How to Stay Strong When Life Is Hard: 48 Pema Chödrön Quotes
Whenever I face challenges, obstacles, or difficulties in life, I return to one book, time and again: When Things Fall Apart, Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön.
Chödrön knows how to distill the wisdom of the Buddhist teachings for the Western mind and heart, making them universally applicable to everyone, whatever their background, faith, or absence of faith. She has a knack for drilling right to the core, putting her finger on exactly what we need to know to transcend unhappy and unhealthy patterns, once and for all.
2018 seems to be a repeat of what turned out to be a tumultuous 2017 for so many of us. I’m on my own emotional roller coast at the moment, which is why I turned once again to Chödrön's book. To help us stay strong in hard times, I’ve gathered together a collection of potentially life-changing quotes from When Things Fall Apart.
These quotes aren’t just quick memes, at least not most of them. They ask you to look deeply both within and also without, at the true nature of reality not the dream you've conjured up.
Find the ones that resonate for you. Then take one—the one that speaks to you in that moment or for that particular day—and sit with it for a while. Soak it in. Let its truth permeate your being. This will help you to begin to live from greater clarity and a kinder heart, if only for a few moments at time at first.
As you expose yourself to these truths again and again—really take them in—those moments will expand into quarter hours, half hours, full hours, and gradually into whole days and more.
48 Pema Chödrön Quotes for Hard Times
These Pema Chödrön remind me that everything is impermanent, attachment only brings suffering, and healing comes through showing kindness to ourselves and others. I hope they make a difference for you too.
Please note that I've added explanatory words in brackets from time-to-time to give the fuller context, but these are not part of the original quote.
Here we go!
“What we’re talking about is getting to know fear, becoming familiar with fear, looking it right in the eye—not as a way to solve problems, but as a complete undoing of old ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and thinking.”
“…we cannot be in the present moment and run our story lines at the same time!”
“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think 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.”
“To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feelings 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. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.”
“Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors—people who have a certain hunger to know what is true—feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”
“Those events and people in our lives who trigger our unresolved issues could be regarded as good news. We don’t have to go hunting for anything. We don’t need to try to create situations in which we reach our limit. They occur all by themselves, with clockwork regularity.”
“Most of us do not take these [difficult] 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.”
“We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives.”
“In practicing meditation, we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal—quite the opposite. We’re just being with our experience, whatever it is.”
“The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves. Yet it’s never too late or too early to practice loving-kindness. It’s as if we had a terminal disease but might live for quite a while. Not knowing how much time we have left, we might begin to think it was important to make friends with ourselves and others in the remaining hours, months, or years.”
“It is said that we can’t attain enlightenment, let alone feel contentment and joy, without seeing who we are and what we do, without seeing our patterns and habits. This is called maitri—developing loving-kindness and an unconditional friendship with ourselves.
“The painful thing is that when we buy into disapproval, we are practicing disapproval. When we buy into harshness, we are practicing harshness. The more we do it, the stronger these qualities become. How sad it is that we become so expert at causing harm to ourselves and others. The trick then is to practice gentleness and letting go.”
“The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face. When we feel resentment because the room is too hot, we could meet the heat and feel its fieriness and its heaviness. When we feel resentment because the room is too cold, we could meet the cold and feel its iciness and its bite. When we want to complain about the rain, we could feel its wetness instead. When we worry because the wind is shaking our windows, we could meet the wind and hear its sound. Cutting our expectations for a cure is a gift we can give ourselves. There is no cure for hot and cold. They will go on forever. After we have died, the ebb and flow will still continue. Like the tides of the sea, like day and night—this is the nature of things. Being able to appreciate, being able to look closely, being able to open our minds—this is the core of maitri [loving-kindness].”
“Not causing harm requires staying awake. Part of being awake is slowing down enough to notice what we say or do. The more we witness our emotional chain reactions and understand how they work, the easier it is to refrain [from harm]. It becomes a way of life to stay awake, slow down, and notice.”
“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.”
“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.”
"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 there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.”
“Hopelessness is the basic ground. Otherwise, we’re going to make the [spiritual] journey with the hope of getting security. If we make the journey to get security, we’re completely missing the point. We can do our meditation practice with the hope of getting security; we can study the teachings with the hope of getting security; we can follow all the guidelines and instructions with the hope of getting security; but it will only lead to disappointment and pain. We could save ourselves a lot of time by taking this message very seriously right now. Begin the journey without hope of getting ground under your feet. Begin with hopelessness."
