“Love that only which happens to you and is spun with the thread of your destiny. For what is more suitable?” wrote Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in his timeless collection of wisdom called Meditations. I often go back to this quote to draw upon the strength it gives us to live our lives unapologetically while facing every obstacle with complete acceptance unburdened by self-pity and egoic resistance. It reminds me that we are ultimately a part of the bigger whole, an interdependent tesselation of the cosmos, an entire chronicle of perceived reality brought to fruition in this single instance, the unfathomable vastness of the present moment.
This simple, yet profound instruction written thousands of years ago is more relevant now than ever before. At the time when our world is plunged into global chaos and disarray, it’s becoming vital that we learn how to function and hold on during a time of crisis. This is exactly what American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron explores with soulful wisdom in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. In this book, she outlines three techniques for dealing with chaos, difficulties, and unwanted events in our daily lives.
The first of these methods is called no more struggle; the second, using poison as medicine; and the third, seeing whatever arises as enlightened wisdom. The first of these techniques is directly related to our daily meditation practice. Echoing mindfulness teacher Jon-Kabat Zinn’s advice that in meditation “we try not to impose our ideas about what we should be feeling or thinking or seeing,” Pema Chodron writes:
When we sit down to meditate, whatever arises in our minds we look at directly, call it “thinking,” and go back to the simplicity and immediacy of the breath. Again and again, we return to pristine awareness free from concepts. Meditation practice is how we stop fighting with ourselves, how we stop struggling with circumstances, emotions, or moods. This basic instruction is a tool that we can use to train in our practice and in our lives. Whatever arises, we can look at it with a nonjudgmental attitude. …
It’s like inviting what scares us to introduce itself and hang around for a while. As Milarepa sang to the monsters he found in his cave, “It is wonderful you demons came today. You must come again tomorrow. From time to time, we should converse.” We start by working with the monsters in our mind. Then we develop the wisdom and compassion to communicate sanely with the threats and fears of our daily life.
The second method, using poison as medicine, is intended to train our minds to see everything that happens to us as a tool for growth, something that can change from an obstacle to the path itself. We start to use everything that occurs — thoughts, emotions, outer circumstances — to show us the areas where we live unconsciously and how to wake up and start seeing clearly again. Pema Chodron writes:
When anything difficult arises — any kind of conflict, any notion of unworthiness, anything that feels distasteful, embarrassing, or painful — instead of trying to get rid of it, we breathe it in. The three poisons are passion (this includes craving or addiction), aggression, and ignorance (which includes denial or the tendency to shut down and close out). We would usually think of these poisons as something bad, something to be avoided. But that isn’t the attitude here; instead, they become seeds of compassion and openness. …
This poison is not just our personal misfortune, our fault, our blemish, our shame — it’s part of the human condition. It’s our kinship with all living things, the material we need in order to understand what it’s like to stand in another person’s shoes. Instead of pushing it away or running from it, we breathe in and connect with it fully. We do this with the wish that all of us could be free of suffering. Then we breathe out, sending out a sense of big space, a sense of ventilation or freshness. We do this with the wish that all of us could relax and experience the innermost essence of our mind.
The third method for working with chaos is seeing whatever arises as a manifestation of enlightened wisdom. Overcoming our habitual thought patterns of denial and looking directly at the essence of things all around us, we acknowledge that suffering exists, that darkness exists. The chaos is the basic energy, facetiousness of unfathomable wisdom. Pema Chodron writes:
Traditionally the image used for regarding whatever arises as the very energy of wisdom is the charnel ground. In Tibet the charnel grounds were what we call graveyards, but they weren’t quite as pretty as our graveyards. The bodies were not under a nice smooth lawn with little white stones carved with angels and pretty words. In Tibet the ground was frozen, so the bodies were chopped up after people died and taken to the charnel grounds, where the vultures would eat them. … Perhaps the closest thing to a charnel ground in our world is not a graveyard but a hospital emergency room. That could be the image for our working basis, which is grounded in some honesty about how the human realm functions. It smells, it bleeds, it is full of unpredictability, but at the same time, it is self-radiant wisdom, good food, that which nourishes us, that which is beneficial and pure. …
The world we find ourselves in, the person we think we are — these are our working bases. This charnel ground called life is the manifestation of wisdom. This wisdom is the basis of freedom and also the basis of confusion. In every moment of time, we make a choice. Which way do we go? How do we relate to the raw material of our existence?
Complement When Things Fall Apart, a healing read during times of uncertainty and chaos, with spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle’s advice on three powerful ways to overcome challenges in life.