A Survival Kit for Those Times When Life Turns You Upside Down
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake
is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”
— Pema Chödrön
It happens to all of us at one time or another: everything, and I mean everything, falls apart in your life. Chalk it up to the universe playing a big cosmic joke on you or simply coincidence, but anything that can go wrong does.
I had one of those periods a few years ago. My seemingly solid relationship with my partner ended in the most disastrous and painful way. Because I was living in her house, I lost my home too. And several months later, just as my heart was beginning to heal, I lost my job. It was like the year that Queen Elizabeth II famously described as annus horribilis, when three of her children went through very public marital discord and Windsor Castle caught fire.
Recently I’ve spoken with a few friends going through similar transitions, and I really feel for them. Although now I can look back on that year and see it was the starting point for a number of wonderful things currently in my life, at the time it was very, very difficult.
So how do we get through those times when life is filled with change and loss? Here are six lessons that I harvested from that period of my life that helped me to not just get through a rough time, but to experience positive transformation in the process.
1. Stay with what is – don’t ‘spin’ the situation
The situation is painful enough, in and of itself. It hurts when we lose someone we love, or when we are forced to make a change that we don’t feel ready for or don’t agree with. There’s no way around that.
But our usual tendency is to layer more feelings on top of the original hurt and to spin a story way beyond its original source. Our lover leaves us and we become convinced that we’ll never be in a relationship again. We lose our job and we’re sure that we’ll be un-employable for the rest of our lives and living on the streets within a week.
This is where having a self-awareness practice like meditation can be a huge support. If you can develop the skill of ‘bare attention,’ of staying with the initial experience and gently stopping yourself when you notice that you’re going beyond that, then you’ll have succeeded in triaging yourself through this first acute stage of loss.
2. Honor the full range of your emotions, but give yourself space to settle so that you’re not reacting from emotions
This step is related to the first. It’s important to feel all the feelings that arise in a difficult situation, especially grief and anger. But it’s equally important to understand the difference between being in touch with those emotions and being ruled by them.
I’m not suggesting that you deny your emotions, only that you learn how to tend to them in the same way you might take care of a fire. Fire is a powerful element… you can harness it in the boundaries of a fireplace and still feel its heat, and yet not burn down your house. (Sometimes the house might need to be burned down, but that’s for a different post…)
I like what Thich Nhat Hanh has written about anger:
“Just like our organs, our anger is part of us. When we are angry, we have to go back to ourselves
and take good care of our anger. We cannot say, ‘Go away, anger, I don’t want you.’ When you have
a stomachache, you don’t say, ‘I don’t want you stomach, go away.’ No, you take care of it. In the same way, we have to embrace and take good care of our anger.”
(From the book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames)
3. Affirm your essential goodness
Times of loss can put us through the self-esteem ringer. It may be easy to blame ourselves or focus on our shortcomings when something “bad” has happened. This is exactly the time to not do this.
No matter what happened, remember that your essential nature is good. There are many ways to say this, depending on what resonates with you: you are a child of God, you have buddhanature, you are perfect just as you are.
Whatever language works best for you, repeat this truth aloud to yourself, often. Write it in big letters and post it where you can see it every morning. Now is the time when you most need to hear kind words from yourself.
4. Take care to not create an “enemy” where one doesn’t exist
It might seem like your situation is black and white – like the other party wronged you, and therefore you have a right to be outraged. But life is never that clear-cut and uni-directional. We are complex beings, and we co-create the stories that we live in.
I noticed that when I spent all my energy blaming my ex-girlfriend or former boss for what ‘they did to me,’ I prolonged my suffering and kept myself stuck. But as I looked more deeply at what was going on, I saw that there were actually ways in which I contributed to each of these situations.
The sooner you can take full responsibility for your part in the situation, the sooner you’ll be able to take back your power and liberate yourself from suffering. It helps to think of it this way – whatever it was that took place in your life did not happen to you. It simply happened. The big question is how can you keep moving toward your own truth, toward that which brings you joy and peace.
5. Don’t rush to find a solution to a difficult situation sooner than a wise one presents itself
This is a kind of advanced lesson. When things are going south in our life, the big temptation is to figure out how to fix it quickly. It’s very difficult to simply stay in the discomfort or pain of not knowing what the next step might be. If you can lean into your uncertainty, into not knowing what has happened or what should happen, you will almost certainly find that something else emerges beyond your wildest dreams.
6. Surround yourself with books that speak to your heart
I don’t know about you, but some books are like magic for me – they contain the right words at the right time to unlock a key in my heart that makes the next step of my journey clear and possible.
There is something especially comforting about a book when I’m going through times of loss… it’s like the ultimate security blanket. Let books be stepping stones to help you recover from the hurt, expand your heart, and grow into your next stage.
Here are four books that I’ve found especially helpful at times like these:
- When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
What about you — what’s in your Survival Kit? What has helped you get through difficult times of your life?
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