Impressions of Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart”

When American Tibetan-Buddhist Pema Chodron went through a divorce, she
discovered the practice of Buddhism. In her book, “When Things Fall Apart,” Chodron
openly recounts that when anyone asks her how I got into Buddhism, she would
express that it was because she was so disappointed and angry at her husband.”
Chodron also says that the entire ordeal of marital dissolution was a gift—that it saved
her life. She mentions that when her marriage fell apart, she tried very much to go back
to a safe perch, a resting place, because she knew that she could not–she knew
instinctively that she was in the process of annihilating her old dependent self and
becoming a new self.

As she states, “Life is a good teacher and a good friend.” Her wisdom is that things are
always in transition and embrace that they are in impermanence and this will help
decrease suffering. As she wisely urges, “to stay with the shakiness, to stay with the
broken heart, the rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness–Stick with the
uncertainty for that is the path of true awakening.” (page 11.) And I especially love this,
“Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching
ourselves is the path of the true warrior.

Also when you fall in love and it is blissful—yet, recognize that it’s impermanence–
when a relationship ends. recognize it as impermanence. (Page 61)
Chodron says you make a conscious decision when you go out in the world each day.
“Every day, we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, “Am I going to add to the
aggression of the world–Am I going to practice peace or am I going to war?”
Chodron underscores this idea of serving as servants of peace throughout the book.
There are six different ways to practice this, or rather 6 Perfections or different activities
of servants of peace. The six paramitas–are “going to the other shore.” [Pg. 98]

1. GIVING: generosity
2. ETHICS: discipline
4. JOYOUS EFFORT: exertion

These are the practices of a Bodhisattva.

The Six Perfections turn all actions into gold. We have no place to dwell on anything–
because of this, we finally relax. No more fighting, no more biting.

Chodron mentions that the one practice that helps put us in touch with a noble heart is
the Tonglen practice. I want to go through the Tonglen practice with you so that you
understand how the sending and receiving awakens Bodhichitta.

Tonglen is Tibetan for ‘giving and taking’ (or sending and receiving), and refers to a
meditation practice found in Tibetan Buddhism.[1]

Tong means “giving or sending”, and len means “receiving or taking”.Tonglen is also
known as exchanging self with other.

In the practice, one exchanges the self with other, sending and taking should be
practiced alternately. These two should ride the breath. As such it is a training in

The function of the practice is to:

1. reduce selfish attachment
2. increase a sense of renunciation
3. purify karma by giving and helping
4. develop and expand loving-kindness and Bodhicitta

So, in describing the Tonglen Practice: Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of
1. Flash on Bodhichitta: Rest your mind for a second or two in a state of openness and
stillness—this is called flashing on absolute Bodhichitta, the awakened heart and mind,
or opening to basic spaciousness.
2. Begin the Visualization:
Focus on any painful situation that’s real to you. Traditionally you begin by doing
Tonglen for someone you care about who you wish to help
3. Breathe in that sense of pain: For example, I will breathe in pain of feeling alone in
this world for my friend, Anne who has a deep fear of being alone and is now trapped
in a bad situation.
Then Expand our compassion
4. Breathe out your lovingkindness: Send compassion to those who are feeling hurt,
alone and in pain.

OK, let’s practice it now, as Chodron describes the energetic flow of her guided

“Touching in:
I will play the gong and look to the sound if the gong until it’s gone
when it begins to trail out then breathe in the quality or texture of claustrophobia…
usually described as dark, thick and heavy. sometimes it’s also hot, breathing it in…

Breathing out the quality or texture of spaciousness—clear, light fresh…breathing in
into whole body—or one can breathe it into the heart in a sense—in a way, it’s an
exercise of opening the heart to what we want to push away—so visualizing the dark,
heavy, hot coming in and visualizing cool, white and refreshing going out,

It’s a very thorough sending it out, radiating it out all over your body. you synchronize
this with your breath. You just do this for a while until it feels synchronized with the
breath always give the in breath and out breath equal measure. you do this for a while
then you choose a specific subject. I suggested to do Tonglen for your mother!
Breathing in think of her (whether she’s living or dead) and breathe in anything that
currently causes her distress and then breathe out, send out relief in whatever form you
wish, send her compassion, contentment, or beautiful flowers, a lovely day.

The idea is to send something that produces well-being and frees her of her suffering:
outward breath is lovingkindness breath, you’re wishing her to be free and happy, at
ease. If you have feelings of resentment or pain to do with your mom, do Tonglen on
your own feelings. Breathe in pain into your heart and breathe out lovingkindness.
Then our 4th stage is breathing in for all the individuals who are struggling with this
feeling and breathing out compassion. Feel it from your heart.”


One truly beautiful thing Chodron recounts is that spiritual awakening is often
described as a journey to the top of the mountain. For example, we leave our
attachments and worldliness behind and make it to the top. Yet, the biggest problem
with this metaphor is that we leave all of the others in our life behind, the schizophrenic
sister, the suicidal niece behind, our tormented friends—basically their suffering
continues while we escape. When in truth, it is not so—we should not strive for this.
The real process of the Bodhichitta. The journey goes down, not up and away from

Chodron states, “Instead of transcending suffering of all creatures, we move toward the
turbulence and uncertainty. We jump into it, we move toward it however we can. We
explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity. If it takes years, we let it be how it
is. At our own pace, without speed or aggression…we move down and down and down.
With us, move millions of others, our companions in their awakening from fear. At the
bottom we discover water, the healing water of Bodhichitta, right down there in the
thick of things, we discover the love that will not die.” [Pg. 92—Pema Chodron]

—A.E. Medley