Heart Advice for Difficult Times

Only humans have the consciousness and capacity to use adversity to grow a larger life. If we choose to use these uniquely human resources, all of life is brought onto the path that leads to an optimal well-being of body, mind, and spirit, regardless of the challenges of human life.
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I would like to speak with you about those most difficult times in life -- times marked by sadness, grief, loneliness, fear, and perhaps even a sense of hopelessness. We all know these moments. They are part of the human condition. We feel them in mind, body, and spirit.

When we meet hard times we react in predictable ways. These reactions generally fall into three main categories: enmeshment in negative emotions, using pleasure seeking as relief, and mobilizing ego-based control and manipulation in an effort to restore an outdated "solid" ground.

The first approach, enmeshment in negative emotions, adds resentment, anger, guilt, blame, or shame to what is already a difficult situation. The second, using transient pleasures as remedies, seeks to anesthetize discomfort, a seeming indulgence that usually complicates our circumstance. The third, using control and manipulation in an attempt to restore a sense of solid ground, seeks to recover, fix, and freeze the past, denying life's fundamental groundlessness and impermanence. Invariably, these automatic reactions, which resist the inevitability of change and adversity, heap suffering upon suffering.

So how do we transform self-defeating and self-betraying reactions into life-enhancing opportunities? How do we take the difficulties of life and use them to create a larger and healthier life? Or, as the alchemists said, how do we transform dirt into gold?

There are many examples of individuals, women and men, that have done just this. Consider just one. Nelson Mandela spend decades imprisoned. Yet he emerged from prison mentally healthier than when he entered. He turned suffering into compassion, isolation into a vehicle for inner development, despair into fortitude, dirt into gold. As we shall discover, that is neither the act of a magician nor a mystery reserved for a very few. It is a learned capacity.

When we meet difficult people or circumstances, we must learn to see them as our teachers, as experiences we can learn from. The wise teachers even go further and say that we should be grateful when confronted with adversity, as this is our greatest motivation to search for that "more to life." Like no other experience, adversity tests our progress and highlights our unseen places of potential growth. So why not dispense with the label "adversity" and re-program our mind to label life's challenges as "opportunities." In time this "re-framing" will become automatic. That is a first and crucial step.

Then we must learn not to fight, resist, or struggle with difficult circumstances. We don't look for them. We do what we can to avoid difficulty, but when it arrives we stop trying to resist, control, or manipulate our way out of what is. There are certain things we can change, and others not. What we cannot change we acknowledge as our human circumstance in the moment. We surrender our desire for it be otherwise, and let it be as it is. That is not easy, as our habitual tendency is to try to fix or change even that which cannot be altered. Our resistance to and struggle with the reality of what is adds further unnecessary suffering.

Finally, we must develop mental stability so we can remain calm and peaceful even in the presence of adversity. This may seem impossible, but it isn't. The effort to develop mental stability is best started early in life so that we can build a reservoir if inner strength and calm. This important life skill is the pathway of mind training and meditation. As we progress in learning this skill, our capacity to experience difficulties while sustaining inner peace and calm grows and stabilizes.

Early in meditation practice individuals consistently report a reduction in reactivity. Typically, it goes like this: "The other day I found myself in a circumstance that usually gets me quite disturbed, but I found myself unusually calm. I don't know why, but it was a first for me." The why is the reservoir of mental stability that has begun to have its outer effects. That is the seed, the first experience of the ability to remain calm inside irrespective of the difficulties outside. Some might call this a miracle.

And finally, we must gain insight and wisdom as regards self and life. As we accomplish this, life does not cease creating difficulties. That is part of the human experience. But we can rise above life's challenges by perceiving and experiencing these moments with an appreciation and surrender to the limits of our ego to control and fix all that is difficult, understanding and accepting the true nature of impermanence, and cultivating the experience of a stable inner calm that is a permanent refuge from all storms.

The key is working with, developing, and mastering our inner resources through the methods of the meditative/contemplative pathway. This is a process of study, reflection, and practice that opens that inner resources, a process that is best approached with group support and a mentor.

Only humans have the consciousness and capacity to use adversity to grow a larger life. If we choose to use these uniquely human resources, all of life is brought onto the path that leads to an optimal well-being of body, mind, and spirit, regardless of the challenges of human life.


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