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!
As the hours of darkness begin to slowly wane from the winter sky,
So too may the fearful places of your heart unclench their grasp on your life
As the presence of light begins to grow with greater sureness with each passing day
May your own courage blossom to open more brightly to truth and love.
Let this be the year that you turn off the television and silence the talk radio chatter
in order to pick up the writing pen, the paintbrush,
and watch the candle slowly burn.
May this be the year that you delight
in seeing how much joy you can extravagantly spread.
May you discover just how much beauty you can recklessly shower
upon this thirsty world.
May this be the year that you tune both the dusty piano in the corner
and the inner listening of your care-worn heart
So that both can play in harmony with the chorus of creation.
May you break the invisible yardstick of impossible expectations
and learn that just as you are,
you are enough.
May this be the year that you cease trying to march to an imagined ideal
and instead, wrap your arms around the messy wonder your life really is,
hold it close
and do the tango.
Let this be the year you befriend your soul in its radical particularity,
not forsaking it yet again for the bland demands and cravings of the masses.
Instead, may you elope with the wildness of your own true calling,
marry your soul to its deepest longings
and invite the hungry world to the wedding feast.
- Kayleen Asbo
The curious paradox is
that when I accept myself
just as I am,
then I can change.
- Carl Rogers
Most people who come into my office have a list of things they hope to change. They usually are not happy with themselves for not living up to a standard of how they want their lives to be and are tired of suffering. They often want me to tell them what to do, how to change, and how to fix their lives.
Many people find it hard to imagine accepting themselves as they are, when clearly they are not who they want to be, do not feel the way they want to feel and are not where they want to be in life. This leads to a lack of curiosity about their anxiety, depression, addiction or self-rejection.
Sound familiar? It's easier to find a self-help book telling you how to change than one guiding you to accept yourself, to dig deep and find a place of compassion and love for yourself, just as you are.
Paradoxically, this is the precursor to any lasting change. A solid foundation of self-regard and acceptance ( and maybe some humor about it!) will see you through all that you will face throughout your life. The idea that perfection is achievable or even desirable, will only create internal conflict in your life.
Self-acceptance does NOT mean complacency; it "simply" means befriending yourself, creating an internal spaciousness to explore who you are and what your true desires are. This allows shifts to occur, sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic. In either case, change comes from a place of positive self-regard rather than despair, anger or self-recrimination.
Wholeness is not achieved
by cutting off a portion of one's being,
but by integration
of the Contraries
Many people come into my office struggling with seeming opposite feelings or beliefs, often thinking that they have to eliminate one or the other of them. They often label one as "bad" and the other as "good," wanting to eliminate the "bad" or troublesome part of their personality.
Black or white thinking is very prevalent in our culture; there is not a lot of encouragement to accept and be comfortable with ambiguity or with the wide range of "gray" in between the opposite poles of black and white.
It's often hard to accept that you may feel both anxious and excited about something, fearful and courageous, loving and critical, vulnerable and protected, serious and also fun-loving. There is only a "problem" when the different parts are out of balance, or when you bounce back and forth between them, in an unconscious and uncomfortable way. Even addictive behavior has a message in it, if you can listen beneath the behavior to the need that is trying to be met.
Carl Jung proposes that if you can sit with the "tension of the opposites," if you can tolerate the discomfort of this/and instead of this/or, another, previously unimagined way of feeling or thinking will emerge. If you can tolerate the seeming opposites in yourself, an integration will eventually take place. You will achieve a sense of wholeness, of being more truly yourself, without having to eliminate any parts of yourself.
Peggy Handler, MFT, is a psychotherapist in San Francisco's Noe Valley