If 2020 has taught me anything, it's that life as I know it can change in an instant -- and change is hard. I'm sure I'm not alone in having found myself asking, "Why is life so hard?" Global pandemics, social isolation, race riots, economic depressions, climate change, fires, killer hornets.... why won't this year just stop?
It's easy to slip towards nihilism during times like these, but I firmly believe that we shouldn't and we can't. This post will explore why life is challenging and what we can each do about it. I've also put together some downloadable journal prompts to help you discover the gifts hiding behind the challenges you're currently facing.
Note: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.
Why is Life So Hard?
Y'all, I won't go into details, but on top of everything happening at the global level, the past month has been especially hard for me personally. At times, I've found myself wondering when the universe decided to have a dog-pile and how I ended up on the bottom. I've felt simultaneously stretched and squeezed. I haven't been able to really breathe fully. My whole body has hurt, my muscles tensed against the changes around me as though tightening against them could make them stop.
It's easy to be philosophical about the challenges of life when things are going okay. It's when things start to become sticky and unpleasant that the real work begins. When I find myself asking, "Why is life so hard?" I turn to Pema Chodron's beautiful book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.
Chodron is so gentle but insistent that the only way to deal with difficult times is to relax into them, to soften into our experiences. She also presents three elements of life to keep in mind when going through challenging times: impermanence, suffering, and egolessness.
The Only Permanence is Impermanence
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens"
-- Ecclesiastes 3:1
Though we would like to believe otherwise, the only constant in this world is change. The very definition of life is the ability to reproduce, grow, and change in order to survive. Chodron goes so far as to say "impermanence is the goodness of reality."
Unfortunately, human beings are creatures of routine and change is painful for us. Our brains are wired to automatically interpret changes in the world around us as threats, and we respond to those threats with an immediate stress response.
The key to navigating change is to acknowledge that the only permanence is impermanence. Our lives are constantly changing, just as the seasons are constantly flowing around us. Impermanence is part of the natural world and embracing that is the only way we can be in alignment with reality.
We generally think of loss as something bad---the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one. What if we could shift our perspective to think of loss as simply the natural ending of something that was lovely, to make room for something else that will also be lovely? We would make the time to truly appreciate the wonderful things in our lives, and we'd grieve them fully when they ended. Isn't that better than tensing against inevitable change?
Pain and Suffering
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
Just as our views of impermanence tend to bring us suffering, so too is our view of pain unnatural and unreasonable. We tend to think that if we have pain in our lives, it means something is wrong, either with us or with our lives or the world.
This truth was very challenging for me to learn and understand. In western cultures, we tend to be very solution-oriented, thinking that if there is pain in our lives, then it means that there's a problem that needs to be solved. (This is a logical but unhelpful extension of living too much in the Rational Mind.) But just as impermanence will always exist, so too will pain, as an inseparable counterpart to pleasure. In the words of Glennon Doyle in Untamed, "Life is so brutal and beautiful. Life is brutiful. For all of us."
No amount of thinking or problem-solving or stressing out can maneuver me away from the painfulness of life. No amount of emotional numbing can protect me. All it does is prevent me from fully living in the good times.
To decrease our suffering, we must allow both the pleasure and the pain to play in our lives. We won't feel less pain, of course, but our suffering from the pain will be less pointed and extended. Living through pain is hard, but it's possible to do hard things and live to tell the tale.
Egolessness and Attachment
"Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about other people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner."
– Lau-tzu, Tao te Ching
The final truth Chodron explores is the idea of egolessness. Our egos represent all the things we prefer to base our identities on because they're external to us -- our jobs, our reputations, our homes, our achievements, our families, our relationships, our talents. But, as with everything in life, all of these things are changeable and not our true unconditional selves.
Chodron writes, "Egolessness is the same thing as basic goodness or buddha nature, our unconditional being. It's what we always have and never really lose." By forming such strong attachments to our egos, we miss out on the opportunity to be in alignment with our true selves. By focusing on the trappings of our egos, we condemn ourselves to always grasping at things that are changing, rather than grounding ourselves in our own being-ness.
When I first learned of egolessness, I felt completely at a loss because I didn't know who I was underneath it all, so it literally didn't make sense to me. I didn't know how to access my unconditional being, so how was I supposed to focus on it? I assumed everyone else got one and I didn't. But the truth is that, at that time, I just didn't know how to access mine. It took years of work to finally learn how to get a sense of who I was under all of the things I liked to base my identity and my self-worth on.
So What Should We Do When Life Gets Hard?
Knowing what we do about life and suffering, what can you do when the going gets tough?
First, explore where you can begin to soften in your day-to-day life when you encounter impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. To what things are you clinging that are, by their very nature, temporary and passing? How can you make the most of joy and lessen your suffering?
Not sure where to begin? Here's a set of free journal prompts to help you get started, my gift to you:
Second, learn how to support each of your Minds (Rational, Emotional, and Physical) during times of stress and change. Your needs will look different from other people's, so it's important to practice self awareness and listen to what you need to navigate stormy weather.
Ready to Deepen Your Self-Awareness?
If you're ready to take the next step in exploring your own innate nature, check out my free downloadable Self Awareness Test.
This workbook will help you explore your own types of Knowing, including how you currently work with your Rational Mind, Emotional Mind, and Physical Mind. It also includes recommendations and activities to begin to try to work with your Minds in new ways, letting go of old attachments and creating space for new ways of Knowing yourself.
What do you do when life is hard? Leave me a comment letting me know! - Lindsay