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Leaning In to Hardship

Most of us, if given the choice, would want everything in life to go smoothly and according to our wishes. We are not fans of pain and struggles, spending much of our time and energy in a futile mission to prevent "bad things" from happening to us. This is understandable. We learn quickly not to touch a hot stove because we don't like the pain of being burned and don't want to experience it again. But there's value in having such an experience, as unpleasant as it may have been.

First of all, we learn. If you look back over your own life, think of some of the most important lessons you learned. How many of them were the result of pleasant situations where everything went as planned? More likely it was some sort of hardship that taught you what you needed to know. That is the primary and essential function of difficulty. For better or worse, we don't seem to learn our lessons any other way.

How we learn the lesson is important. In our hot stove example, note that the experience teaches us to not touch a hot stove. It does not teach us not to touch anything at all, or to stop cooking altogether. Yet often when we have difficult experiences, we drastically overreact and become fearful in general of anything going wrong. If we just see a situation as a crummy experience that we hope never repeats, we can become vaguely fearful of a lot of different things. But if we see the situation as a teacher and learn something specific from it, then we may be better able to take that lesson forward and put a period on the end of the whole thing.

Woman climbing a mountain.
"If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere." - Frank A. Clark

If we recognized the value of our challenges, we may be more open to the lesson hardship brings without becoming petrified of the learning process. One radical idea is to actually lean in to hardship. Go towards it and welcome it with open arms. This is counter-intuitive from our usual shrinking response, but if the uninvited guest is coming, what good does it do to panic about it? Panic saps our energy and works us into a frenzy, taxing the nervous system and hindering our ability to cope.

In the beginning, it may feel impossible to lean in to a difficult situation. If so, simply aim for releasing your resistance to it. Beware making the assumption that something terrible willl happen if you don't resist, which is a myth of the mind because we don't like feeling at the mercy of external forces.

Of course, this doesn't mean we shouldn't seek proactive solutions if appropriate to the situation. It really comes down to the difference between allowing your uninvited visitor to say its piece as opposed to actively trying to kick it out of the house. Simply consider that this hardship may have come as a friend to show you something that is vital for you to know.

My own interest in learning mindfulness stress-reduction practices was a direct result of some disasterous experiences with the bio-medical model. Only through the failure of that system was I forced to find natural ways of managing stress, which have turned out to be much more effective for me. Without the hardships, I doubt I would have been interested or grown as much.

So when a challenge comes your way, try to imagine it as a visitor that may have something important to say. See if you can invite it in, give it a drink and find out what wisdom it holds. Or at least don't pick a fight with it and try to kick it out because if it is meant for you, it will not budge. Or it may return again and again in some other disguise. Better to learn what we can as soon as we can, and maintain our energy for those the changes that our within our power to make.

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