“When Things Fall Apart~ Heart Advice for Difficult Times” by Pema Chodron

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My latest guidebook, and the one I turn to for ‘heart help’ in this Time of Trouble, is a book given to me recently by a friend of my mother’s. It fell into my hands at exactly the moment I needed it, as usually happens to me with books. The day before, Mom and I had watched Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday program and Pema Chodron was her guest. It was the first time I had ever heard of her. Mom had never seen or heard her speak. We were both enthralled.

The next day, Sheryle brought the book over for me to read, and I was thrilled. The day after, when I was being turned down for the CPE internship, Miquel Santamaria gave me a slip of paper. “You may want to read this,” he said~ “When Things Fall Apart.” It was the third time in as many days~ I knew it was a special book.

I carry it around with me, and open it up whenever I find myself in the space to receive. I’m reading Chapter 8 today, about the Eight Worldly Dharmas, which are four pairs of opposites: pleasure and pain, loss and gain, fame and disgrace, and praise and blame. Basically, when we are caught up in any of the eight worldly dharmas, we suffer. In each of the pairs, there is one we like and one we seek to avoid. The fact however is that none of them is permanent, and all of them fluctuate back and forth continually, out of our control completely. As Pema says, “We have all kinds of mood swings and emotional reactions. They just come and go endlessly.” She suggests that when we find ourselves hooked by any of the worldly dharmas, we can let ourselves “feel the energy, do our best to let the thoughts dissolve, and give ourselves a break. Right there in the middle of the tempest, we can drop it and relax.”

Today, I was unable to get up and go about my day as usual. I woke up wondering who I am and what I am doing in my life. I was feeling alone and scared, and I couldn’t seem to move so I just lay there in bed and tried to focus on my breath, saying, “I’m alive. Thank you,” an affirmation I took from HJN. I use it whenever I need to relax, and especially when I feel a great deal of fear~ in the dentist chair, or in a scary relationship. It has never failed to be a comfort. I admitted to myself that although I was in emotional pain, it wasn’t excruciating, and I could bear it without the help of an anxiety pill. That gave me a measure of satisfaction, as I want to learn to experience my pain rather than stuffing it or eating it into oblivion. I want to become less terrified and more familiar with my loneliness and fear, and eventually be able to embrace them as any other part of my life.

I’m at Patty’s house. She’s my other spiritual guide, in the flesh. She arrived last night unexpectedly. Neither of us was expecting the other to be here. I came out into the living room, hesitant and fearful after hearing a soft swishing noise. Was there someone in the house? The sound was coming from her room. I called out, “Patty???” and was deeply relieved to see her bright cheerful smile when the door opened.

I couldn’t get to sleep, and came back out to find her still awake and willing to listen. She sat on her desk chair and gave me the big stuffed armchair, with a blanket between me and the cool leather, and I began to tell her the story of what’s been happening since I arrived here in September. Part One was about Mom and the family drama. I asked her if she had time for part 2 the next day, and she did. We went out for breakfast to Papa’s New York Diner, and I told her that I needed guidance about what my next step is. I feel like I’m in some kind of sticky syrup and can’t get myself out. These are some of her words of advice:

“Listen. God knows. There will be a sign. You won’t have to worry. You need to pray. And you don’t have to pray perfectly either! God is so merciful~ you only have to turn a tiny bit in His/Her direction
to get an answer. Divine Guidance is there for the asking. Pay attention. Rewrite the Headline. Ask, Who’s in Control here? Don’t ask for tomorrow. Think only about NOW. What is this moment intended for? Fear paralyzes right action. Be still. ‘God will supply the wisdom and the occasion for a victory over evil.’” That last was a quote from Mary Baker Eddy.

I dropped her off at the bank and came home to her house still feeling lost and not sure what to do with the time available to me. All I have is TIME, and so often it feels like we’re killing each other. I could call Laura. I could go sit in the sun. I could go eat something. All the usual. I was still trying to run away, to avoid the pain I was trying not to feel. Wait, I told myself. I lay across the bed and looked at the ceiling. Be still. Listen. That’s harder to do than I thought. It’s so much easier to just make myself busy. Old habits die hard. I told myself it was OK not to have anything to do but be with myself. Hand on heart, I let myself just be.

