When Things Fall Apart

by Pema Chödrön

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 12, 2024
When Things Fall Apart
When Things Fall Apart

What are the big ideas? 1. Nonaggression as a Response to Obstacles: The book introduces the concept of nonaggression as a response to obstacles, rather than seeing

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What are the big ideas?

  1. Nonaggression as a Response to Obstacles: The book introduces the concept of nonaggression as a response to obstacles, rather than seeing them as enemies or problems to be solved. This approach encourages opening up to difficulties and using them as opportunities for growth and self-awareness, rather than trying to avoid or escape from pain (Chapter 11).
  2. Tonglen Practice: The book introduces the practice of Tonglen, which involves breathing in someone's pain and suffering and breathing out relief and joy. This technique is used to awaken bodhichitta (the noble heart) and create a sense of connection with others, helping to expand compassion and understanding (Chapter 15).
  3. Cultivating Bodhichitta: The book emphasizes the importance of cultivating bodhichitta, or the awakened heart that is present in all beings and helps us connect with their suffering. This practice involves being kind and respectful to oneself, allowing for genuine inquisitiveness and exploration (Chapter 12).
  4. Working with Difficulties: The book offers three methods for working with difficulties: no more struggle, using poison as medicine, and regarding whatever arises as enlightened wisdom. These techniques help us transform challenges into opportunities for growth and insight, rather than trying to fix problems or follow habitual responses (Chapter 19).
  5. Choicelessness and Samaya: The book introduces the concept of choicelessness and samaya, which involve total commitment to reality without deception or manipulation, even during difficult times. This principle requires us to face our fear and uncertainty and live in accordance with that wisdom (Chapter 20).




  • Spend a year doing nothing and focus on self-care, reading, hiking, cooking, meditating, and writing.
  • Re-examine past teachings and realize the importance of self-compassion and compassion for others.
  • Practice leaning into challenges and inviting in what is usually avoided.
  • Collaborate with an editor to create a book from past talks and teachings.
  • Relax and write, following the advice of your teacher.
  • Use teachings on honesty, kindness, and bravery to handle chaos and stress in life.
  • Join a lineage of teachers and students who made the Buddha dharma relevant to their ordinary lives.
  • Be inspired by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's commitment to transmitting the essence of the dharma to the West.
  • Lead a bodhisattva's life and remember that chaos is good news.

1. Intimacy with Fear


  • Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth, shared by all living beings.
  • Engaging in spiritual practices like Buddhism will inevitably lead to encountering fear.
  • Fear is a response to the unknown and the possibility of vulnerability.
  • Staying present without running story lines allows for deeper understanding and connection with fear and other emotions.
  • Embracing fear rather than trying to overcome it leads to humility, courage, and discoveries beyond beliefs.
  • Intimacy with fear can cause our personal dramas to collapse and bring us closer to the world around us.


“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth”

“No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear...the advice we usually get is to sweeten it up, smooth it over, take a pill, or distract ourselves, but by all means make it go away. (5)”

“The trick is to keep exploring and not bail out, even when we find out that something is not what we thought. That’s what we’re going to discover again and again and again. Nothing is what we thought.”

2. When Things Fall Apart


  • When things fall apart, stay on the brink and don't concretize. The spiritual journey is about letting go, not reaching a perfect or ideal state.
  • In times of difficulty, tenderness is essential - it can lead to growth or shutting down.
  • Life is unpredictable and full of change; embracing uncertainty is key to awakening.
  • Letting go of the need for control and security allows us to truly care for ourselves and others.
  • Anger and difficult situations can be transformative, leading us to growth and spiritual awareness.
  • The present moment is always in transition, and embracing this instability can lead to openness and non-aggression.
  • Catching ourselves in moments of hardening into resentment or aggression and practicing compassion is the path of a warrior.
  • Every day, we have the choice to add to the peace or violence in the world through our actions and reactions.


“I used to have a sign pinned up on my wall that read: Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us...It was all about letting go of everything.”

“When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality. (9)”

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. When we think that something is going to bring us pleasure, we don’t know what’s really going to happen. When we think something is going to give us misery, we don’t know. Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. We try to do what we think is going to help. But we don’t know. We never know if we’re going to fall flat or sit up tall. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure.”

“Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don't know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don't know.”

“Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly. The very first noble truth of the Buddha points out that suffering is inevitable for human beings as long as we believe that things last—that they don’t disintegrate, that they can be counted on to satisfy our hunger for security.”

“Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs. To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path.”

3. This Very Moment Is the Perfect Teacher


  • Discomfort and difficult experiences can be valuable teachers, revealing areas where we're holding back.
  • Embrace uncomfortable situations rather than running away or using addictions as escapes.
  • Meditation helps us observe our thoughts and emotions without judgment and let them go.
  • Reaching our limit is not a punishment but an opportunity for growth and self-awareness.
  • Practice acknowledging and letting go of thoughts during meditation, then applying this skill to daily life.
  • Opening up to discomfort gradually leads to greater awareness, compassion, and wisdom.


“Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape -- all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can't stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.”

“Awakeness is found in our pleasure and our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.”

4. Relax As It Is


  • Meditation instruction involves relaxing and opening one's mind, focusing on the natural out-breath as an object of meditation
  • Labeling thoughts "thinking" helps cultivate unconditional friendliness towards all mental content
  • Sitting in proper posture can lead to greater relaxation and settlement in the body
  • Meditation is about opening to whatever arises without judgment or grasping, not trying to get rid of thoughts
  • Repetition and perseverance in meditation practice leads to its own rewards.

5. It’s Never Too Late


  • Loving-kindness is not about solving problems or becoming a better person, but rather developing an unconditional friendship with ourselves and others.
  • It's never too late or early to practice loving-kindness.
  • We can't attain enlightenment without seeing who we are and what we do, which is called maitri.
  • Practice gentleness and letting go instead of disapproval and harshness towards ourselves and others.
  • Meet whatever arises with curiosity rather than struggle against it.
  • There is always open space in the midst of difficult scenarios.
  • We carry around an image of ourselves, called "small mind," that needs taming with compassion.
  • Touch into the spaciousness of rikpa, or wisdom mind, to expand our awareness beyond discursive thoughts and concepts.
  • Look at what scares us instead of running away to live life fully.
  • Resistance to life can be dissolved by meeting it face to face and appreciating its beauty.


“The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.”

“We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart. This starts with realizing that whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just the same kind of normal human experience that’s been happening to everyday people from the beginning of time.”

“Our personal demons come in many guises. We experience them as shame, as jealousy, as abandonment, as rage. They are anything that makes us so uncomfortable that we continually run away. We do the big escape: we act out, say something, slam a door, hit someone, or throw a pot as a way of not facing what’s happening in our hearts. Or we shove the feelings under and somehow deaden the pain. We can spend our whole lives escaping from the monsters of our minds. All over the world, people are so caught in running that they forget to take advantage of the beauty around them. We become so accustomed to speeding ahead that we rob ourselves of joy.”

6. Not Causing Harm


  • Not causing harm includes refraining from aggression towards ourselves and others, ignorance, and harmful actions.
  • Mindfulness is the foundation for not causing harm and helps us relate honestly to our experiences.
  • Refraining is the practice of not immediately acting on impulses and getting in touch with fundamental groundlessness.
  • Understanding fear and respecting emotions can help us stop causing harm and increase self-awareness.
  • Well-being of body, speech, and mind results from ceasing to cause harm and developing mindfulness and self-respect.
  • Staying awake and noticing emotional chain reactions helps us refrain and undo ignorance through meditation.


“NOT CAUSING HARM obviously includes not killing or robbing or lying to people. It also includes not being aggressive—not being aggressive with our actions, our speech, or our minds. Learning not to cause harm to ourselves or others is a basic Buddhist teaching on the healing power of nonaggression. Not harming ourselves or others in the beginning, not harming ourselves or others in the middle, and not harming ourselves or others in the end is the basis of enlightened society.”

“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

“The ground of not causing harm is mindfulness, a sense of clear seeing with respect and compassion for what it is we see. This is what basic practice shows us. But mindfulness doesn’t stop with formal meditation. It helps us relate with all the details of our lives. It helps us see and hear and smell, without closing our eyes or our ears or our noses. It’s a lifetime’s journey to relate honestly to the immediacy of our experience and to respect ourselves enough not to judge it. As we become more wholehearted in this journey of gentle honesty, it comes as quite a shock to realize how much we’ve blinded ourselves to some of the ways in which we cause harm. Our style is so ingrained that we can’t hear when people try to tell us, either kindly or rudely, that maybe we’re causing some harm by the way we are or the way we relate with others. We’ve become so used to the way we do things that somehow we think that others are used to it too. It’s painful to face how we harm others, and it takes a while.”

