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Being Present When Life Falls Apart

“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.

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About Sonya Derian

Sonya Derian is the owner and founder of Om Freely, a company dedicated to helping people live out loud, tap into their power, and transform their lives. To pick up your free ebook: Om Freely: 30 Ways to Live Out Loud, please visit http://omfreely.com . Or check out her online store at: http://cafepress.com/omfreely.

Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • http://twitter.com/Sam_Russell_ Sam Russell

    Thanks for sharing this Sonya. It’s the age-old phrase ‘I so needed to hear this right now’ but it’s true. I forget sometimes, when I’m moving on from something that I’ve become stuck in, to experience the here and now, and to be okay with it.

    Things are complicated for me at the moment and it’s driving me insane with worry and loneliness but – I’m weirdly okay with it. This is my existence right here, right now and it’s okay. It’s everything I expect, given the circumstances, and I’m even feeling a bit nostalgic about it – at home. I’m comfortable in this moment where things are difficult and uncertain.

    I feel so free.

    Kudos

  • Sarah

    Thank you :)

  • Jennifer

    You know, I can really relate to this. Growing up, we were only supposed to feel happy – even if that meant faking it. Having gone through a lot of the things I’ve gone through, I have a tendency to try my hardest to not feel anything. I did this for years because I thought if I felt anything, it would be so powerful it would break me. There’s relief in being able to cry my eyes out because I’m sad, to really feel all the emotions I’m feeling in the middle of a hardship.

  • http://honeybtemple2.blogspot.com/ Melissa

    I absolutely LOVE “When Things Fall Apart.” In fact, thanks for reminding me about it, I really need it right now. I love how Pema gives us permission to feel the feelings we’re not “supposed’ to feel, like hate or anger, for instance. I’ve always looked askance on all the ‘think happy thoughts’ stuff; it just seems like a way of ignoring a huge spectrum of human experience. Right now, I’m roiling with anger and even hate over an ex- and trying not to judge myself for feeling that way, but also not becoming attached to those feelings. It’s difficult! But your post came right at the right time :-)

  • http://www.andrewmenaker.com Andrew Menaker, PhD

    In my work with financial professionals I teach them to practicing ‘leaning into it’ without judgment which not only reduces resistance, but increases our ability to tolerate discomfort. I sometimes refer to this process as being ‘engaged without being attached’. The non-attachment helps us to remain neutral and centered, it also creates the mental and emotional conditions that are the basis of cognitive flexibility and real self-confidence. The self-confidence part comes in when one stops tying their sense of self-worth with the ups and downs of our emotional experience….instead one leans into it and thereby learns what the message is, however, we don’t want to get attached to the actual feeling.

    Andrew Menaker, PhD

  • ATay

    Just from this post i’m going to go buy that book right now. . . my life has recently just fallen apart in front of me. I am the type of person who puts a lot of hope in others and in circumstances and is ALWAYS let down. great article! can’t wait to read the book!

  • Brooke

    The magic in this for me is; allow yourself to really feel what you’re feeling, fully, because that is what is true for you in that moment – it’s authentic, so let it rip. Then allow yourself to keep moving, don’t get stuck by it, don’t give it undue meaning or power.

  • Devine_c

    I have always felt that the philosophy of “be happy, think happy thoughts” was too simplistic and naive. Bad things happen to good people, and you can’t just “think” them away. I agree with your interpretation of Pema’s thoughts. Sometimes you just can’t change what is happening to you, so instead of fighting it, accept it and learn how to live positively within the framework given you. This does not mean give up hope. It means give up unrealistic dreams and make the best of what you have.

  • http://tomsuniversity.com Tsh

    Right on, Sonja. The present is where it’s at. I like to emphasize accepting reality. It’s the same thing to me. Reality is what’s going on in the present. You can fight with reality, resist reality, pretend reality’s not going on — none of these are functional strategies. Accepting the reality of the present is the only functional strategy for consistent effectiveness and happiness in one’s life.

  • http://twitter.com/AlannahRose AlannahRose

    What a great post, Sonya. I love how you’ve summarized some of the important points from such a powerful book. It can be so easy to let yourself harden after you’ve gone through something really tough, but opening and softening is so much more beneficial and freeing.

    I stumbled on this book last year, in the middle of the hardest time I have ever been through in my 39 years. I had it on my bookshelf for a while, and when things got really difficult, it called to me. I brought it to work and read it on my lunch break and only a few pages into it, I broke down bawling in the middle of the atrium. It spoke to me in a way that no other book ever has, and I took notes as I read and told my therapist the parts that really touched me (which were numerous). That book and this site (and my therapist) are the major factors in my not only surviving last year but also being completely inspired and “finding myself” again after years and years of being lost and unhappy.

    I love the book so much that I bought it on cd so I could listen in my car. Whenever things get rough again, or I feel down, or scattered, I put the cds in and listen. Sometimes I play the same chapter over and over again and just find comfort in hearing a specific passage. The lessons Pema discusses seem harsh, and take great courage to follow but I find them so comforting because they are so true. When I first started reading When Things Fall Apart, I couldn’t believe that she “got it” so completely, and to steal her phrase, it was like being nailed to the wall.