The day is almost over now. I am sitting on Patty’s couch, and she’s in her office eating her dinner and working on her computer. It’s 7:57 pm. I spent some time swimming and talking to Edna in the pool, a little time in the sun, and a little time with Judy hearing about the latest updates. I noticed I wasn’t as engaged or interested as usual. The emotional element has definitely taken a back seat to the concerns of the moment NOW. I took care of some shopping for both Judy and for myself, and came back here to Pat’s, walking down to the water’s edge and sitting on one of the benches looking out over the bay while I listened to some of my recent recordings. Tired, I came back ‘home’ and started to write.

I’ve been struggling and suffering terribly lately. I don’t like pain. Who does? And I’ve been caught up in lots of it~ feelings of loss, criticism, blame, anger, and fear. I’ve felt attacked and insulted by a member of the family, who doesn’t see what a good job I’ve been doing taking care of my mother for the past 9 weeks. I’ve been accused and raked over the coals for next to nothing. My emotional reaction has been to run and hide, and try my best to avoid contact in any way possible~ like a man resisting entering the lion’s den knowing the sharp claws that await~ but that has only made things worse. I’ve been clinging to a concept of myself that has been continually called into question, and I’ve been responding with anger and a desire for revenge (“Let them all just go to Hell!”) But Patty said all the pain has been my own doing. You mean there’s no one to blame but myself?

We all respond with habitual patterns to praise or blame, pleasure or pain. We puff up with pride when someone notices and comments on our contribution, congratulating ourselves for all the goodness we embody. We withdraw when an aggressor steps up and screams into our face, or lash out with our tongue when we can find the strength, if we perceive that something has been taken away from us unfairly, resorting to a tit for tat like children fighting over a toy. I can see that I’ve been childish in my responses to the eight worldly dharmas. Rather than try to eradicate these feelings of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace, Pema advises us to “get to know them, and see how they hook us…Then the eight worldly dharmas become the means for growing wiser as well as kinder and more content.”

I wanted to call my sister today and ask her if there was anything I could do to help~ but it seemed so scary, and the coin said no. I still toss it sometimes. Yesterday I wrote her a birthday card but was scared to deliver it. My habitual response to being attacked is to crawl away and hide, hoping to be unnoticed and left alone. But it doesn’t feel any better over in that dark corner. It’s lonely.

Today I tried and was moderately successful at letting go, dropping the drama, and relaxing. As Pema writes, “We want to know our pain so we can stop endlessly running. We want to know our pleasure so we can stop endlessly grasping….We want to know about loss so we might understand other people when their lives are falling apart. We want to know about gain so we might understand other people when they are delighted or when they get arrogant and puffed up and carried away…When we become more insightful and compassionate about how we ourselves get hooked, we spontaneously feel more tenderness for the human race… If we don’t look into hope and fear, seeing a thought arise, seeing the chain reaction that follows~ if we don’t train in sitting with that energy without getting snared by the drama, then we’re always going to be afraid.”

I was able to look at myself a bit more clearly today, and stay with the difficult feelings a little longer. I didn’t do my usual and give into my panic, running blindly into the comfort zone of eating, talking, or jumping into the car and going somewhere, anywhere, just to avoid the pain of my discontent. I stayed on my bed and let myself experience it, breathing through it with my hands over my heart, simply saying, “It’s OK, Robin.”

Pema writes that as our practice evolves, we “start understanding that, just like us, other people also keep getting hooked by hope and fear…Our motivation for practicing begins to change, and we desire to become tamed and reasonable for the sake of other people.”

I love those words ‘tamed’ and ‘reasonable.’ I want to be around people who have become masters of themselves. Tonight I feel better, and more connected to my inner strength. I know Patty would say it’s not my strength but God’s. I feel less shaky and desperate, and more whole and like myself.

As I listen to Patty’s stories of listening to the guidance of divine law, not limiting ourselves to our human expectations, and then discovering God’s ‘over-the-top’ abundance, I don’t feel as out of touch with that kind of experience as I did this morning. I have been there, too, and I know I can get there again if I let go of what I think should be happening here, and let God show me what She has in mind. She has an intention for me this very moment, right NOW. I have to pay attention and listen. It is a big work, and no one promises that it’ll be a bed of roses, but as Patty said when I left, “It’s worth the effort.”