“Once there was a young warrior. Her teacher told her that she had to do battle with fear. She didn’t want to do that. It seemed too aggressive; it was scary; it seemed unfriendly. But the teacher said she had to do it and gave her the instructions for the battle. The day arrived. The student warrior stood on one side, and fear stood on the other. The warrior was feeling very small, and fear was looking big and wrathful. They both had their weapons. The young warrior roused herself and went toward fear, prostrated three times, and asked, "May I have permission to go into battle with you?" Fear said, "Thank you for showing me so much respect that you ask permission." Then the young warrior said, "How can I defeat you?" Fear replied, "My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power." In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear. ”

“This is how it actually works. There has to be some kind of respect for the jitters, some understanding of how our emotions have the power to run us around in circles. That understanding helps us discover how we increase our pain, how we increase our confusion, how we cause harm to ourselves. Because we have basic goodness, basic wisdom, basic intelligence, we can stop harming ourselves and harming others. Because of mindfulness, we see things when they arise. Because of our understanding, we don’t buy into the chain reaction that makes things grow from minute to expansive. We leave things minute. They stay tiny. They don’t keep expanding into World War III or domestic violence. It all comes through learning to pause for a moment, learning not to just impulsively do the same thing again and again. It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness.”

“It all comes through learning to pause for a moment, learning not to just impulsively do the same thing again and again. It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness. The result is that we cease to cause harm. We begin to know ourselves thoroughly and to respect ourselves.”

7. Hopelessness and Death


  • Turning your mind toward the dharma means acknowledging impermanence and change, and beginning to get the knack of hopelessness.
  • Complete hopelessness, or ye tang che, is essential for the spiritual path as it allows us to question our basic assumptions and let go of our attachment to a solid, separate self.
  • Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.
  • Hopelessness means giving up hope that there's somewhere better to be or someone better to be, and allowing us to fully be where we are.
  • The first noble truth of Buddhism is that suffering is a natural part of life and does not mean that something is wrong.
  • Hope and fear come from a sense of poverty and keep us from fully experiencing the present moment.
  • Renouncing our attachment to hope and fear allows us to investigate what's happening in the present moment and cultivate confidence in our basic sanity.
  • Giving up hope of getting ground under our feet is the first step on the spiritual path.
  • Fear of death is the root of much anxiety and dissatisfaction, but embracing hopelessness and death can provide proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life.


“In Tibetan there’s an interesting word: ye tang che. The ye part means “totally, completely,” and the rest of it means “exhausted.” Altogether, ye tang che means totally tired out. We might say “totally fed up.” It describes an experience of complete hopelessness, of completely giving up hope. This is an important point. This is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope—that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be—we will never relax with where we are or who we are.”

“The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. It is an issue that applies to everyone, including both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.”

“The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. What a relief. Finally somebody told the truth. Suffering is part of life, and we don’t have to feel it’s happening because we personally made the wrong move. In reality, however, when we feel suffering, we think that something is wrong. As long as we’re addicted to hope, we feel that we can tone our experience down or liven it up or change it somehow, and we continue to suffer a lot.”

“Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what's going on, but that there's something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.”

“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”

“What happens with you when you begin to feel uneasy, unsettled, queasy? Notice the panic, notice when you instantly grab for something. (51)”

“Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time—that is the basic message.”

8. Eight Worldly Dharmas


  • The eight worldly dharmas refer to four pairs of opposites that we are attached to and try to avoid: pleasure/pain, praise/blame, fame/disgrace, gain/loss.
  • Being immersed in these opposites causes suffering and keeps us stuck in the cycle of samsara.
  • Our emotional reactions and mood swings are often triggered by how we interpret what happens to us, based on our attachment or avoidance of these eight worldly dharmas.
  • The eight worldly dharmas are not solid or concrete, but rather constructs of our own minds.
  • Practicing meditation can help us become aware of how emotions and moods are connected to having lost or gained something, or having been praised or blamed, etc.
  • We can use our lives to explore these opposites in everything we do, instead of automatically falling into habitual patterns.
  • Becoming more insightful and compassionate about our own reactions to hope and fear can lead to greater tenderness for the human race and a desire to help others.


“We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”

9. Six Kinds of Loneliness


  • Loneliness is often viewed as an enemy, but it can be transformed into a nonthreatening, cooling experience through practicing the middle way.
  • The middle way involves having no reference point and letting go of the desire for resolution or security.
  • Practicing less desire, contentment, avoiding unnecessary activities, complete discipline, not wandering in the world of desire, and not seeking security from one's thoughts can help cultivate cool loneliness.
  • Cool loneliness allows us to look honestly at our own minds and be compassionate with ourselves.
  • The middle way challenges us to step into a world of no reference point without polarizing or solidifying.


