Instincts Fail When Life Punches You In the Gut: Do This Instead

Most people have turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it. — Rainer Maria Rilke

A few weeks ago, I walked out of a meeting in tears. A colleague had initiated a dialogue about the current tensions in our country and the world. A group of us engaged in deeply personal conversation about our feelings and responses toward the escalating world situation. We openly wrestled with the complexities of violence and compassion, safety and fear. We faced a most difficult situation head-on, together.

By opening my heart to the intensity of the difficulties in the world — in the presence of others, the bewildering paralysis I’d been feeling for some months transformed. My overwhelm melted into sadness, which overflowed into compassion for all of us humans who are struggling to make sense of being here.

By walking directly into the center of the difficulty — together with friends — I was moved from numbness to tears. And I was grateful.

Hardness Begets Hardness

Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering. — Parker Palmer

Over and over again — in my own life and the lives of my psychotherapy clients — I see that observing and engaging difficulty, rather than avoiding it or fighting it, leads to growth. Yet over and over again, I find myself, my fellow therapists and friends, and my clients involuntarily resisting difficulty with every ounce of strength we possess.

What is it about difficult situations, difficult relationships, difficult clients, difficult feelings that makes us want to eradicate our discomfort and turn toward what is easy?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines difficulty as “hardness to be accomplished; the opposite of ease or facility;” and says that something is difficult when it is “not easy; hard; hard to understand.” That is, difficulty is characterized by hardness.

And what is my automatic reaction when something hard comes flying at me? I harden against it. Out of fear, I reflexively meet hardness with hardness — to protect myself, to deflect the oncoming strike.

Protecting against a hard assault seems to make logical sense. Yet when two hard things collide, such as stone clashing against stone, they violently bounce off of one another. They break or shatter. Since violence and shattering are the results of a naturally hard reaction to difficulty, why wouldn’t I want to turn away, and instead turn toward the easy (yet deadening) path?

The Paradox of Softness

When we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition that were in us that had us caught somewhere. — John O’Donohue

Fortunately, there’s another choice: the paradoxical response of softness.

If I can access that courageous soft place inside me that resides on the other side of fear, the core that can meet the hardness of difficulty with curiosity and openness, then things don’t bounce or break. Instead they shift and deepen.

Instead of clashing against the stone of difficulty, in softness I become a pond. As a pond I can observe the stone of difficulty as it slowly sinks into the depths of my being. I can watch the ripples created by the stone as they permeate my life and transform me.

Of course, some stones are so big that they threaten to empty me with their violent splashing. But that kind of emptying only means that the ripples of transformation are that much larger, irrevocable, and indelible.

Curiosity and openness in the face of difficulty cause the ripples of transformation to manifest in a number of significant ways. Hardened fear, rage, paralysis, and reactivity give way to feelings altogether different:

  • The hard defensiveness of fear melts into the approachable vulnerability of grief and sadness, whose tears wash clean the crevices of my heart to reveal the depths of compassion.
  • The rigidity of rage against the-way-things-are transforms into the fierce motion of outrage, the source of world-changing action.
  • The dull paralysis of numb avoidance gives birth to a lush and passionate awareness of my true strengths, allowing me to enact my compassion and outrage.
  • And the chaos of blind struggle and reactivity breaks open into the receptivity of discernment, which allows me to make good decisions about difficult situations, such as distinguishing between the time for patience and forbearance, and the time for outrageous action.

Courageous Softness Yields Giving Back

Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.— Pema Chödrön

Softness in the face of difficulty leads to transformation, and transformation most often hurts. To trust softness as a response to difficulty’s hardness requires strength, courage, and awareness. This trust is much easier to come by when I have support and holding from fearless others who meet me in the difficulty.

Today I stand at a poignant intersection between relief from years of great personal difficulty, and an escalation of tension and difficulty in the world. When I lean into the softness I’ve learned from dealing with my own intense adversity for so many years, I feel what can only be described as a desire to give back. Overcome by a sense of gratitude for all I have received in the journey through my own darkness, I feel compelled to respond to the pain of the world by offering myself.

That pull to give back vividly illustrates what I’ve been trying to say: With much help and support from many good people, I learned what it was like to soften into hard times. And now, rather than feeling drained and used up by years of difficulty, I feel full, strong, grateful, alive. Now have the capacity to hold others in difficulty. And so they soften.

And so it goes. On and on and on…

Rilke says, “Everything alive trusts in difficulty.” I know I do.

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all

even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture.

Still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

— Rumi

Free Guide for Practices That Help You Face Difficulty:

For easy-to-implement tools that immediately bring mindful curiosity that leads to courage for being with difficulty — without adding any extra activities or routines to your already packed to-do list: CLICK HERE to get your FREE copy of The Enlivened Pause: A Quick Start Guide for Engaging Your Enlivened Self