Difficult Stuff Happens. Shift Happens, Too

[An edited version of the article below will appear in the June 2017 Spirit Rock e-newsletter. May the flow from shit happening to shift happening ring true and prove useful.]

Difficult stuff happens.

Every human being walking through a human life knows that.

We can lose our car keys and wallet two days before a much-longed for vacation, or chip a tooth on an almond and wind up needing an emergency crown. Or we or someone close to us is downsized from a job, or gets an unexpected diagnosis of cancer, or struggles through a divorce or causes the death of a child in a car accident.

In the Buddhist tradition we call this dukkha, or the suffering inevitable in the human condition.

Sometimes this suffering is exacerbated by the messages of blame-shame we hear inside our own heads about ourselves in relationship to those events. In Western psychology we call this the inner critic.

Remarkably, shift happens, too. The conditions at the root of our suffering change, or the messages we tell ourselves about those conditions change, or our reactions to those conditions or to those messages change. The flow of conditions changing or our perceptions changing or our interpretations of our perceptions changing is so inextricably a facet of the nature of existence, in the Buddhist tradition we name it one of the three characteristics of existence – impermanence.

Sometimes the experience of suffering and recognition of impermanence changes on its own. A neighbor gives us a ride to the dentist or comes through with a bona fide job lead, and our perception of our circumstances, and of ourselves in those circumstances, changes. This can be referred to as the interdependence of common humanity.

Sometimes we want to help the shift along. We can take action that is skillful in changing the external conditions – we follow up on the job lead, we join a support group for parents going through a divorce – or skillful in managing our internal responses to those externals – deepening our self-compassion and forgiveness practices. In the Buddhist tradition, we call that wise effort. Letting go of the unwholesome and cultivating the wholesome.

Practices of mindful awareness, self-compassion and self-empathy help people recover the calm and clarity necessary to cultivate that wise effort. To take skillful and courageous action when necessary, to be with both the shit and the shifts in our lives patiently, acceptingly when necessary, and to discern the difference. This could called wise discernment.

For instance, I make all the appointments and do all the tests and schedule all the treatments necessary to deal with my cancer diagnosis or my child’s diagnosis, but I also expand my comprehension of the flow of life and death and joy and loss to hold with equanimity the circumstances and the messages about myself in those circumstances that I am dealing with as I deal. This is called wisdom.

Mindfulness strengthens our capacities of wisdom is responding to shit with shift. This is called resilience.

Resilience can be cultivated and strengthened, as mindfulness and loving-kindness are cultivated, with diligent and deepening practice over time, in community, with faith and perseverance.

Please join me, if you can, in a pioneering 3-day non-residential retreat at Spirit Rock: “Shift Happens: Learning to Bounce Back from Disappointments, Difficulties, even Disasters,” June 9-11, 2107. We’ll explore the interweaving of Buddhist contemplative practice, modern neuroscience, and relational psychology to strengthen our capacity to shift perspectives, discern options, and make wise choices.

Click here for information or to register.