This is the first of 12 posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. This post addresses the book’s introduction through chapter two. (5 min read)
To find out more about the series or to participate in the discussion, go to Welcome to the Exploring Mindfulness Series. As of today’s posting, I have added a 12-week schedule to that page showing the book chapters that correspond to each post.
There’s a lot out there about mindfulness. Its influence on Western psychology has grown immensely in the last several decades. The first page of a Google search can provide you with more writings, audio, and visual materials then you could ever use in a lifetime. There’s a lot of good stuff out there, but the internet also produces a lot of poor or mediocre material. You already know this, so all I want to add is that even the good stuff will not appeal to everyone equally. So if you are just starting out and you can’t relate to my series, please try something else. Other resources draw less directly from the Buddhist context. The resources page of my website will lead you to a sampling of these. Here’s a direct link:
Pema Chödrön’s teacher advised his students to lean into the sharp points; kind of seems like a teacher you’d want to back away from—after all, we have been trained to avoid sharp objects!
This is how Pema Chödrön introduces us to her book When Things Fall Apart. She is instructing us to move toward the very things we want to run from. At the book’s outset, we find her, enviably, on a year-long sabbatical relaxing—“I read and hiked and slept,” she wrote. But she began, less enviably, to confront two cardboard boxes filled with 7 years of transcripts from her own talks looking for a unifying thread. And some of us, looking for a unifying thread in our own lives, at some point picked up this book that was the product of her courage to face the two cardboard boxes.
She discovered that the unifying thread was
the great need for Maitri (mītrē; loving-kindness toward oneself), and developing from that, the awakening of a fearlessly compassionate attitude toward our own pain and that of others… The other underlying theme was dissolving the dualistic tension between us and them, this and that, good and bad, by inviting in what we usually avoid.
In reading Chapter One, Intimacy with Fear, it occurred to me that the psychological purpose of fear is to get our attention—to become aware of something that it is vitally important to be mindful of. For example, if our prehistoric ancestors walked through a forest where a Sabre-Toothed Tiger had killed a friend, fear provided the emotional/physiological alertness necessary for survival. This evolutionary trait has, unfortunately, also given us millions of years of conditioning to avoid things that aren’t dangerous. The vast majority of the thousands of fears we experience in our everyday lives are more like the fear of being late for dinner than the fear of being dinner for a large cat. Unfortunately, because of this evolutionary residue, we tend to overreact significantly, to fight or to flee, when simple alertness and attention is what’s called for. The goal of mindful practice is alert awareness. With true awareness and space to breathe, we can face what we fear without fighting it or fleeing it. Practicing mindfulness develops what is called “beginner’s mind,” a mind open and free of conditioned learning. In one sense, mindfulness is a process of unlearning.
In the second chapter, she tells us that when she looks back at the moment when her life fell apart—her husband announcing he was divorcing her—she now realizes that he saved her life. She wrote:
When that marriage fell apart,” she wrote, “I tried hard—very, very hard—to go back to some kind of comfort, some kind of security, some kind of familiar resting place. 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.
Consider mindfulness to be a practice for what to do when things fall apart because things will fall apart. It is the reality of all things. The athlete at his peak, the intellectual at the zenith of her powers will eventually decline. This is the nature of things. To say it is “bad” is to make a judgment. To look at things mindfully is to look at things realistically and without judgment. Pema writes that things
come together, and they fall apart. Then they come together 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.
By this acceptance, we loosen up where we once tensed up; we open up where we once closed down. We can then, even in the face of painful realities, loosen, and lighten up.
Exercise: When people who have been blind or deaf their entire lives have their senses restored through medical technology, they cannot at first make sense of the visual or audio stimulation. This is true of newborns as well. Our perceptions do not immediately have meaning to us. To survive in the world, our minds learn not only to read and organize perceptions but to develop associations with them. For example, “flames are beautiful and painful” but also prejudices like “young black men with hoodies are dangerous.” Without viewing our perceptions anew, we may confuse what is really real with fear-based judgments.
Begin in a seated position. Close your eyes or, alternatively, lower your eyes but keep them open with a soft gaze several feet out. Be lightly aware of your surroundings. Then slowly scan each of your senses: feeling, hearing, seeing; for smelling and tasting, you may want to recall a smell or taste if one is not immediately available. Slowly and one-by-one, try to imagine each of the five senses as if you were experiencing them for the first time. For example, hear the sound of a car driving past, a dog barking, or a door shutting* as if you didn’t know what they were. Hear them only as sounds or vibrations without thinking about how they were made. This is a practice of “beginner’s mind.” Don’t worry if you are unable to succeed in freeing your sensations from their associations. Just realize, then, how strong the associations are.
* In mindfulness practice, these are not “noises” or disturbances but sounds that can be acknowledged and let go of. You don’t need to practice in a totally quiet or serene environment. For starters, though, it’s not advisable to practice on your patio while the house next door is being demolished. But within reason, accept small disturbances.
Thanks for participating!
ॐ I bow to you,
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Next Post: Facing Our Pain to be published on 5/10/20 and will focus on chapters 3-5.