Book Review: When Things Fall Apart

  • After reading the Pema Chodron interview in February's O magazine, I bought her book, When Things Fall Apart, because I was interested in what she had to say. Though Pema is an American Buddhist nun, I'm not going to write about her belief system in this book review; rather, I'm going to explore some of her wise words, and suggest how her ideas could benefit those of us in recovery from schizophrenia.


    When I took the book home, I serendipitously opened it to page 66, where she wrote, "If we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent, in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive."

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    In short, the expression I've always used is, "What we resist, persists." For four years now, I've dealt with symptoms that upset me, and it was only about eight weeks ago, after nearly one year of being on the Geodon, that I felt a subtle shift in my perceptions. As of two weeks ago, I started to be kind to myself: to observe what goes on inside of my head as if I'm an outsider looking in, and when a troubling thought comes on, say, "Okay, you're having a thought. It's like a cloud, it will come and go."


    Truly, I've begun to see I have no control over this. When my thoughts take space in my head, like they're crashing a party, I let them be and don't entertain them for long. Chodron offers an almost revolutionary suggestion: "The key is changing our habits and, in particular, the habits of our mind."


    To react on auto-pilot to our thoughts and try to censor them isn't healthy. Indeed, I believe two things aided in my turnaround: I've been seeing a good therapist for a couple of years now, and I've been going to the gym three or four times a week. It isn't my intent to claim Buddhism changed my life, because I don't practice that faith. However, I began reading When Things Fall Apart at a time in my life, ironically, when things were coming together. Thus I encourage you to read the book, because it could offer some comfort. My copy is underlined, and dog-eared.


    Chodron understands it so well: "The point is not to try to get rid of thoughts, but rather to see their true nature. Thoughts will run us around in circles if we buy into them, but really they are like dream images. They are like an illusion-not really all that solid."


    Some thoughts are symptoms; others just pop in for a visit during any ordinary day. To get upset about this doesn't serve us well, if we beat on ourselves for having them. Chodron tells us not to shut down on ourselves, but allow ourselves to feel what we feel and not push it away. We need to accept every aspect of ourselves, even the parts we don't like.


    Chapter nineteen was particularly helpful in getting me to see that there's hope for chronic worriers like myself. Instead of struggling against what's happening, we can move toward our difficulties. Machig Labdron, a Tibetan yogini, is quoted: "Approach what you find repulsive, help the ones you think you cannot help, and go to places that scare you." How many of us would dare do this as a matter of course? As I ended the book, I realized it struck a chord in me because it gave me the courage to meet my fears head-on. Now, if you have panic attacks or anxiety, that is another thing entirely and you could possibly need medication. Yet for those of us caught up in worry that is-and I hesitate to use this word because our worry is all too real-"garden-variety," I believe we need to be kind and gentle to ourselves when it comes on.


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    Seven years ago I went to a place that scared me: I began writing my memoir. Even today, I'm honest about what happened. I see no reason to pretend everything's okay if it's not. That's how we as human beings are: we put on a face that tells others we're in control in order to come across as secure and in command of the situation. This pedestal is a dangerous, precarious ground to stand on. When things fall apart (and they will), we don't have to pick up the pieces and arrange them into a tidy vase to hold all the uncertainty.


    We can live with the paradox. Truly, the path is the goal; recovery is the opportunity to practice mindfulness, and to be aware. This technique, to step outside of what's going on in our heads, and observe it without judgment, allows us to be a good friend to ourselves.


    A woman I know interpreted it thus: "Mindfulness meditation is the basic beginning of just trying to follow the breath coming in and going out. We do get upset by some thoughts, sounds, feelings, sensations, but are to learn that everything is just temporary (in flux) does not need to hold on to the negative or even the positive. Yet one is not to wrestle with one's self..but be gentle and let compassionate with oneself."


    That, in the end, is the ultimate ethic we can aspire to: acting with compassion towards ourselves and others.

Published On: March 10, 2008