“Scrambling for security has never brought anything but momentary joy.”

“As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don't deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.”

“So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn't sit for even one, that's the journey of the warrior. (68)”

10. Curious about Existence


  • Impermanence is a constant part of life, celebrated as the essence of everything and the principle of harmony.
  • Suffering and pleasure are inseparable, both ordinary and capable of celebration.
  • Inspiration and wretchedness complement each other, with proper relation leading to understanding and growth.
  • Egolessness is a gain, recognizing our connection to the world and experiencing unconditional joy.
  • Recognize impermanence, suffering, and egolessness in everyday life through curiosity and mindfulness.
  • Cultivate moment-to-moment curiosity to discover peace as the understanding of complementary opposites.


“Everything is fresh, the essence of realization.”

“Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality.”

“Birth is painful and delightful. Death is painful and delightful. Everything that ends is also the beginning of something else. Pain is not a punishment; pleasure is not a reward.”

11. Nonaggression and the Four Maras


  • Obstacles, such as pain or fear, are not enemies but opportunities for growth and self-awareness.
  • The four maras (devaputra, skandha, klesha, yama) describe common ways humans try to avoid what is happening.
  • Devaputra mara: seeking pleasure as a way to escape pain.
  • Skandha mara: reacting with fear and re-creating ourselves when we feel lost or uncertain.
  • Klesha mara: using emotions to avoid the uncertainty of not knowing.
  • Yama mara: fearing death and wanting control and perfection in life.
  • Instead of seeing obstacles as problems, practice observing and opening up to them.
  • Embrace the uncertainty and vulnerability of being human.


“nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know …nothing ever really attacks us except our own confusion. perhaps there is no solid obstacle except our own need to protect ourselves from being touched. maybe the only enemy is that we don’t like the way reality is now and therefore wish it would go away fast. but what we find as practitioners is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. if we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. it just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter, without hesitating or retreating into ourselves.”

“We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that’s death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience.”

“The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 percent healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.”

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ”

“Trying to run away is never the answer to being a fully human. Running away from the immediacy of our experience is like preferring death to life.”

12. Growing Up


  • Pointing directly at your own heart is the way to find Buddha and understand both neurosis and unconditioned truth.
  • Study yourself in every situation to discover what is true.
  • Honesty without kindness can lead to depression and introspection.
  • Kindness, expressed as heart, gentleness, or unlimited friendliness, balances out the picture and helps connect with joy.
  • Compassion and respect are essential when discovering what is true in ourselves.
  • Learning to be kind and respectful to oneself leads to understanding the universe and everything being equally precious.
  • Bravery and kindness toward oneself lead to confidence and fearlessness when relating to others.
  • Using nonjudgmental reflection on one's actions as motivation for growth.
  • Accepting and softening oneself allows for genuine inquisitiveness and an appetite for exploration.


“Pointing directly at your own heart, you find Buddha.”

“So, along with clear seeing, there’s another important element, and that’s kindness. It seems that, without clarity and honesty, we don’t progress. We just stay stuck in the same vicious cycle. But honesty without kindness makes us feel grim and mean, and pretty soon we start looking like we’ve been sucking on lemons. We become so caught up in introspection that we lose any contentment or gratitude we might have had. The sense of being irritated by ourselves and our lives and other people’s idiosyncrasies becomes overwhelming. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on kindness.”

“Honesty without kindness, humor, and goodheartedness can be just mean.”

13. Widening the Circle of Compassion


  • Compassion involves working with ourselves as much as working with others.
  • To communicate compassionately, we must be open and non-judgmental towards ourselves and others.
  • Blame is a way to protect ourselves from pain and keeps us from communicating genuinely with others.
  • The slogan "Drive all blames into oneself" suggests focusing on the feeling of holding on tightly instead of blaming others or ourselves.
  • Pain comes from holding on to having things our own way and blame is a deep-seated, ancient habit.
  • Openness and acceptance of ourselves and others allows for true communication and compassionate action.


“Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don’t even want to look at. Compassion isn’t some kind of self-improvement project or ideal that we’re trying to live up too.”

