When Things Fall Apart: Learning to Stay in the Midst of Chaos

Posted by Maeve Hendrix, LPCA


Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29

Rainer Maria Rilke

Transitions are tough.  No matter how big or small the life transition - in order to move through change, a certain amount of ‘letting go’ is required as well as a willingness to embrace the unknown.  Wading into the deep murky waters of the unknown can be terrifying.  



The unknown is a Liminal Space (unknown threshold) of being neither here, nor there.  It can feel shaky, groundless, exciting and utterly mystifying.  Something is birthing inside of us but we don't know what it is and this birthing process is occurring on a level that our rational mind cannot comprehend.  Our discursive mind scrambles desperately to file, organize, label, and make sense of this liminal space.  In feeble attempts to find a sense of stability, we begin to label ourselves and try to put our experience in a box.  Most of these labels include either judgment or praise of ourselves and our situation. One moment grasping to the glory of approval and achievement and the next moment berating ourselves for laziness, external sources of disapproval, lack of achievement or simply ‘not being enough’.  Sound familiar?  We get caught in a very ancient ping pong match of making ourselves Good and then Bad, Right and then Wrong, Worthy and then Unworthy.  

Interestingly, we are so very accustomed to putting a label on ourselves that this violent swinging back and forth between opposites is familiar... and therefore strangely comforting.  We would rather make ourselves Right or Wrong rather than relax into the unknown, liminal space with no clear identity.  

Pema Chodron, American Buddhist nun and meditation teacher describes this unknown, liminal space as The Middle Way.  Practicing The Middle Way is a brave endeavor that requires a ferocious desire to break old, ancient deeply engrained habitual patterns that keep us stuck.  Chodron says, ‘We have to get to a point where we are utterly sick of the incessant game we play with ourselves.  The game of making ourselves Right or Wrong, Worthy or Unworthy, Good or Bad, as a method of seeking comfort, seeking ground.’  We play this game with others as well, forever inhabiting the myopic dichotomies that so often involve Blame and Praise.  

The Middle Path practice requires courage, compassion, curiosity, humor, and dedication.  

Resting in the uncomfortable space of no label, no evaluation, no judgment (whether positive or negative) feels groundless. In this space of groundlessness, things get dicy. We begin to encounter fears that have been kept at bay for a very long time, perhaps our entire lives. We may feel like our foundation is crumbling and we will give anything to find our footing again.  


It is in these moments of unfamiliarity, discomfort, and instability- that we have landed in our own fertile goldmine of untapped treasure, rich with open-ended possibility.

If we can train ourselves to stay…  to give ourselves the gift of a sacred pause right there in the fiery moment of discomfort, we can increase our tolerance for discomfort and tap into the energy of the middle path.   By radically choosing to be with whatever is arising (thoughts, emotions, sensations) and settle into the energy of groundlessness, we have the opportunity to turn our gaze inward and inquire into the spacious, formless presence that is witnessing each moment.  

Furthermore, in Learning to Stay, we can tap into Bodhichitta: Our Awakened/Noble Heart, a vast limitless well of compassion. This is a fierce training process that can be translated to The Path of The Peaceful Warrior, or Bodhisattva training (training for servants of peace).  The peaceful warrior training prioritizes cultivating patience and compassion for ourselves and others as we practice The Middle Way.

The Middle Way embraces and celebrates impermanence, continuous flux, continuous change and transition, no resolution, nothing to hold onto or seek for comfort.  Furthermore, the Middle Way requests that we walk towards fear and uncertainty and open to the tenderness and strength that emerges when we let our heart be broken OPEN by life. 

I’ve been practicing a mantra that helps me to engage in a peaceful, compassionate, and curious relationship with myself when I feel afraid, uncertain or groundless.  The mantra is, “I’m here, and I’m listening” which offers a willingness to peacefully hold space for whatever is arising within and around me without a need for resolution... a commitment to be in the fertile space of the unknown.  I offer this mantra to physical sensations that I notice, whether they are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.  I offer this mantra to feelings and emotions that arise in me, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.  I also offer this mantra to habitual thought patterns of judgment, praise, blame, unworthiness, fear, impatience, joy, ignorance, uncertainty, craving, aversion. 

The mantra of ‘I’m here, and I’m Listening’ feels like a peace offering of radical acceptance to all of the parts of myself that have been fragmented from each other.  Watching and holding space from the perspective of my inner witness with an energy of compassion, spaciousness, and wakeful presence is beginning to allow all of my layers, voices, and inner characters to mingle and merge in the liminal space of groundlessness, a fertile birthing ground for fresh perspectives and experiences to emerge. 

This process requires trust and a willingness to Let Go to Divine Intervention while relaxing into the steady presence of Inner Witness.  If I were to describe my experience of the Inner Witness in three words, I would say: spacious, welcoming, and warm.  In trusting my capacity to connect to the Inner Witness and allowing all of life’s experiences to move through me, I train in letting go of seeking resolution, seeking comfort, and open up to the vast birthing ground of the Unknown. 

Pema Chodron offers a wealth of literature on the practice of the peaceful warrior, embracing groundlessness and Bodhichitta- our Noble Heart/Awakened Heart.  Chodron offers, “When we are training in the art of peace, we are not given any promises that, because of our noble intentions, everything will be okay.  In fact, there are no promises of fruition at all.  Instead, we are encouraged to simply look deeply at joy and sorrow, laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies.  We learn that what truly heals is gratitude and tenderness.” 


To find out more about embracing life transitions, The Middle Way and touching into Bodhichitta, read Pema Chodron’s book, ‘When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times’.