by on November 23rd, 2014
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Antelope IslandThis is the seventh of ten posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.  This post addresses chapters eighteen  through twenty. To find out more or to ask to be part of the online discussion visit: Exploring Mindfulness.


The Dilemma of Coming up Short

In chapter eighteen, Secret Oral Instructions, Pema Chödrön discusses the discrepancy between our aspirations and our actual behavior. She gives an example of a moment inspiration: Perhaps we just read something that shifts our perspective. “We feel”, she says, “that we’ve just connected with a truth we’ve always known and that if we could just learn more about it, our life would be delightful and rich.”  At these moments  we feel expansive, we feel changed and committed to going about our life more generously— we feel “a great tenderness toward everyone, and a commitment to benefit others”. Then only hours or even minutes later we can think critical thoughts about someone, or turn down an opportunity to help a friend because of the inconvenience.  When we realize we’ve done this we may then feel deflated and self-critical.

But she tells us with equanimity, “It’s not a matter of the right choice or the wrong choice, but simply that we are often presented with a dilemma about bringing together the inspiration of the teachings with what they mean to us on the spot.   There is a perplexing tension between our aspirations and the reality of feeling tired, hungry, stressed-out, afraid, bored, angry or whatever we experience in any given moment of our life.”

The Trick of Choicelessness

In chapter twenty Pema introduces us to the Samaya Bond that a dedicated student   of Buddhism may make with a teacher.  It is, she says, “a complete and unconditional relationship between student and teacher: a commitment to sanity—to indestructible sanity. Samaya is like a marriage with reality, a marriage with the phenomenal world.”   She then extends the concept of samaya  to mean the commitment we  can choose to make with reality. She describes samaya as a trick. “Choosing” reality, by choosing the world as it actually is.  By committing to reality we feel we have a choice.  But there is no choice, there is only the world as it actually is.   Reality is like a room with no exit.  But  by choosing not to escape , we do not spend our lives  in the futile search for an  exit.  The trick, then, is in accepting what already is.

Three Traditional Methods For Working With Chaos

The three methods of working with chaos described in chapter nineteen make a good focal point for the core practices described in this book overall.   I have included here an outline of the chapter.  One option for a regular mindfulness meditation practice is to practice these three methods for a set number of days such as 21, 30 or 90—whatever seems appropriate for you.


  1. No More Struggle
  2. Using Poison As Medicine
  3. Seeing Whatever Arises as Enlightened Wisdom

1.     No More Struggle: The primary method for working with painful situations

  • During meditation whatever arises in our mind we look at directly, call it “Thinking” and go back quickly to the immediacy of the breath.  Again & again return to pristine awareness free of concepts.
  • Don’t judge the thoughts or judge yourself for thinking them.
  • Remember:
    • “Things arise and things dissolve forever and ever”.
    • Meditation practice is not about accomplishing anything, but about ceasing struggle & relaxing as it is.


2.    Using Poison as Medicine: Tong-Len

  • When any difficulty/pain  arises,  let go of the story line and breathe it in.
    • Passion (craving, addiction, greed)
    • Aggression(delusion, distorted thinking)
    • Ignorance (delusion, distorted thinking)
    •  The poisons of passion (craving, addiction, greed) aggression (hatred) and ignorance (delusion, distorted thinking) denial; the tendency to shut down) are taken as the seeds of compassion, because there is a universality in pain
    • The main point of these methods is to dissolve the dualistic struggle, our habitual tendency to struggle against what’s happening to or within us.  We can use everything that happens to us as a means for waking up (awakening).
    • As one Lojong slogan says, “When the world is filled with evil, all mishaps, all difficulties, should be transformed into the path of enlightenment.”

      3. Regard whatever arises as the manifestation of awakened energy.

  • We can regard ourselves as already awake; we can regard our world as already sacred.
  • This reverses our fundamental habitual pattern of trying to avoid conflict, trying to make ourselves better than we are, trying to prove that pain is a mistake and would not exist in our lives if only we did all the right things.
  • The elemental struggle is with our feeling of being wrong, with our guilt and shame at what we are.  That’s what we have to befriend.
  • We can dissolve the illusion of dualism between us and them , between this and that, between here and there, by moving toward what we find difficult and wish to push away (the charnel ground).

In sum, lighten up, lower your standards and relax as it it.



Settle in to some approximation of the formal sitting position, and focus awhile on your outbreath.  Label any thought that arises as “thinking” and let it go.

Eventually focus on each of the phrases below, one at a time.  Speak each one of them aloud or quietly to yourself.  Repeat each one at least once before going on to the next.


There is no better time than right now.

There is no better place than here.

I am already awake.

There is no higher state of consciousness than this one. 

Samsara is Nirvana.  Nirvana is Samsara.


Link to online discussion:  DISCUSSION    If your not already member and would like to be, contact me at




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