“All anxiety, all dissatisfaction, all the reasons for hoping that our experience could be different are rooted in our fear of death. Fear of death is always in the background. As the Zen master, Shunryu Suzuki Roishi said, life is like getting into a boat that’s just about to sail out to sea and sink. But it’s very hard—no matter how much we hear about it—to believe in our own death. Many spiritual practices try to encourage us to take our own death seriously, but it’s amazing how difficult it is to allow it to hit home. The one thing in life that we can really count on is incredibly remote for all of us. We don’t go so far as to say, ‘No way, I’m not going to die,’ because of course we know that we are. But it definitely will be later. That’s the biggest hope.”
“Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation—proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life. But most of the time, warding off death is our biggest motivation. We habitually ward off any sense of problem. We’re always trying to deny that it’s a natural occurrence that things change, that the sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing. It’s as natural as the seasons changing and day turning into night. But getting old, getting sick, losing what we love—we don’t see those events as natural occurrences. We want to ward off that sense of death no matter what.”
“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.”
“When we become more insightful and compassionate about how we ourselves get hooked, we spontaneously feel more tenderness for the human race. Knowing our own confusion, we’re more willing and able to get our hands dirty and try to alleviate the confusion of others. If we don’t look into hope and fear, seeing a thought arise, seeing the chain reaction that follows—if we don’t train in sitting with that energy without getting snared by the drama, then we’re always going to be afraid. The world we live in, the people we meet, the animals emerging from doorways—everything will become increasingly threatening."
“People have no respect for impermanence. We take no delight in it; in fact, we despair of it. We regard it as pain. We try to resist it by making things that will last—forever, we say—things that we don’t have to wash, things that we don’t have to iron. Somehow, in the process of trying to deny that things are always changing, we lose our sense of the sacredness of life. We tend to forget that we are part of the natural scheme of things.”
"Our suffering is based so much on our fear of impermanence. Our pain is so rooted in our one-sided, lopsided view of reality. Who ever got the idea that we could have pleasure without pain? It’s promoted rather widely in this world, and we buy it. But pain and pleasure go together; they are inseparable. They can be celebrated. They are ordinary. Birth is painful and delightful. Death is painful and delightful. Everything that ends is also the beginning of something new. Pain is not a punishment, pleasure is not a reward.”
“…what we habitually regard as obstacles are not really our enemies, but rather our friends. What we call obstacles are really the way the world and our entire experience teach us where we’re stuck. What may appear to be an arrow or a sword we can actually experience as a flower. Whether we experience what happens to us as obstacle and enemy or as a teacher and friend depends entirely on our perception of reality. It depends on our relationship with ourselves.”
“…perhaps 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.”
“Our whole world falls apart, and we’ve been give this great opportunity. However, we don’t trust our basic wisdom mind enough to let it stay like that. Our habitual reaction is to want to get ourselves back—even our anger, resentment, fear, or bewilderment. So we re-create our solid, immovable personality as if we were Michelangelo chiseling ourselves out of marble.”
“We use our emotions. We use them. In their essence, they are simply part of the goodness of being alive, but instead of letting them be, we take them and use them to regain our ground. We use them to try to deny that in fact no one has ever known or will ever know what’s happening. We use them to try to make everything secure and predictable and real again, to fool ourselves about what’s really true. We could just sit with the emotional energy and let it pass. There’s no particular need to spread blame and self-justification. Instead we throw kerosene on the emotion so it will feel more real.”
“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. Doing this, sooner or later, we’re going to have an experience we can’t control: our house is going to burn down, someone we love is going to die, we’re going to find out we have cancer, a brick is going to fall out of the sky and hit us on the head, somebody’s going to spill tomato juice all over our white suit, or we’ve going to arrive at our favorite restaurant and discover that no one ordered produce and seven hundred people are coming for lunch.”
“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. From the awakened point of view, that’s life. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together. So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.” [Note: “yama” refers to death and “mara” refers to obstacle.]
“Listening to talks about the dharma [spiritual teachings], or the teachings of Buddha, or practicing meditation is nothing other than studying ourselves. Whether we’re eating or working or meditating or listening or talking, the reason that we’ve here in this world at all is to study ourselves.”
"Learning how to be kind to ourselves, learning how to respect ourselves, is important. The reason it’s important is that, fundamentally, when we look into our own hearts and begin to discover what is confused and what is brilliant, what is bitter and what is sweet, it isn’t just ourselves that we’re discovering. We’re discovering the universe. When we discover the Buddha that we are, we discover that everything and everyone is Buddha. We discover that everything is awake and everyone is awake. Everything is equally precious and whole and good. When we regard thoughts and emotions with humor and openness, that’s how we perceive the universe. We’re not just talking about our individual liberation, but how to help the community we live in, how to help our families, our country, and the whole continent, not to mention the world and the galaxy and as far as we want to go.”
