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(April 2009)

What Is It Like When Things Fall Apart?

Just in the past few months, as our worldwide economy is falling apart, I am witnessing an increase in the number of women who feel their own personal lives are falling apart.

They are experiencing not only the usual drain of chronic health issues and conflict-filled relationships but the onslaught on unexpected stressors—being fired or laid off from jobs, the sudden tragic deaths of loved ones, and loss of their homes.

None of these events have quick fixes and, indeed, many have no “fix” at all.  There is no starting a career over in your sixties when you health is impaired.  There is no recouping financial loss so that another home may be purchased.  And there is no seeming end to grieving the loss of a child taken under tragic circumstances.

There is no escape.

A Different Perspective When Things Fall Apart.

Even when women I see have a different faith journey, I often recommend some Buddhist readings when such a point in life is reached.  Buddhist teachings, in fact, often enhance one’s faith journey.  My favorite Buddhist author is Pema Chodron who is an American Buddhist nun.  One of her books is, in fact, entitled The Wisdom of No Escape.  But I usually recommend starting with her book entitled When Things Fall Apart.  Both are available in bookstores or through her website (

At the heart of Buddhist teachings is a total appreciation of impermanence and change, even those changes that challenge our hearts and minds.  There are several what are called “noble truths” in Buddhism, and the first is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong.  Pema talks in her book about being addicted to hope, the feeling that we can tone down our experience down or change it somehow.  But hope is a feeling with another side—fear. As long as there is one, there is the other.  This very much ties into the idea from codependency literature that defines codependency as “wishing and hoping he’ll (she’ll) change” or even that life will change.

Living in the present moment, relaxing into hopelessness, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that everything is changing all the time is the basic message.

But What about Pain?

Most of us grow up with the notion that pain is a mistake that would not exist if we did everything right or, perhaps, if God really cared about us.  We develop a habitual pattern of trying to escape pain and seek pleasure.  We are devastated when in spite of all our mothering a child goes wrong.  We decry a job loss after we’ve been such a good employee and given our all to a job.  We mourn the loss of a home that we worked so hard to deserve. 

Our lives seem in chaos, our faith is shaken, and none of the sympathetic pap delivered by friends or family or even therapists seems meaningful. 

Three Buddhist Methods for Working with Chaos or Pain:

The first method is called no more struggle.  We can stop fighting with ourselves, with our circumstances and our emotions.  We can stop struggling and try to see the face of pain without calling it our enemy.  It would be like inviting what scares us to introduce itself and join us for a cup of tea.

The second method is using poison as medicine.  Instead of trying to get rid of pain, we breathe it in, not just the anger, resentment, or loneliness we might be feeling, but the identical pain of others who share our sense of rage, or bitterness, or isolation.  Try this for just a few moments.  With each breath in, breathe in, first your own pain and then the pain of others who share your tragedy, your loss, and your fears.  With each breath out, breathe out loving kindness.  Those who come from the Christian faith will recognize the parallel to Jesus’ death on the cross, taking on the sins of the world and sending out his love to all.  This teaching instructs us to move toward our difficulties, not away from them.  It is amazing how the face of pain is changed when we no longer try to avoid it.

The third method is to regard whatever arises in our life as “awakened energy”, something that will add to our lives, not detract.  It reverses our pattern of trying to avoid conflict and pain, trying to make ourselves into something other than what we are, trying to pretty up our world, trying to prove that pain is a mistake.  We become interested in living life just as it is presented to us.  We learn that whether we regard our situation as heaven or hell depends only on our perception.

Living One Day at a Time

Pema quotes one her students at saying, “Lower your standards and relax as it is.”  Or we can truly practice the Twelve Step slogan, Let Go and Let God. 

I suggest to patients that reading Buddhist teachings can sometimes bring such a new perspective to their troubles that even though they may not espouse such teachings as a whole, that they will find a new, kinder, gentler direction in their lives.