Customer Reviews: When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala Library)
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on October 7, 2002
I was just finishing this book in September 2001 when the events of 9-11 turned the world upside down, and things truly fell apart. There suddenly were all the vulnerable feelings that Pema Chödrön encourages us to embrace: fear, sorrow, loneliness, groundlessness. And in the days of shock and grief that followed, there was that brief and abundant display of "maitri," or loving kindness, which emerged in waves of generosity and compassion for one another. For a while, we were in the world that she points to as an alternative to the everyday routine of getting, spending, and constant activity.
It is nearly impossible to summarize or characterize this fine book. In some 150 pages it covers more than a person could hope to absorb in many years, if not a lifetime. We may know the Buddha's famous insight that human pain and suffering result from desire and aversion. But few writers have been able to articulate as well as Chödrön the implications of that insight in ways that make sense to the Western mind. As just one example from this book, her discussion of the "six kinds of loneliness" (chap. 9) illustrates how our desires to achieve intimacy with others are an attempt to run away from a deep encounter with ourselves. Our continuing efforts to establish security for ourselves are a denial of fundamental truths, which prevents our deep experience of the joy of living. Our reluctance to love ourselves and others closes down our hearts.
Chödrön invites us to be fascinated, as she is, by paradox. On hopelessness and death (chap. 7) she writes: "If we're willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path." She gets us to acknowledge our restlessness (even our spiritual restlessness) for what it is, something we do instead of simply paying attention to ourselves in the moment and to what happens next, without judgment or preconceptions.
In addition to this book, I recommend acquiring one or more of her audio tapes and hearing her voice as she speaks before audiences. For all the high-mindedness that may come across in descriptions like the one above, or what you might take away by reading the cover of her book, Chödrön is down to earth and unpretentious, speaking in her American accent (don't let the appearance of her name fool you) and with a self-effacing sense of humor. Her message is in her manner, as much as it is in what she says.
This is a book to buy and read, and reread at intervals, for it is always new, always speaking to you exactly where you are, right now.
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on December 30, 2002
This book has resided on the shelf next to my bed for many years and has been read often. Reading through a few reviews at this site it is clear many people are willing to listen to Pema Chodron's uncompromising words about the challenges of being human. For those people seeking a few comforting bromides, who expected a self-help book, this material must surely be unwelcome. But it is far from trite and certainly not depressing. Tibetan Buddhists practice in the charnal grounds not because they're depressives, but because life ends in death for all of us. And charnal grounds in Tibet were places where hacked up bodies were fed to circling quickly slipping a deceased body into a casket to avoid confronting the withered body or the odors associated with illness and death for these Buddhists.
When I attended a Pema Chodron lecture some years ago she announced that her favorite manta is "Om, grow up!" It takes great courage to meet life on life's terms and accept responsiblity for our actions. And since life invariably brings challenges associated with disappointment and loss, the work continues to the moment of death. In our addicted society, that is a message all too readily rejected. Pema is not for the faint of heart! But if you intend to claim your aliveness, to risk intimacy, to share joy, her words are worth attending to. Namaste.
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on May 31, 2005
This book does not promise short term, quick fixes but encourages a way of life that will make living more joyful and meaningful - pain, change and all.

This is not a book of "thought" filled advice from the mind, but a book (as the subtitle states) of heart advice. Pema openly shares some of her own experience as things fall apart, when her old way of doing things was no longer working.

I bought it to give to my (fully grown) son when he was going through some difficult times. It wasn't what he needed or related to, so I read it myself.

I like the way she points out that when things fall apart, that usually means we are on the brink of a change of some kind. My usual practice is to try to hold on to the familiar ways, but as I am finding out, that just doesn't work. And if it does, I am usually even more miserable. Depending on the kind of change you are experiencing, allowing it to happen with less resistance, without fear, can ease the opening to a new way.

This is a disturbing thought to many of us. Give in? No way. Why, what if your spouse is cheating and you lose your job and you have a fatal illness and the sky is falling and you don't resist? (Ah, well -- most probably your spouse will still have cheated, that job will be lost, you will still have the illness and the sky will continue to fall.)