“If we find ourselves unworkable and give up on ourselves, then we’ll find others unworkable and give up on them. What we hate in ourselves, we’ll hate in others. To the degree that we have compassion for ourselves, we will also have compassion for others. 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 to."
“There’s a slogan in the mahayana teachings that says, ‘Drive all blames into oneself.' The essence of this slogan is, ‘When it hurts so bad, it’s because I am hanging on so tight.’ It’s not saying that we should beat ourselves up. It’s not advocating martyrdom. What it implies is that pain comes from holding so tightly to having it our own way and that one of the main exits we take when we find ourselves uncomfortable, when we find ourselves in an unwanted situation or an unwanted place, is to blame.”
“Wanting situations and relationships to be solid, permanent, and graspable obscures the pith of the matter, which is that things are fundamentally groundless.”
“We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole. This separateness becomes like a prison for us, a prison that restricts us to our personal hopes and fears and to caring only for the people nearest to us. Curiously enough, if we primarily try to shield ourselves from discomfort, we suffer. Yet when we don’t close off and we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings.”
“In order to feel compassion for other people, we have to feel compassion for ourselves. In particular, to care about people who are fearful, angry, jealous, overpowered by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, miserly, selfish, mean, you name it—to have compassion and to care for these people means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves.”
“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, at laughing and crying, at hoping and fearing, at all that lives and dies. We learn that what truly heals is gratitude and tenderness.”
“When we’re not in meditation, we could begin to notice our opinions just as we notice that we’re thinking when we’re meditating. This is an extremely helpful practice, because we have a lot of opinions, and we tend to take them as truth. But actually they aren’t truth. They are just our opinions. We have a lot of emotional backup for these opinions. They are often judgmental or critical; they’re sometimes about how nice or perfect something is. In any case, we have a lot of opinions.”
“In other words, no matter how well documented or noble our cause is, it won’t be helped by our felling aggression toward the oppressors or those who are promoting the danger. Nothing will ever change through aggression.”
“You could say that not much changes through nonaggression either. However, nonaggression benefits the earth profoundly. The root cause of famine, starvation, and cruelty at the personal level is aggression. When we hold on to our opinions with aggression, no matter how valid our cause, we are simply adding more aggression to the planet, and violence and pain increase.”
“One piece of advice that Don Juan gave to Carlos Castaneda 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.”
“Times are difficult globally; awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal. It’s becoming critical. We don’t need to add more depression, more discouragement, or more anger to what’s already here. It’s becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times. The earth seems to be beseeching us to connect with joy and discover our innermost essence. This is the best way that we can benefit others.”
“It helps to remember that our practice is not about accomplishing anything—not about winning or losing—but about ceasing to struggle and relaxing as it is. That is what we are doing when we sit down to meditate. That attitude spreads into the rest of our lives.”
“Now is the only time. How we relate to it creates the future. In other words, if we’re going to be more cheerful in the future, it’s because of our aspiration and exertion to be cheerful in the present. What we do accumulates; the future is the result of what we do right now.”
“We can make ourselves miserable or we can make ourselves strong. The amount of effort is the same. Right now we are creating our state of mind for tomorrow, not to mention this afternoon, next week, next year, and all the years of our lives.”
"Everything that occurs is not only usable and workable but is actually the path itself. We can use everything that happens to us as the means for waking up. We can use everything that occurs—whether it’s our conflicting emotions and thoughts or our seemingly outer situation—to show us where are asleep and how we can wake up completely, utterly, without reservations.”
Use Obstacles to Strengthen Yourself
These Pema Chödrön quotes offer a way forward from darkness into light. They show us how to use obstacles as vehicles for learning and strengthening our mind and heart.
Indeed, through studying and embracing this wisdom, you may come to understand that what you once perceived as obstacles were instead the most positive change points of your life.
If you're in the middle of hard times, I highly recommend reading the whole book: When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times[affiliate link].
How is life going to you? Have you been facing difficult times too? How do you manage? I would love to hear in the comments.
Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious! Don’t forget to sign up for Wild Arisings, my twice monthly letters from my heart filled with insights, inspiration, and ideas to help you connect with and live from your truest self. May you be happy, well, and safe – always. With love, Sandra