14. The Love That Will Not Die


  • Bodhichitta is a Sanskrit term for the noble or awakened heart, present in all beings, which helps us connect with the suffering of others and develop compassion
  • The discovery of our soft spot, our ability to feel deeply for others, is key to developing bodhichitta
  • In difficult times, touching the genuine heart of bodhichitta can bring healing and inspire us to act with compassion
  • Tonglen practice, which involves breathing in pain and suffering and breathing out relief and joy, can help awaken bodhichitta and create a sense of connection with others
  • Protecting ourselves from vulnerability and pain only makes us more fearful and alienated; opening ourselves up to suffering allows us to discover our kinship with all beings and experience joy.


“We awaken this bodhichitta, this tenderness for life, when we can no longer shield ourselves from the vulnerability of our condition, from the basic fragility of existence. In the words of the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, “You take it all in. You let the pain of the world touch your heart and you turn it into compassion.” It is said that in difficult times, it is only bodhichitta that heals.”

“When we protect ourselves so we won't feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of of the heart.”

15. Going against the Grain


  • Tonglen practice is about feeling compassion for oneself to feel compassion for others.
  • To do Tonglen, breathe in someone's pain and breathe out relief or happiness.
  • When facing personal pain, focus on sending relief to all those feeling the same emotion.
  • Tonglen goes against our self-protection and clinging to ego.
  • Tonglen can be done formally with stages or on the spot during daily life.
  • Breathe in pain and breathe out relief for yourself and others, making it bigger each time.
  • Compassion expands and realization that things are not as solid as we thought will gradually come with practice.


“We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.”

16. Servants of Peace


  • The Six Paramitas are the six perfections that a bodhisattva cultivates in order to become enlightened and help others do the same. They are: generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and prajna (wisdom).
  • Generosity is about giving freely without expecting anything in return. It includes being generous with our time, energy, and resources as well as our kindness and compassion.
  • Discipline refers to the development of self-control through adhering to moral precepts, following a daily practice routine, and maintaining a stable mind.
  • Patience is the ability to endure difficult situations without reacting with anger or frustration. It involves recognizing that everything in life is impermanent and constantly changing.
  • Exertion means applying ourselves fully to our activities, both inner and outer, with enthusiasm and dedication.
  • Meditation is the practice of focusing our attention on a single object, such as the breath, in order to develop concentration and insight. It involves sitting quietly and observing the mind without judgment or attachment.
  • Prajna is the wisdom that enables us to see things as they really are, beyond the veil of ignorance and confusion. It includes understanding the nature of reality, the interconnectedness of all things, and the impermanence of all phenomena.
  • The Six Paramitas work together to help us develop the qualities necessary for enlightenment, such as compassion, joy, equanimity, and wisdom. They provide a framework for living a meaningful and purposeful life that benefits ourselves and others.


“We don't set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people's hearts.”

17. Opinions


  • Notice and label opinions as just that - opinions, rather than truths
  • Cultivate nonaggression towards ourselves and others by acknowledging the presence of opinions without judgment
  • Recognize the difference between intelligence (clear seeing) and opinions
  • Use patience and keep a clear mind while working for reform without letting opinions solidify the sense of enemy
  • Practice noticing opinions in daily life to become more attuned to our thought patterns and habits
  • Let go of opinions and come back to the immediacy of experience to discover new perspectives and a fresh state of being
  • Never give up on ourselves or others in the pursuit of awakening clear-seeing intelligence.


“One piece of advice that Don Juan gave to Carlos Casteneda was to do everything as if it were the only thing in the world that mattered, while all the time knowing that it doesn’t matter at all.”

“Finally, never give up on yourself. Then you will never give up on others.”

18. Secret Oral Instructions


  • In everyday life, there is a tension between our aspirations and reality, leading to a perplexing squeeze.
  • When we feel squeezed, our minds can become smaller and we may give up or become frustrated. Instead, we can drop complaints and expand our minds to learn from the experience.
  • The next time we find ourselves without ground to stand on, we should view it as an opportunity for growth rather than an obstacle.
  • Encouragement is needed to explore unknown territory and face the unanswerable question of what's next.
  • Milarepa's story offers valuable advice for dealing with life's challenges and not giving up, even when faced with humiliation or adversity.
  • Teachers throughout history have shown that staying present in the midst of the squeeze leads to greater understanding and wisdom.

