courage to open to the whole show

Working with the Hard Stuff: Courage to Open to the Whole Show

There is a Taoist teaching that life is made up of 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. The more we see that both are a natural part of the fabric of life, the less we contract against the difficulties or hold on tightly to the delights. We can hold our challenging situations in a wider perspective that includes the blessings as well.

In Buddhist philosophy, real happiness comes not by avoiding suffering but by understanding it deeply. In our willingness to be with it instead of protecting ourselves from it, we’re not adding another layer of contraction and fear to what is already here. We can then learn to meet our pain with compassion, fearlessness, wisdom and clarity.

In learning to cultivate more well-being, I’m not suggesting that you look for difficulties to work with. As one of my teachers told me, “Don’t go looking for trouble. It will find you soon enough.” But when the hard stuff comes we can learn to train the heart to skillfully be with it. That means letting down your armor a little at a time. That way you’re not in a state of continual vigilance and protection. Without this armor, you can open to what’s actually here in your experience. And this training of openheartedness allows you to truly be there for all the joys as well.

Of course, it would be unrealistic to think your heart should be open at all times. If you can do that and not be overwhelmed, while maintaining balance, presence and clarity, then you’re probably fully enlightened! There are times we need to take care of ourselves and protect, close off, take a break. But the more you can learn that you have the capacity to open to the hard stuff, the more likely you are to take in all the blessings too.

Learning to Be with it All

How can we be with the sorrows without drowning or shutting down? And can we open up to the joys without guilt or bewilderment? The key is to allow for it all; give the feelings space to be here without trying to figure out why. Then you’re less likely to get stuck in the story that comes with trying to figure out why.

One reflection that helps in being with difficulty is remembering that everything is impermanent. Whatever situation you find yourself in right now will change. If you’re stuck in a negative mind state, and try to protect yourself from feeling it, your resistance will just give it more power. And if you have your head in the clouds without letting the hard stuff in, you’ll be living in denial and cutting yourself off from being whole. But as you practice learning to keep your heart open and skillfully hold what’s here with a compassionate awareness, all the different feelings will move through you in their own time. The awareness of fear is not afraid. The awareness of sadness is not sad. The awareness can hold it all.

It’s essential to know your limits when you’re in difficult situations and to nourish yourself in healthy ways when life becomes too much. But it’s also important to be willing to stretch yourself so you can grow, especially when fear arises.

Bringing Equanimity to Our Suffering

One important quality of mind that helps us be with the hard stuff when it comes is equanimity, a balance of mind that can be with the highs and the lows without getting thrown off center. Equanimity comes from this understanding that both the highs and lows come and they go. We can’t control that. Instead of trying to arrive at some final destination where everything is perfect, we directly acknowledge what’s here without adding on the frustration that comes when we wish it were different. Real well-being is about being here for both the ups and downs of life and learning to enjoy the ride.

As one teacher puts it, equanimity begins with the simple recognition, “It’s like this.” Whatever your situation, once you accept it as it is, you can respond wisely to the moment, instead of reacting with fear or aversion. One of the best ways to develop equanimity in the face of difficulty is to remember all the times you’ve gotten through challenging situations before and the powerful lessons that have helped you grow. This current experience will be another one that you’ll look back on at some future time in the same way.

Gratitude Helps Hold Our Suffering

If a situation is unpleasant and you can do something about it, then by all means do. But if you can’t change it, why spend your time and energy complaining about the way things are? Better to come to terms with it and learn to have a healthier relationship to what is. Gratitude can be a particularly effective complementary practice to use in working with our difficulties. You might try holding your current challenging situation in the wider context of gratitude for blessings in your life.

When you’re going through a difficult period, remember that it will change eventually. You will probably smile again and enjoy life again. In fact, allow yourself to be with the simple joys in your life, while finding the courage to open up a little at a time to all the challenging feelings inside. Get the support you need and let gratitude be a context to hold it all. As you learn to be willing to open to the hard stuff, you will probably discover a courage and inner strength that you didn’t know you had.