Book Review: “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chödrön

| Reviewed by Patricia Furnish |

It’s a pleasure to write about a woman like Pema Chödrön who has had such a profound effect on people around the world. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times was first published in1997; it arrived to me during one of those difficult times. Now the book is always with me. Even though I lost my last copy, my partner found me another. I find it comforting to know this book is widely available. Chödrön is a Buddhist from the United States who is the principal teacher at Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada, and she is part of the spread of the Western Buddhist tradition. She has dedicated her work to helping nuns received equal opportunities within Buddhist practice and study.

This mother of two who was married and divorced twice strikes me as probably one of the most unlikely people to become one of the most important teachers in the Western Buddhist tradition. That’s one of the reasons I am drawn to her story. To observe someone’s transformation is fascinating. I still don’t really know how people do it. But Chödrön is the embodiment of that promise that we can surprise ourselves.

Chödrön advises leaning into fear and transition and making allies of them. When Things Fall Apart observes that impermanence is the true state of being. We are changing, even when the messages around us and within us may say the opposite. It is a practice, according to Chödrön, to stay in the reality of unease, pain or collapse, that time when things are falling apart. She suggests a discipline we can begin to exert. Chödrön writes, “What we discipline is not our ‘badness’ or our ‘wrongness.’ What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality. In other words, discipline allows us to be right here and connect with the richness of the moment.”

My own instinct has been to try to solve a problem immediately, scan for solutions, grasp for an answer at hand. Of course, Chödrön suggests a different approach: step into ambiguity. What does that mean? Well, I’m still working on it, too.

What makes When Things Fall Apart so important to me, and Chödrön a valuable teacher and woman is that she still sees herself as ordinary. Women’s History Month often does not highlight the ordinary; it serves to raise the awareness of the extraordinary, like a hero or a success story that inspires because of its uniqueness. Chödrön is unique, but she’s trying not to be. At the root, why I chose her book for this review is the uniqueness of the advice for Westerners.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker