Book Review: “When Things Fall Apart” by Solo Mom, Pema Chödrön

Book Review: “When Things Fall Apart” by Solo Mom, Pema Chödrön

Inspirational Work by American Buddhist and Solo Mom, Pema Chödrön

About half a million years ago (OK, maybe 17), when I was navigating the stormy waters of a life-altering breakup, a friend told me I should read When Things Fall Apart, by American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. I responded with a vague “Oh yeah, OK, sure” nod. He lasered his steely blue gaze into my eyes and said, “No. Really. You. Should. Read. It.” I borrowed a pen and wrote down the title.

Over the next few weeks, When Things Fall Apart (Shambhala, 1997) became the single most influential book of my adult life. With chapter titles such as “Intimacy with Fear,” “This Very Moment Is the Perfect Teacher,” “Relax As It Is,” and “Three Methods for Working with Chaos,” the book opened my mind to new ways of responding to uncertainty.

Chödrön lays bare the truth of the human condition: We like to think we know what’s going to happen, but we don’t; we like to think we can plan and control life’s direction, but we can’t. Although many of us find this lack of control frustrating, uncomfortable, or even terrifying, Chödrön celebrates “not knowing”:

Chödrön is herself a Solo Mom. After her second divorce, while raising children from her first, she sank into depression. By chance, she found an article by a Buddhist meditation teacher talking about how pain can bring us closer to the truth. This inspired her, and she went on to study Buddhism under that very teacher. Having worked through her own hardships with spirituality, she aspires to help others do the same.

“When we think something is going to bring us pleasure, we don’t know what’s really going to happen. When we think someone is going to give us misery, we don’t know. Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all.”

But how do we handle the anxiety of “not knowing”? What do we do when reality busts through our illusion of control? Instead of running away or gripping with fear, Chödrön suggests we “stay”:

“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.”

In an easily relatable, unfailingly humble, and often humorous tone, Chödrön offers personal stories, meditation techniques, and time-tested advice for doing exactly this: getting comfortable with uncertainty. You need not be on a “spiritual path” to benefit from these practices. What Chödrön offers are basic life skills and a cache of masterful one-liners such as these:

“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”

“Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s waiting out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.”

“When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.”

Over the years, through all kinds of uncertainties—infertility, scary medical mysteries, financial troubles, divorce, parenting—I have returned to When Things Fall Apart to remind me what I know but keep forgetting: Certainty is an illusion; chaos can be good news; fear is an invitation to learn the truth. Each time (as evidenced by my book’s layers of marginalia and underlining), I have found new bits of wisdom to carry in my pocket.

This is why, when a friend is facing a breakup, house fire, cancer diagnosis, job layoff, or any other illusion-shattering twist of fate, I say, “I have a book for you. You should read it.”

No. Really. You. Should. Read. It.

P.S. No time to read? Even just the first four chapters can help tremendously.

Picture Credits:

Cheryl Dumesnil, ESME’s LGBTQ Resource Guide, is an author, educator, writing coach, all-around do-gooder, and one of two moms separately coparenting two amazing boys. You can follow her on Twitter at @cheryladumesnil.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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