience life truthfully in all its pain, with all its beauty.
Pema calls it the path of the spiritual warrior. It takes courage to be fully awake, she says, because a lot of suffering comes from wanting things to be different. From expecting the “ideal” to overcome the “actual,” or needing people, places, or things to be different for us to be happy.
But what if things don’t change? What if this is all there is? Can we be okay with that?
Don’t let your circumstances or your hope for things to be different rob you of your true present. That’s what I suspect Pema is saying.
Drop down into the still small place. Cultivate bravery. Develop an unconditional friendship with yourself, even when it feels too embarrassing, painful, unpleasant, or hateful.
Don’t let life harden you. There is tenderness, beauty, and grace in being alive.