by on December 7th, 2014
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This is the eighth of ten posts in the Exploring Mindfulness series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.  This post addresses chapters twenty-one  through twenty-two. To find out more or to ask to be part of the online discussion visit: Exploring Mindfulness.

Falling Apart

Reversing the Wheel of Samsara

Are the dharma and meditation enough?  Are they relevant and accessible in the most painful or overwhelming of situations?  Pema Chödrön acknowledges the role of therapy as a path for some.  Yet she feels that the dharma is more revolutionary. “For many of us”, she writes, “the dharma itself supplies the tools and support we need to find our own beauty, our own insight, our own ability to work with neurosis and pain. One of the tricks seems to be having enough faith in the dharma to bring it right into our nightmare…”

In traditional Buddhism Samsara refers to the human predicament.  Because we are conditioned to grasp pleasure and push away pain, as opposed to honoring whatever arises,  we are caught in the endless cycle of suffering known as the Wheel of Samsara.   This wheel is depicted as being fueled by the three poisons we discussed in the last blog: passion, aggression and ignorance.  The wheel turns in the same direction unless the Buddhist  teachings (Dharma) are heard, take root and flourish within us.


In chapter twenty-one Pema tells of a moment  when the dharma spontaneously expressed itself within her.  She was facing a financial crisis.  She described feeling a huge weight and the beginning of panic.  This was a familiar feeling from past crises.  It was a fear response based on a habitual way of thinking about the crisis. She explains that she doesn’t know why this was the moment that she saw things differently, but nonetheless, she recognized her habitual thinking and, she writes,  “I stopped following through with my habitual plan to save the day… I decided to see what would happen without my input—even if it meant that everything would fall apart. Sometimes you just have to let everything fall apart.  I felt like there was a huge wheel that had colossal momentum for going in a habitual direction, and I was turning it around.  That’s what the dharma is about; turning all our habits around, reversing the process of how we make everything so solid, reversing the wheel of samsara. The instruction is to stop. Do something unfamiliar.”  She speculates that she could experiment this way without becoming rigid or stuck because of the training she had in making friends with her thoughts and emotions.


She began to see her predicament as workable. “We are stuck”, she observes, “in patterns of grasping and fixating which cause the same thoughts and reactions to occur again and again and again. In this way we project our world. When we see that, even if it’s only for one second every three weeks, then we’ll naturally discover the knack of reversing this process of making things solid.”


 The Path is the Goal


 Pema explains that the path is not a road with a destination—with an estimated-time-of-arrival. It is “the moment-by-moment evolution of our experience, the moment-by-moment evolution of the world of phenomena, the moment-by-moment evolution of our thoughts and our emotions.”


 When I was a child of about eight my father, without realizing it, gave me instruction on the Path as Goal.  He was of the generation that was born before most people could afford cars and he developed a life long love for driving and seeing the sights. One long weekend he and my mom piled their five sons into the station wagon to drive from Delaware to the western Maryland portion of the Appalachian range.  The novelty wore off quickly for me and I felt compelled to ask again and again, “Where are we going and when are we going to get there?” In this case his seemingly enigmatic answers—that we aren’t going anyway and that we were already there— were not the sarcastic retorts of an annoyed parent—but were literally true.  I believe what Pema is trying to teach us is that my father’s answers are actually always true.


 “When something hurts in life, we don’t usually think of it as our path or as the source of wisdom”, she observes, adding, “In fact, we think that the reason we’re on the path is to get rid of this painful feeling (for example, “When I get to L.A., I won’t feel this way anymore.”)  At that level of wanting to get rid of our feeling, we naively cultivate a subtle aggression against ourselves.”   She goes on to say, “However, the fact is that anyone who has used the moments and days and years of his or her life to become wiser, kinder, and more at home in the world has learned from what has happened right now… If there’s any possibility for enlightenment, it’s right now, not at some future time. Now is the time.”




Settle in to some approximation of the formal sitting position, and focus light attention awhile on your outbreath but be aware of the room around you and such things as temperature, sounds, smells and, if your eyes are softly open, light, shadows shapes and textures.  Label any thought that arises as “thinking” and let it go. No need to struggle.


Think of a difficult or uncomfortable situation you are facing, perhaps something that you will be addressing in the next week.  Imagine yourself in that situation.  Allow yourself to fully experience the emotions that arise.  Think of ways that you would typically react.  Notice your conditioned thoughts, feelings and actions.  Imagine yourself responding in different ways—reversing the wheel.


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




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