On page 10 she says, "To stay with that shakiness -- to stay wth 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-- that is the spirtual path."

This book reminds us again, that going with the pain, confusion, disorder of those falling apart times is necessary. Eventually we can get to a place where the pain does not seem so big or so deep, where we are no immersed in our own dramas but see everything on a larger world wide scale.

I liked her section on "It's Never Too Late", which is about not hating ourselves -- and not really condoning ourselves, but observing ourselves -- 'when we buy into disapproval, we are practicing disapproval. When we buy into harshness, we are practicing harshness...The trick then is to practice gentleness and letting go. We can learn to meet whatever arises with curiosity and not make it such a big deal."

This is a truly helpful book, if you can read it expecting a deeper, long-term change in how you experience the unexpected and unwelcome turns we find in our lives.

I realized after reading this, that what I perhaps need to do with my son is not to buy him a book to read, but to be there for him as needed but to allow him to have his own experiences.
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on March 20, 2007
I wish I could write a helpful review of this book but it strikes me as nearly impossible; the book is so intense and liberating, so honest and direct, it seems like the only words that can do it justice are the author's. I came upon this title at a difficult time. It helped me understand and really feel that things not only fall apart, they get worse. Or sometimes better. But the great teacher is our response to events, or rather, our willingness to face our responses and accept them, and ourselves, our failings and strengths, and to let fear be a teacher.

This book is the opposite of the quick fix, life-is-a-bowl-of-cherries self-help manual. Reading it was an experience laced with sadness, relief, and finally a kind of temperate joy.

All I can really say is that it's a masterpiece in my view; entirely sane, liberating, full of truth and light.
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on September 1, 2012
I'm giving this very good book one star so I can join the one-star people here at the bottom, and say something in reply to their anger and despair. They are angry at Trungpa and then at Pema, because the message coming from the former and followed by his disciple is, you cannot escape the pain of your obsessions unless you are willing to lose them. Meditation is not a soothing massage after which you can jump right back into the habits that harmed you in the first place. What kind of progress are you making, then? And what is continued bondage to obsession, but despair?

Whether or not you practice Buddhism as a religion, there is no sense in practicing it unless you understand your personal goals to be caught up in compassion. A number of the complainers here talk about depression as a good reason to turn away from others and seek some kind of palliative numbness. Do that if you want to, but in time you will find yourself disappointed with your practice, and distracted by your anxiety and selfishness, which will continue to threaten you. You will find yourself drawn, after all, to compassion. If it was good enough for the Buddha, it should be good enough for you. Your depression and those distractions are one and the same thing, and compassion is the key to unlocking them, and dissolving the depression while turning away from selfishness and your inventory of reasons for anger. This is all very good advice, and I've done a spotty job of following it, but my own progress in alleviating depression has, without question, begun with compassion for the people I perceived as my enemies. You can choose to be healthy or sick, but you can't choose to be healthy while hanging on to the habits that made you sick in the first place.

I'm being incoherent here, because I'm trying to outsmart you and convince you -- not much of a success, really. What hurts me about the supposedly helpful, apparently well-meaning people who hate this book is, it's one of the few things i've read that really helps to alleviate (my own) long-term depression. They represent Pema and her teachers as heartless -- as lacking compassion. And compassion is what she teaches. So they are, in my experience, both wrong and destructively wrong. This inspires me to try to defend a practice that has survived for over two thousand years with no help from me. So my apologies to all the one-star voters: we will all end with compassion, arriving at the pace we choose.
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on October 21, 1999
Ane Pema Chodron writes in a clear and simple manner. I read this book about twice a year, because I learn something new or revisit concepts that I might have overlooked previously. It is clearly not just reading for when you go through tough times - its applicable to daily life. Pema's style is simple, clear and very human. We can all understand and relate to the teachings. It also provides us with an understanding of what we are going through and clear methods to deal with our situations and life.
For people who meditate - it is excellent reading. It gets you to understand what you go through when life is difficult, and how it is of great benefit along your path. It is like drinking a long cool glass of clear water on a warm day - clear and refreshing.
Its a great book to give as a gift. This book is a wonderful gift given to us by Pema Chodron.
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on February 23, 2000
I first heard someone read selected chapters from When Things Fall Apart in June of '98 at a yoga retreat. Each day when I heard these readings, I felt they were written just for me, yet I realized that they were completely generic and that everyone there could, and probably did, feel the same as I. When I returned home, I began to study this book and to meditate from its instruction and inspiration. I've tried many times in the past to meditate, but could never get past about 4 to 6 weeks. When I finished When Things Fall Apart, I moved on to Pema's Start Where You Are and the Wisdom of No Escape. At the end of a year, I realized that I might really be a meditator, so I found a sangha to sit with. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to become a meditator, or who is despairing or suffering in any way. I will be eternally grateful to Pema Chodron for her articulate, down to earth explanations and instruction that gave me the motivation and courage to seek this deeply enriching spiritual life.
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on September 7, 2010
I think maybe this book would be more illuminating to people who are already very familiar with esoteric Buddhist ideas and conversant in Buddhist jargon. I have read half of it now (and I do plan to finish it) and find that Chodron's message seems to be a slippery string that hasn't stayed in my hands at all as I turn each page.

