Let difficulty transform you.
And it will.
In my experience we just need help
in learning not to run away.
- Pema Chodron
No one likes it when life feels scary or hard or when a situation arises that seems insurmountable. Many of us end up in flight, fight or freeze mode when we are overwhelmed or anxious. Our brain's natural survival instinct is to get away fast! As children we may have been in precarious, inescapable family situations where we learned to run away emotionally or mentally to survive.
This survival tactic served us as small, dependent beings. But as adults, running away usually compounds the difficulty in multiple ways. If we can find ways to face them head-on, these experiences CAN be transformative. If we can hold on to our mind and not lose it to paralyzing fear or flight, we can find a deeper, stronger place within ourselves that we never knew existed, a place that is paradoxically indestructible in the face of something that may feel annihilating.
But how, you may ask.... having the courage to take a deep breath ( or many) and be with the feelings that arise from the difficulty. Breathing into and fully experiencing them, separating them the anxious thoughts that perpetuate these feelings. Meditating, drawing, journaling, singing, dancing, spending time with trusted others and in nature, listening to your dreams and the messages they may send you. Knowing you don't have to go through this alone, that there are others who can and will support you in a variety of ways.
Praise and blame,
gain and loss,
pleasure and sorrow
come and go like the wind.
To be happy,
rest like giant tree
in the midst of them all.
The Buddha's wisdom is simple but not easy! Allowing emotions and outer events to swirl around us but not knock us over takes a lot of mindfulness and practice. As the storm encircles us, how do we learn to sway in the storm but not have our branches torn off or core ripped apart? How do we feel pleasure and joy without grasping it tightly?
When something inside or out triggers fear and worry, what is your default reaction? Does your adrenaline surge as you go into flight or fight? Do you shut down and become depressed? These are just a couple of the ways you may have learned to react when you are challenged or scared. Or you may hold onto pleasurable experiences in an addictive way, afraid to face other sides of yourself.
Western culture believes in dualities: black or white, good or bad, this or that. This encourages a judgment and reaction to whatever we are experiencing and we may go back and forth from one pole to the other, never inhabiting the place of the palm tree that sways gracefully in the hurricane.
Eastern philosophies are more non-dual ( like the yin-yang symbol),more of a both/ and. Or as Carl Jung called it, Holding the Tension of the Opposites. When we know that we are capable of feeling both ends of the spectrum, and that one doesn't obliterate the other, more patience and equanimity are possible. Resting in the middle and allowing all experience to flow around and through us makes life less tumultuous.
Perhaps 2019 is a good time to practice resting like a strong tree!
Peggy Handler, MFT, is a psychotherapist in San Francisco's Noe Valley