When Things Fall Apart

Pema Chodren

Naropa, an eleventh-century Indian yogi one day unexpectedly met an old hag on the street. She apparently knew he was one of the greatest Buddhist scholars in India and asked him if he understood the words in the large book he was holding. He said he did, and she laughed and danced with glee. Then she asked him if he understood the meanings of the teachings in that book. Thinking to please her even more he again said yes. At that point she became enraged, yelling at him that he was a hypocrite and a liar. That encounter changed Nara’s life. He knew she had her number: truthfully, he only understood the words and not the profound inner meaning of all the teachings he could expound so brilliantly.

This is where we also to one degree or another, find ourselves. We can kid ourselves for a while that we understand meditation and the teachings, but at some point we have to face it. None of what we’ve learned seems very relevant when our lover leaves us, when our child has a tantrum in the supermarket, when we’re insulted by our colleague. How do we work with our resentment when our boss walks into the room and yells at us? How do we reconcile that frustration and humiliation with our longing to be open and compassionate and not to harm ourselves or others? How do we mix our intention to be alert and gentle in meditation with the reality that we sit down and immediately fall asleep? What about when we sit down and spend the entire time thinking about how we crave someone or something we saw on the way to the meditation hall? Or we sit down and squirm the whole morning because our knees hurt and our back hurts and we’re bore and fed up? Instead of calm, wakeful and egoless we find ourselves gettIng more edgy, irritable and solid.

This is an interesting place to find oneself. For the practitioner, this is an exceedingly important place.

When Naropa, seeking the meaning behind the words, set out to find a teacher, he continually found himself in the position of being squeezed. Intellectually he knew all about compassion, but when he came upon a filthy, lice-infested dog, he looked away. In the same vein he knew about non-attachment and not judging, but when his teacher asked him to do something he disapproved of, he refused.

We continually find ourselves in that squeeze. It’s a place where we look for alternatives to just being there. It’s an uncomfortable, embarrassing place, and it’s often the place where people like ourselves give up. We liked meditation and the teachings when we felt inspired and in touch with ourselves and on the right path. But what about when it feels like a burden, like we made the wrong choice and it’s not living up to our expectations at all? The people we are meeting are not all that sane. In fact, they seem pretty confused. The way the place is run is not up to par. Even the teacher is questionable.

This place of the squeeze is the very point in our meditation and in our lives where we can really learn something. The point where we are not able to take it or leave it, where we are caught between a rock and a hard place, caught with both the upliftedness of our ideas and the rawness of what’s happening in front of our eyes – that is indeed a very fruitful place.