Wednesday 22 November 2017

Fall with grace

Are things falling apart or falling together?

Annette Bening in 20th Century Women
Annette Bening in 20th Century Women

There's a scene in the trailer for upcoming film 20th Century Women in which the character played by Annette Bening counsels her teenage son.

"This is the really hard part," she says. "And then it gets better... and then it gets hard again."

That sounds familiar. Life, after all, is a series of ups and downs, peaks and troughs.

We know this... in retrospect at least. Experience tells us that life's journey is punctuated by exceptionally good times and exceptionally bad times. The rest of the time we spend staring out the window waiting for something interesting to happen.

So why is it that when the bad times come - as they invariably do - that we bemoan our bad luck? Pema Chödrön, the first American woman to be ordained a Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition, is the author of When Things Fall Apart, a profound, yet refreshingly no-nonsense book on this subject.

"We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved," she writes. "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."

The trouble is that we tend not to allow room for those feelings to emerge. We resist uncomfortable feelings and try to find a way to soothe them as quickly as possible. Setbacks must be overcome at once. Adversities must be surmounted.

Sure, we all want stability, but what would happen if we allowed ourselves the time and space to see where a setback takes us, rather than trying to get back to exactly where we were? As the saying goes: "Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together."

Everything is in a continual state of flux. Relationships bloom and wither. Job opportunities are abundant one year and scarce the next.

When we acknowledge the ebb and flow of life and the seasonality of the cycles, we start to struggle less with perceived setbacks when they strike.

Sometimes we just need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Martial arts and more energetic schools of yoga are fantastic allies in this regard: they teach grace under pressure and increase our ability to adapt to situations that back us into a corner.

Sometimes it's as simple as reframing our perspective and changing our language. Instead of thinking of things as setbacks, try thinking of them as shifts instead. Granted, things might not be going in the direction you would like right now, but the shift has created space for something else to come in.

"Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all," explains Chödrön. "When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don't know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don't know."

Resiliency is the latest buzzword in psychology and counselling circles. Highly resilient people, according to Berrett-Koehler, author of the Resiliency Advantage, "are flexible, adapt to new circumstances quickly and thrive in constant change" and "have a knack for creating good luck out of circumstances that many others see as bad luck".

True resiliency is more than just coping well with setbacks, though. The truly resilient person doesn't fear setbacks because they trust in the process just as they know that they can't have light without dark. This approach may seem passive - apathetic even. In truth, it's daringly dynamic. As Chödrön writes: "To be fully alive, fully human and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no man's land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again."

When we desperately cling to a centre that cannot hold, we resist change, avoid taking risks and deny our authentic selves.

Fundamentally, we get stagnant (and anxious). However, when we learn how to observe rather than react when our foundations are shook, we develop the ability to overcome any adversity.

The next time you encounter a setback, try to change your internal monologue. Instead of thinking, 'Why me?', ask yourself 'Why now?'.

Instead of wondering why bad things happen to good people, ask yourself if you truly know the difference between good and bad in the grand scheme of things.

Most importantly, ask yourself what lesson you can learn from this setback (and remember that most of our self-development takes place when we're up against the wall, not when we're on top of the world).

"Rather than indulge or reject our experience, we can somehow let the energy of the emotion, the quality of what we're feeling, pierce us to the heart," says Chödrön.

"This is easier said than done, but it's a noble way to live. It's definitely the path of compassion - the path of cultivating human bravery and kind-heartedness."

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