Challenging life situations help us focus our mental and emotional energy. They create a space for us to experience our own strength.
The word strength can have different meanings. Besides physical strength, there is the mental capacity to handle what life throws at us, including physical and emotional pain. It is that form of strength we don’t encounter in everyday life until we are facing a challenging situation.
This situation reminds us to dig deeper and realize that indeed we are a lot stronger than we perceive ourselves to be. Life examples that help us find this type of strength, which also can be called resilience are childbirth, loss of a loved one, divorce, sickness, loss of our job, etc.
Even if each one of these life situations ranges from ‘not easy to excruciating,’ they do help us focus our mental and emotional energy. And more often than not these challenging phases open the space for us to experience a transformation, through which we learn “I can do this.” And that is an empowering lesson to remember for the next time we find ourselves facing challenges and hardship.
The 6 things we can do when life is challenging
1. Be kind to yourself
One of the essential practices in dealing with all obstacles in life is to be kind to yourself. I know many people, including myself, who have abundant kindness and gentleness for others in their life but not (always) for themselves. It seems to be part of our cultural upbringing, especially for women, to easily take care of others but internally face our self-judgment or expectations, impatience or just ignorance for our own struggles.
Thoughts like these can help:
2. Don’t follow the stories in your mind
Most of our suffering when facing the unexpected are the stories our mind generates around the situation we all of a sudden find ourselves in. What that means can be explained through the analogy “to have the rug pulled away from under your feet.”
This image beautifully represents the state of not being grounded anymore, mentally or spiritually. It feels like we are in free fall and are looking for things to hold on to.
Our mind dutifully and creatively answers the call immediately — logical or irrational explanations, questions and more questions looking for answers, comparisons to past experiences, everybody else’s opinions, the history of past hurts and pains jumping up from the back rows and various more players come out to play — “the stories.”
Being able to see those stories for what they are, constructs of our mind is the first step to take ownership of our pain. It gives us the option of either running with them or not. In meditation teaching, these options are called ‘attachment or detachment.’
It does not make the pain immediately easier. But the awareness of the stories empowers us to understand why some emotions might come up. I have learned “not to be mad” at my mind for coming up with all the stories and thoughts I then have to deal with. I have accepted the fact that this is merely part of our human conditioning and being aware of it is half the battle.
3. Be still and listen
The dedicated and diligent practice of meditation is a powerful antidote not be enslaved to the plays of our mind but rather look at it with a little distance instead of getting emotionally entangled. With it, we can realize that we do have a choice of how to respond to the things coming our way. If we have the awareness to see our thoughts for what they are, they lose their power or stronghold. We have all heard it before in some form or the other:
The practice of stillness, which according to the historical tradition is the literal definition of Yoga, allows us the space to be with what is in each moment. A lost art, which we so urgently need in a world that could not be any noisier. I love the words of Carl Sandburg:
If you don’t know what to do, sit still and listen, you might hear something.
So that is what I did. I sat, I walked, I laid on the floor and listened. I listened to the dialogue in my mind and the cries of my heart. And in that process of listening, I noticed things revealed themselves with ease without me even trying.
Ask yourself, when was the last time you became still and listened? Could you learn how to be still and listen?
4. Focus on gratitude
The practice of gratitude is another powerful tool which helped me to refocus my mind and my heart away from the pain. Practicing gratitude is easy when life is going according to plan, when we are healthy, in love, when we have perceived stability and security.
But what happened when Leo got so sick that there was no other option but to let him go? How did I find gratitude in those days?
I focused on my sweet Lilly. A sensitive spirit, who also was going through a challenging time coping with the loss of her brother. Her warm body beside mine reminded me that there still is life here right beside me. And that I need to cherish the time I have with her. We needed each other to get through the hard days. And having her still by my side became a special gift I focused on every day since then.
I found gratitude for my beloved partner Knut. I was grateful I could lean into his arms and silently cry when I needed to. I was not alone, I felt loved and how could I not be thankful for that?
I was able to take time off teaching. Being in a situation where I could retreat and take care of myself, is an incredible gift for me I will never take for granted. There was a time in my life; I was not able to do that. But this time I could. What a blessing.
I was grateful for the time I had with Leo. I realized all that this dog represented in my life. And for that gift, it was so easy to be profoundly grateful.
I received love and caring thoughts via email, texts, and letters from my beloved students and Yoginis around me. Many shared their heart and connected with me through expressing, that they too have gone through a similar type of loss. They extended healing words and thoughts which I will never forget. Receiving those letters made me realize how fortunate I am to be surrounded by such energy and love.
These are just a few examples; there were many more. I firmly believe everybody has things in their life that you can choose to be deeply grateful for – at any given moment in time.
I practice gratitude every day. It has become second nature to me. Maybe because my life’s journey has never been easy or simple, maybe because I have experienced pain so deeply and intensely, physically and emotionally, it has become an even more important part of my life to focus on gratitude.
5. Trust that this too shall pass
At last, having the faith that this state of pain and suffering will not stay forever with me, but will pass, has been for many years one of my faithful companions through the tough days. I believe this quote makes more and more sense the older and wiser we grow. We can connect to challenges in our own life’s history and remember that we had gone through something before and came out of the tunnel back into the sunlight.
I lost a beloved dog eight years ago, my sweet Zoe, to a fatal car accident that took her life. It was excruciating, but I survived…and she will always have a special place in my heart.
6. Breathe INHALE – EXHALE
Breathing — we do it thousands of times each day and night. Most of the time we breathe without noticing it, it happens automatically, subconsciously.
But at certain times consciously breathing is the antidote to the sorrow and pain we experience. No matter what we are going through, we always can breathe. Conscious breathing does two things for us:
- It equips us with a tool that helps us to remember we actually CAN breathe. It is empowering us in situations that feel hopeless and reminds us that we are still alive.
- It helps us to come into the present moment and out of our thoughts.
Both of these things have a healing effect on us. So never forget we all carry this powerful tool within us, it is always right there, we just need to choose it.