Living Skillfully with the Difficult
As much as we would all prefer that it wasn’t so, difficult times are an unavoidable part of the ever-changing stream of life. Difficulties come on their own accord irrespective of whether they are deserved or fair and regardless of our ability to bear them. The difficult can manifest in any aspect of life, including physical, mental, or emotional health; career or job; financial situation; and relationships with friends, family, and intimate partners. Sometimes the difficulties we encounter are minor and tedious but numerous. For example, you might have a difficult relationship with a sibling who constantly criticizes you; although no single instance of their judgment constitutes a significant hardship, you have an abiding sense of being treated unfairly. Sometimes difficulties are major and dramatic, such as the unexpected death of a loved one or losing your job. And sometimes you’re faced with a difficulty that is constant and cannot be changed, such as a physical disability or chronic illness. It’s essential that you learn to live skillfully with the difficult; otherwise you may collapse into destructive, negligent, or self-defeating behavior, which will only compound your suffering.
I use the phrase “learn to live skillfully with the difficult” because it points to the fundamental truth that each of us has the capacity to accept, accommodate, and adjust to what cannot be changed. The process of learning to live skillfully with the difficult is gradual and not easily or happily accomplished, but once learning has occurred you will discover that even in the midst of extreme difficulty, when the quality of your outer life may be greatly diminished, you still have an inner experience of well-being.
Relaxing Your Attention and Softening into Your Experience
The untrained mind naturally reacts unskillfully to difficulties because it does not realize that there is an alternative response, which is to soften into the experience. By this I mean that you can learn to relax your attention and cease to resist the unpleasant feelings that arise in response to difficult situations.
Attention is the capacity of your mind to focus where you direct it, and the quality of your attention can vary dramatically depending on your life circumstances. During difficult times, when it is disturbed by tension, your attention may have a jumpy, rigid, fixed, or fuzzy quality. As a result you may be unable to effectively respond to difficult circumstances. Therefore it’s crucial to cultivate relaxed attention.
In relaxed attention your focus is neutral. There’s no tension in your attention, so you feel more at ease in the face of difficulty. You cultivate relaxed attention by practicing noticing the tension underlying your attention whenever you experience something difficult and remembering your intention to relax your attention. Most of the time the tension will release immediately. If you are deeply enmeshed in a difficulty, it may take some time for this release to happen, but with continued practice you will develop the ability to focus on any degree of difficulty without added tension.
Relaxed attention sets the stage for softening into your experience. I like to use the phrase softening into your experience because it captures the felt sense of relief that occurs when you become mindful of your resistance to the difficult and then release it. Softening into your experience isn’t about collapsing or quitting on yourself but rather about fully accepting that difficulty is a natural part of life. When you stop objecting to the difficult, two benefits arise: you suffer less, and you have more energy at your disposal to skillfully deal with the difficult when it arises.
One Man’s Journey to Softening into the Difficult
Jim is a Life Balance client who separated from his wife three years ago, after being married for several decades. The primary reason for the separation was that his wife is an alcoholic. After trying everything he could imagine to help her overcome her addiction, Jim finally decided to leave the marriage for the sake of his own survival. It was a very hard decision for him, and he continues to support his ex-wife in numerous ways.
Since the separation, Jim has been consumed by feelings of helplessness and survivor’s guilt and has wrestled with the question of whether he was an enabler in his ex-wife’s addiction. For more than a year after leaving the marriage, he lived in a barren apartment while his ex-wife lived in their beautifully decorated home, because he did not feel he had the right to create his own place as long as she was still struggling with her problems. As we’ve worked together, Jim has come to realize just how traumatizing it has been for him to watch the slow, steady deterioration of this woman he deeply cares for.
I had Jim explore softening into his experience and accepting that he could not control the situation. He now sees how tense his mind becomes each time he focuses on his ex-wife and has learned to relax his attention whenever he speaks to her or does something for her. Moreover, he sees how rigid his mind had become and how that rigidity was preventing him from moving on and creating a life for himself. In the process he also realized that he was angry and he behaved defensively toward her, which caused huge amounts of tension, and that his fear for her combined with his sense of helplessness had hardened him in a way that was causing him to disassociate from life.
The change in Jim has been remarkable. It hasn’t happened quickly or easily, but he has definitely developed a more easeful, openhearted relationship to his ex-wife’s difficulty. He remains very sad about her situation, but he is no longer caught in a reactive mind state in his relationship to it.
You Are Not Your Difficulty
Like Jim, you too may be forced to live with a difficult situation and may be unconsciously identifying with the limitations it creates and living out your role as a person with that difficulty. For instance, maybe you have a physical or mental condition that is chronic, such as Lyme disease or ADHD, or maybe you’re a cancer survivor. It’s easy to define yourself in terms of these conditions because it takes so much of your time and energy to deal with the difficulty, to begin to believe that “I’m a person with Lyme disease,” or “I’m a person with ADHD,” or ”I’m a person with cancer.”
If you find yourself anticipating how your difficulty will limit you in a situation or using it as an excuse to not show up, or if at every opportunity you tell friends or new acquaintances about your difficulty, then you have identified yourself with it. You are literally addicted to your difficulty. You are separating from life and denying yourself the possibility of unknown and unexpected joy by placing such distinct limits on who you can be.
You are not your difficulty; it is only one of the many things that characterize you. All your other characteristics—your generosity, friendliness, kindness, curiosity, willingness to learn, humor, loyalty, etc.—define you more accurately than whatever difficulty you may have in your life, no matter how great that difficulty is.
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