I grasp the basic idea: relax into discomfort to find out what you can learn from it, rather then reflexively freaking out and running away from it. The problem is that this is a one-sentence message, and all the additional pages Chodron writes about it have not clarified it for me at all. It would make sense to provide some guidance or advice on how to gain the skills of relaxing into discomfort, but Chodron doesn't seem to do that; each section is more like an unstructured meditation on the ideas presented, a reminder for people who already are fluent in the ideas discussed. She seems to talk without *explaining*.

As a novice to Buddhist thought, I was recently introduced to Buddhism at a difficult and confusing time in my life by Jack Kornfield's "After The Ecstasy, The Laundry" and Sylvia Boorstein's "It's Easier Than You Think". Both of these were less dense and more accessible than "When Things Fall Apart", and gave me much more food for thought and more of a grasp on how to apply Buddhist concepts in my life than the Chodron book does.
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on November 28, 1999
This is a wonderful book for anyone, not just for those who feel that things are falling apart. It offers insight into accepting life just as it is, in this moment. The author shares her "wisdom mind" in this concise and compassionate book about finding peace within the fundamental groundlessness of life. I have read the book twice, and now I read a chapter here and there for refreshment and inspiration. Buy this book, and then buy one for someone you care about.
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on May 11, 2004
I grew up and was deeply involved in a moderate Baptist church. For much of my life I considered myself a "good" Christian who knew that Jesus died for my sins and therefore I also knew that I was bound for heaven. But it wasn't until I was 40 years old and had seen my life fall apart that I decided to let go of my life completely, and give it to God.

Interestingly, after this total commitment and release to God, I was immediately and strangely drawn to the biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Many wonder why this book was included in the bible because it seems to contain nothing but the pervading theme of hopelessness. Yet, its words seemed to give me comfort and a source of spiritual strength. It was difficult for me then to explain this to other Christians.

Pema's book is a kind of contemporary practical application of the teaching found in Ecclesiastes. Of course our lives and our world are utterly evanescent. Nothing lasts. Yet, most of us become quite delusional during our lives by effectively denying this fact. We grab hold of anything we can that can give us a sense of a sustainable and unique identity... including our religious tradition. But any or all of this can be taken away in an instant. Both Pema's and Ecclesiastes' teachings have the power to bring us home by helping us to discover our eternal identity in the unmanifest... in the mystery of Infinite Spirit. Once we find our home there, nothing can shake us. There is a power and a joy that is not fully describable with words... because its source lies beyond words, beyond creation.

In one of Jesus' prayers he asks God to bring all people into Oneness... "may they be One as we are One." Pure Oneness implies the loss (even death) of a separate identity, and the realization of a universal identity as One. Pema's use of the idea of hopelessness is really the movement through the death of our false and fleeting separate identities into the ultimate home of Oneness with each other and with God. I believe that Pema's teachings can aid any one that is ready, whose ego has been broken enough, to discover their eternal home even as they live in this manifested world. This can be a liberated life filled with the courage and fearlessness to bring Unconditional Love to the whole world, and especially to the seemingly unlovable.
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