Author Pema Chodron has been on my radar for a while, but you know how it is when life keeps moving and you mean to get to something.
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Well, I got to Chodron this week, or perhaps more accurately, this wise American Buddhist nun got to me. I have read just three essays – a total of 17 pages – in her book When Things Fall Apart and already my perspective has widened on the personal, the political, the global. It is exquisitely written.
While its subtitle, “Heart Advice for Difficult Times,” suggests a personal message, it is impossible while reading it not to think of what is happening in Egypt or apply its wisdom to almost any significant movement where people are pushing through what is troubling or oppressive.
“When things fall apart and we’re on the verge of we know not what, the test for each of us is to stay on that brink and not concretize,” Chodron writes.
Is this not simultaneously more difficult and much easier when applied to a collective? People joined in a passionate cause can lean on one another, encourage and lift one another. An individual striving to “not concretize” has only to focus one mind and heart, but is not part of that larger energy force. Keeping the collective focused, on either side, is what brings about real change in communities and nations.
As of this writing, the protests in Egypt have begun to escalate as the sides become more clearly defined and assertive. Now comes the time for people to ask themselves what this is about for them, big picture – i.e., what’s right, what’s in their best interests, whether those two things intersect. Clearly the collective has reached a breaking point and now the true, sustained work begins.
“When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something,” Chodron writes. “We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality. There is definitely something tender and throbbing about groundlessness.”
It is before us in the news each hour of each day. The tender and peaceful. The shaky and violence-prone. Chodron unwittingly speaks to the heart of a nation in words she wrote from her own understanding of herself and the continuum of her life. She tells of a sign she used to have on her wall that read, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”
Then she relates the story of her husband coming home one day and telling her he was having an affair and that he wanted a divorce. She picked up a stone and threw it at him. She says that anger, that experience with her husband, saved her life.
“When that marriage fell apart, I tried hard – very, very hard – to go back to some kind of comfort, some kind of security, some kind of familiar resting place,” Chodron writes. “Fortunately for me, I could never pull it off. Instinctively I knew that annihilation of my old, dependent, clinging self was the only way to go. That’s when I pinned that sign up on my wall.”
Annihilation is an aggressive word, to be sure. It conjures up images that seem at odds with peace. Yet no. There is a soothing quality to it, too, because it means dealing with what rises up and begs to be dealt with.
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing,” Chodron writes. “We think that the point is to pass the test or to 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.”
We would do well to remember that in these times when we feel poised in a historical moment, one where change is imminent, that it will be messy and time-consuming and satisfying and liberating. All of those things.
“Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic – this is the spiritual path,” Chodron writes.
What a walk it is.