    I know this book won’t be right for everyone going through difficult times, but for me it was exactly what I needed and has allowed me to get back on the path I started going down years ago (before numerous distractions and events derailed me). I can’t even describe the impact it has had on my life.

    Thanks for a wonderful piece!

  • Angeliquijuli

    Love it! So true

  • Sonya Derian

    Thank you for sharing. Yes. I, too, find her book comforting, especially when I’m in a dark place. She is just all about being with what is. And allowing it to have its way with you. Such a different stand to take.
    Another book I really love that has been helpful in the same way is Eckhart Tolle’s work – Power of Now. Similar thing Pema talks about but in a different way.

    Glad you enjoyed the piece. :-)

  • Sonya Derian

    So true! Thank you for that.

  • Sonya Derian

    It’s a great book. Pema is not for everyone, but I personally, find her comforting, and very real. Or another way to describe her, is AWAKE! She’s awake to everything happening around her and she takes it in, in a compassionate, open-hearted and grounded way. I hope you’ll find it inspiring.

  • Sonya Derian

    Such a great way of describing it “Engaged without being attached”. Yes. That is what it’s all about. Harder to practice sometimes, but the aim nonetheless. Thank you for that.

  • Sonya Derian

    I love it! Thank you for sharing that. When I wrote this piece, I had spent the weekend watching Pema at her retreat in San Francisco on streaming video. I wasn’t in the greatest place, and I just felt myself listening to her, and then dropping down, and dropping down some more, and just being with exactly where I was. And as I let go of the resistance, it was like a weight was lifted. And strangely enough, the “weight” wasn’t from my feelings. It was from my resistance to sitting with the feelings. And when I let that go, it seemed to pass much more quickly.

    Glad this piece spoke to you. It’s good to know I’m not alone in these things :-)

  • Mara

    love the article , thank you!!! i can not explain it but yesterday i got very worried about my future, the changes that I’m planing to do… My boyfriend, who takes astronomy classes, loves to show off all the newly acquired knowledge, and of course i love listening to him. After a small discussion i forgot about all the worries as i felt that they were sooo insignificant in comparison to the universe :) these perspectives will stick in my mind for sure now :)

  • mara

    Thanks for the article! From personal experience i can say it works for very difficult times / situations. But i wouldn’t use it for daily problems, worries and negative thinking. I think everybody should develop their own way of dealing with their emotions and i believe different approach should be taken for different problems, in order to avoid “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”. This comes through trial and error of several suggestions from other people like Pema’s approach, some things work some don’t, a combination of few or alterations etc. what works for me doesn’t mean it works for someone else. it all depends on the person’s personal experiences and the situation.

  • Anonymous

    I love this idea and have been growing into accepting it, and finding the balance. What I find difficult is that there’s a point, I think, where engaging yourself with your current emotion needs to stop. In line with Rasa Sadhana’s, they say that feeling an emotion for too long will prevent you from feeling the rest of them. I found myself caught in trying to feel my sadness and anger, and living in the hard moments so much that I didn’t realize the hard moments were over. I had become attached to the troubling moments. I think what’s essential about what you mention, is making room for the ebb and flow of life and emotions. To allow an emotion to come in, feel them, experience them, accept them, and then let them go so another emotion can go through the process.

  • http://blog.theapronthief.com Wren

    Hi there! I just wanted to let you know that I really liked this post so I shared a link to it in the Weekend Roundup post on my blog today. I’d love it if you came and checked it out. Thanks again for the inspiration!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/lisa.stefany Lisa Stefany

    love this. i put one of your quotes from this article into picture-form on my tumblr blog. http://simple-stupid.tumblr.com/day/2011/06/23/

    hope you don’t mind; it’s one of my sincerest forms of flattery ;)

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  • teddybowties

    but… isn’t there a difference between sticking your hand in a fire and taking on your fear? you shouldn;t stick your hand in a fire, yes? although, some of those teacings say you maybe should… i get so confused. but then, i have a cognitive deficit and an executive function issue, not to mention the memory problems, the add fighting the asperger’s, paranoia (probably from the prescribed ritalin I had to take asa child for the add- i could feel it changing my brain. I could, and it terrified me. nobody believed me. i felt alone.) etc. awful seasonal affective every time it gets dark, as in EVERY NIGHT, not just in the winter… ;(((( BUT I just forget sometimes. I forget to remember that i have an ide aof what I’m supposed to do, and i get sad. dang seasonal affective. ;) iwish my brain worked better, so i wouldn’t forget so much. But at least I’m better than i was, and that’s because I worked at it. i had to stay sane. so everybody witha problem, you cna do it! and you are the only one who can. but sometimes speaking to another person helps you put it into words you cna grasp, giving you a new perspective that allows you to witness your own self-location, so to speak. It’s like we all live in a maze. sometimes, if we’re lucky, something pulls us above the hedge and we can See. But like the poem goes, “…nothing gold can stay’. It’s like buddha and nirvana. you can’t STAY in nivrvana, i think that’s what he was trying tosay. But you cna visit there. Staying there just isn’t the purpose of the place. Like dreaming. If you stay in teh dream, you’re doing it wrong. I just would like to know if that’s true in EVERY case, ya know? ;O I hope my post helped.