19. Three Methods for Working with Chaos


  • Three methods for working with difficulties: no more struggle, using poison as medicine, and regarding whatever arises as enlightened wisdom.
  • No more struggle: practicing looking at difficult situations directly without judgment and returning to pristine awareness.
  • Using poison as medicine: turning difficult situations into fuel for compassion and openness by breathing in suffering and sending out relief.
  • Regarding whatever arises as enlightened wisdom: regarding ourselves and the world as already awake and sacred, transforming conflict into a path of awakening.
  • Dissolve dualistic struggle by moving toward difficulties rather than backing away.
  • Use everyday life experiences to practice letting go of judgments and schemes, and transforming suffering into joy.
  • Regard suffering as basic energy and the play of wisdom, and choose to view situations as heaven or hell based on perception.
  • Cultivate a sense of humor and relaxation in daily life and meditation practice.


“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.”

20. The Trick of Choicelessness


  • Samaya is a Sanskrit term that means commitment or bond, particularly in the context of the vajrayana Buddhist tradition.
  • The samaya relationship between a student and teacher is one of total commitment to sanity and reality, with no exit strategy. It requires unconditional love and trust, and is meant to help us develop these qualities.
  • Milarepa's relationship with Marpa the Translator is an example of this type of samaya bond, which involved many trials and challenges before ultimately leading to deep realization and transformation.
  • The ultimate goal of samaya practice is to realize the nature of reality as it is, without deception or manipulation, and to live in accordance with that wisdom.
  • Samaya is a trick in the sense that it requires us to face our fear and uncertainty, and to commit fully to our experience in the present moment, even when it is uncomfortable or uncertain. It can help us develop courage, resilience, and compassion.
  • The commitment to samaya ultimately requires us to take refuge in the three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, as well as in our own inherent goodness and wisdom.
  • The key takeaways are the importance of total commitment to reality, the role of a teacher in helping us develop this commitment, and the challenges and rewards of living in accordance with samaya principles.

21. Reversing the Wheel of Samsara


  • Catch yourself when you spin off in the same old ways, instead of trying to fix problems or following habitual responses.
  • Apply the dharma to your emotional life, even during difficult times, by bringing it into your nightmares and seeing it as good food and no-side-effects medicine.
  • Change habits, particularly those of the mind, to reverse the process of making everything solid and break free from patterns of grasping and fixating.
  • Stop clinging to concepts of good and evil, and explore the possibility that our perceptions are our own projections.
  • Practice with kindness, gentleness, and without harshness or guilt.
  • Let go of nostalgia for samsara and step into no-man's-land, feeling shaky but curious about the teachings.
  • Remember that every act, thought, and emotion counts on the path and that the dharma is each moment of our lives.
  • Be willing to give yourself a break from being predictable, and let thoughts begin to slow down, creating more space to breathe and dance, and leading to happiness.


“Usually we feel that there’s a large problem and we have to fix it. The instruction is to stop. Do something unfamiliar. Do anything besides rushing off in the same old direction, up to the same old tricks.”

“Maybe the most important teaching is to lighten up and relax. It’s such a huge help in working with our crazy mixed-up minds to remember that what we’re doing is unlocking a softness that is in us and letting it spread. We’re letting it blur the sharp corners of self-criticism and complaint.”

22. The Path Is the Goal


  • The path to wisdom and enlightenment is found in the present moment, not in some future destination.
  • The path is uncharted and evolves moment by moment, making it important to relate positively to each experience.
  • Pain and difficult situations can serve as sources of wisdom and growth, rather than reasons for aggression or desire to escape.
  • Our present actions create our future state of mind, so we have the power to choose how we respond to current circumstances.
  • Cultivating a willingness to relate directly with what's happening in our lives, with precision and gentleness, leads to fundamental cheerfulness and relaxation.
  • All experiences, including difficult ones, can be regarded as the path and are workable with the right attitude and approach.
  • We have the choice to relate to circumstances with bitterness or openness, making every moment an opportunity for growth and uplifting society.

Afterword to the 20th Anniversary Edition


  • Embrace uncertainty and use it as an opportunity to start waking up and surrendering to uncontrollable situations.
  • Let go of resistance and resentment to learn and grow in difficult times.
  • Find comfort in the teachings of great sages, which are flourishing more than ever before.
  • Practice altruistic consciousness by putting others' needs above your own during times of conflict and interconnectedness.
  • Take responsibility for your own state of mind and relax with the true nature of reality, which is uncertain and unpredictable.
  • Transform the world from a place of escalating aggression to a place of awakening by learning how to relate sanely with chaos.


“Be curious. Welcome groundlessness. Lighten up and relax. Offer chaos a cup of tea.”


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