Wouldn’t it be nice if we could finally get – and keep – our life in order? If we never fought with our mates or children? If there was always enough money in the bank and for retirement? If we were always in tip-top condition physically, without any medical concerns? If we could hit our “ideal” weight and maintain this with an unbroken string of healthy yet delicious meals?
According to American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, author of When Things Fall Apart, “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. 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.” In other words, we never really “get it together” – at least not for long. And this is not necessarily bad news. It’s rather that life asks us to be flexible and adaptable, and to make the most (meaning being present) of the journey. If we wait until everything falls into place (and stays there), we will miss our entire life.
Pema, who was not a stranger to difficulty, having experienced sudden dissolution of her second marriage as well as long-term physical illness, has a number of wise tips to share about turning our predicaments and troubles into opportunities for growth.
- We can learn from everything. To quote Pema, “If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.” We can lean into that which makes us uncomfortable, not to be a martyr, but to become acquainted with our distress, to meet it face-to-face, and not allow our automatic feelings of fear or revulsion to shut us down. If the problem seems to be another person, we might find, for example, that what bothers us the most about them is a quality we ourselves possess and might benefit from exploring and modifying – or accepting. In turn, we may become more compassionate (yet not complacent) when dealing with this other person. Or, if the issue is that we’re not getting what we need (or think we need), we may choose to examine and rearrange our priorities. We can ask ourselves, “What is this moment, this situation, or this person trying to teach me?”, rather than railing against our reality.
- Allow yourself to feel the full range of your emotions. As Pema says, “When we protect ourselves so we don’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart.” The truth is that it’s not really even possible to wall out suffering in the longer run. The anguish will emerge somehow at a later date, because few, if any, of us can completely shut down our feelings for any significant length of time. And is it really worth it to do harm to your soul in your attempts to wall out suffering?
- Be self-compassionate. Pema points out that “the most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.” We are often the very violence and intolerance we rail against in the “outer” world. Start with befriending yourself, with kindness and discipline, and resisting the urge to “get hooked” into familiar patterns of behavior and beliefs. You will then be in a better position to extend such an attitude to other people and to be a soothing balm in the world. To quote Pema, “Compassion for others begins with kindness to ourselves.” Profound inner healing begins when we view ourselves on our entirety, including those parts we wish would never see the light of day, with absolute clarity, and choose to offer ourselves unconditional compassion. Not compassion that depends on our never losing our temper, always having our home in impeccable order, or constantly feeling happy.
- Consider self-examination a form of kindness. According to Pema, “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.” We can do so through various methods, including meditation (preferably with a good teacher or guide), in psychotherapy, and in self-help groups. We can use life itself to practice this brave and courteous attitude of self-respect and awareness. When we make a mistake, we can acknowledge it, without pointing the finger elsewhere, and without giving up on ourselves. When we feel cranky or impatient, we can note this passing feeling without judgment, and ask what this emotion might be trying to tell us. We can even have a sense of humor about our foibles, something which is easier to do when we cease identifying with our feelings and habits.
- Drop your need to be in control. Pema states, “I equate ego with trying to figure everything out instead of going with the flow. That closes your heart and your mind to the person or situation that’s right in front of you, and you miss so much.” When we become fixated on trying to control a situation, we’re not only likely to increase our anxiety (and that of those around us), but we also promote the illusion that we are in charge, that we know what’s right for everyone and everything involved, and we don’t learn anything new. The alternative of viewing our situation with acceptance, curiosity, and an intent to gain wisdom from our circumstance affords us the opportunity to actually benefit from even the most seemingly tragic plight.
- What we resist, persists. Pema believes that “nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” If we miss the lesson, the gist of the matter is likely to return, possibly in a slightly different form. This isn’t punishment but rather another opportunity to grow, perhaps in wisdom, patience, kindness, or flexibility. So, if we can approach challenges with a sincere wish that we learn from them, we can eventually move forward rather than remaining stuck.
- Staying with our pain isn’t our first instinct. Not that this should be a surprise to many. According to Pema, “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 need to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.” So often the methods we use to avoid discomfort become their own problem. Addictions are a prime example. Especially in today’s quick-fix culture, where so many means of distraction are at our fingertips (in the case of smartphones and computers, literally), it’s perhaps more tempting than ever to turn away from our discomfort rather than consider them opportunities to learn.
- It’s sometimes the minor snafus that bring us to our breaking point. As Pema says, “We meet our edge in the strangest places… We’re willing to jump off a bridge upside down, but we throw a tantrum when we can’t get a good cup of coffee.” Case in point – I’ve seen plenty of people holding apparently high-powered meetings in Starbucks who become unglued if their grande iced latte Americano isn’t made just so. Often our lives feel held together by our idiosyncratic habits – and woe to anyone who interferes.
- Get quiet in order to truly befriend yourself. In meditation, we can learn to access “the still lake without ripples… an image of our minds at ease, so full of unlimited friendliness for all the junk at the bottom of the lake that we don’t feel the need to churn up the waters just to avoid looking at what’s there”. How often have you kept yourself frantically busy, either with activities or in your head, in order to escape really seeing yourself as you really are? If so, you’re not alone. Our culture has plenty to say about the kind of people we should be, and if, as is often the case, we feel as if we’re not measuring up, it takes some major adjusting to dare to face ourselves. Yet we can do so, if we’re willing to consistently sit in the silence.
- Reframe your perceptions about uncertainty. Pema states, “If you’re invested in security and certainty, you are on the wrong planet.” It is usually our attachment to things being a certain way and our feeling comfortable that leads to misery and destructive actions. The fact is that we live in an unpredictable world in which not much is guaranteed and in which everything changes. We have no choice about the matter, but we do have a choice about our attitude. Pema suggests that “rather than being disheartened by the uncertainty of life, what if we accepted it and relaxed into it? What if we said, ‘Yes, this is the way it is; this is what it means to be human’, and decided to sit down and enjoy the ride?’
It’s a radical concept – this idea of accepting whatever life hands us as a potentially valuable and precious chance to grow. Yet it may be our best hope for happiness – not happiness as in “ha-ha”, but rather the happiness that comes from living with active interest and friendliness while on this journey of life as it actually is – and as we and other people actually are.