Many years ago my best friend sent me a copy of the book When Things Fall Apart by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. At the time I was unfamiliar with her work, but my life was definitely falling apart and out of my control. So I was interested in what it might offer to help me make sense of what, at the time, did not make sense.
I read, “Only to the extent that we are willing to subject ourselves over and over again to complete annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found in us,” and found these words to be remarkably comforting. It was an aha moment that changed my perspective altogether. Of course it was not difficult to be happy when everything was easy and going my way. But I was at least partially aware of the spiritual dimension of life, and I wanted to discover that which was indestructible within me. So here was my chance. The catastrophic circumstances of my life were not likely to improve, but I was determined to embrace my greatest teacher: annihilation.
Much more recently I had the opportunity to witness this year’s class of nervous graduating high school seniors, my oldest daughter among them, go through the grueling and selective college application process. Supremely qualified candidates with high hopes organized and sent their big GPAs, impressive class ranks, extreme test scores, fabulous letters of recommendation, skillful art supplements, financial documents, long lists of notable athletic and extra-curricular accomplishments, and, finally, the personal essay to hypercompetitive university admissions offices across the country.
After what seemed to be an endless wait period, the results came in. The award-winning essays (I read a lot of them with interest) were those that described some episode of failure and what was learned as a result. The kids who fared the best were those who had embraced the Buddhist teaching of annihilation (Goddess Kali in Yoga and the 8th house in Jyotish) and told honestly and courageously how disappointment, obstacles, loss, and other painful experiences helped them become more patient, caring, and purpose-filled.
My Savana, who was raised on a fairly heavy diet of Eastern philosophy, did not get into her first-choice school. But with that option annihilated, she got into my first-choice school, and happily and indestructibly accepted the merit scholarship to study ecosystem science and policy at University of Miami, class of 2020. Go ‘Canes!