When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön by Adam Shand

Chapter 4 - Relax As It Is

When Trungpa Rinpoche first taught in the West, he told his students to simply open their minds and relax. If thoughts distracted them, they could simply let the thoughts dissolve and just come back to that open, relaxed state of mind.

After a few years, Rinpoche realized that some of the people who came to him found this simple instruction somewhat impossible to do and that they needed a bit more technique in order to proceed. At that point, without really changing the basic intent of the meditation, he nevertheless began to give the instructions a bit differently. He put more emphasis on posture and taught people to put very light attention on their out-breath. Later he said that the out-breath as as close as you could come to simply resting the mind in it's natural open state and still have an object to with to return.

He emphasized that it should be just the ordinary out-breath, not manipulated in anyway, and that the attention should be soft, a soft of touch and go approach. He said that about 25 percent of the attention should be on the breath, so that one was still aware of one's surroundings and didn't consider them an intrusion or an obstacle to meditation.


Over the years, Rinpoche continued to refine the instructions on posture. He said it was never a good idea to struggle in meditation. So if our legs or back were hurting, we were told it was fine to move. However, it became clear that by working with proper posture, it was possible to become far more relaxed and settled in one's body by making very subtle adjustments. Large movements brought comfort for about five or ten minutes, and then we just wanted to shift again. Eventually we began following the six points of good posture as a way to really settle down. The six points are: (1) seat, (2) legs, (3) torso, (4) hands, (5) eyes, and (6) mouth, and the instruction is as follows.

  1. Whether sitting on a cushion on the floor or in a chair, the seat should be flat, not tilting to the right or left or to the back or front.

  2. The legs are crossed comfortably in front of you — or if you're sitting in a chair, the feet are flat on the floor, and the knees are a few inches apart.

  3. The torso from the head to the seat is upright, with a strong back and an open front. If sitting in a chair, it's best not to lean back. If you start to slouch, simple sit upright again.

  4. The hands are open, with palms down, resting on the thighs.

  5. The eyes are open, indicating the attitude of remaining awake and relaxed with all that occurs. The eye gaze is slightly downward and directed about four to six feet in front.

  6. The mouth is very slightly open so that the jaw is relaxed and air can move easily through both mouth and nose. The tip of the tongue can be laced on the roof of the mouth.

Each time you sit down to meditate, you can run through these six points, and anytime you feel distracted during your meditation, you can bring your attention back to your body and run through the six points. Then, with a sense of starting afresh, return once again to the out-breath. If you find that thoughts have carried you away, don't worry abut it. Simply say to yourself, "thinking," and come back to the openness and relaxation of the out-breath. Again and again just come back to being right where you are.

Chapter 12 - Growing Up

There's an interesting transition that occurs naturally and spontaneously. We begin to find that, to the degree that there is bravery in ourselves — the willingness to look, to point directly at our own hearts — and to the degree that there is kindness toward ourselves, there is confidence that we can actually forget ourselves and open to the world.

The only reason that we don't open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don't feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else's eyes.

Chapter 15 - Going Against the Grain

Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others. Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness of shunyata. By doing the practice, we begin to connect with the open dimension of our being. At first this allows us to experience things as not such a big deal and not so solid as they seemed before.

Tonglen can be done for those who are ill, those who are dying or have died, those who are in pain of any kind. It can be done as a formal meditation practice or right on the pot at any time. We are out walking and se see someone in pain — right on the spot we can begin to breathe in that persons's pain and send out relief. Or we are just as likely to see someone in pain and look away. The pain brings up our fear or anger; it brings up our resistance and confusion. So on the spot we can do tonglen for all the people just like ourselves, all those who wish to be compassionate but instead are afraid — who wish to e brave but instead are cowardly. Rather than beating ourselves up, we can use our personal stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world. Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. Use what seems like poison as medicine. We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.

When you do tonglen on the spot, simply breathe in and breathe out, taking in pain and sending out spaciousness and relief.

When you do tonglen as a formal meditation practice, it has four stages:

  1. First, rest your mind briefly, for a second or two, in a state of openness or stillness. This stage is traditionally called flashing on absolute bodhichitta, or suddenly opening to basic spaciousness and clarity.

  2. Second, work with texture. Breathe in a feeling of hot, dark, and heavy — a sense of claustrophobia — and breathe out a feeling of cool, bright, and light — a sense of freshness. Breathe in completely, through all the pores of your body, and breathe out, radiate out, completely, through all the pores of your body. Do this until it feels synchronized with your in- and out-breaths.

  3. Third, work with a personal situation — any painful situation that's real to you. Traditionally you begin by doing tonglen for someone you care about and wish to help. However, as I described, if you are stuck, you an do the practice for the pain you are feeling and simultaneously for all those just like you who feel that kind of suffering. For instance, if you are feeling inadequate, you breathe that in for yourself and all the others in the same boat, and you send out confidence and adequacy or relief in any form you wish.

  4. Finally, make the taking in and sending out bigger. If you are doing tonglen for someone you love, extend it out to those who are in the same situation as your friend. If you are doing tonglen for someone you see on television or on the street, do it for all the others in the same boat. Make it bigger than just that one person. If you are doing tonglen for all those who are feeling the anger or fear or whatever that you are trapped in, maybe that's big enough. But you could go further in all these cases. You could do tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies — those who hurt your or hurt others. Do tonglen for them, thinking of them a having the same confusion and stuckness a your friend or yourself. Breathe in their pain and send them relief.

Tonglen can extend infinitely. As you do the practice, gradually over time your compassion naturally expands, and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought.

Chapter 20 - The Trick of Choicelessness

According to the famous quote, the student of vajrayana Buddhism should always be in a state of panic. It is so unfamiliar to us to make such a total commitment to being awake that it unnerves us. Once when I was spending hours and hours doing a certain practice, I became so agitated that I could hardly sit still. Later, I told Rinpoche that I felt irritated at everything, even little specks of dust. He said that happened because the practice was demanding me to be sane and I wasn't used to that yet.

commentary posted on 27 Apr 2011 in #reflecting & #teaching

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