Do you have difficult people or situations in your life? I can’t imagine a single human being answering “no” to that question. There’s no doubt that life presents us with challenges — some tiny and relatively inconsequential, some heartbreakingly large and overwhelming — in the form of people and circumstances.
There is a saying that goes, “experience is life’s greatest teacher.” And another one that goes, “relationships are life’s greatest teachers.” They are cliches because they’re true. We are handed, endlessly, opportunities to learn how to be more compassionate, how to set healthier boundaries, how to communicate more clearly, how to forgive and accept, how to stand up for our truth, how to do less harm, how to contribute rather than squander our gifts.
So life is clearly there just waiting to teach us. But what kind of students are we? How do we show up? How well do we listen? How much effort do we put in? How open are we to adapting or even letting go of our stories? How ready are we to wake up, shed old habits, and evolve emotionally?
It is not always obvious what path we should take in life when presented with complex scenarios and other people’s hearts, especially when we’re balancing taking care of ourselves with taking care of others. But if we set the intention that we will do what we can to be present, with an open mind and heart, for the lessons offered (in the guise of relationships and situations), we really can’t fail. As long as we are willing to show up and do the work, something powerful and valuable (no matter how small) will sink in, and we will grow, we will change, we will learn.
Sometimes these internal shifts (and their behavioral outgrowths) are so tiny as to be almost imperceptible and don’t become obvious until time has passed or many so-called “mistakes” have occurred. So we sometimes think we’re failing, or that it’s just too hard, or that it’s just not fair, and these stories we tell ourselves can become huge impediments to our ability to stay focused on the work of life, on the potential for integration and healing.
So we also need to cultivate, along with our willingness to show up, a sense of allowing ourselves to be imperfect, to learn in pieces or over time, to not interpret “set-backs” as failures, but rather as natural and normal parts of the growth process, which is almost never linear. And we need to embrace confusion as a stepping stone on the way to insight, rather than a debilitating energy that can provoke us to stick our heads back in the sand and simply run away from the challenge altogether.
Finally, we need self-compassion. Desperately. Thankfully, it is something we can cultivate and nurture in a very simple way. Sitting on the meditation cushion every day for 1, 3, 5, 10, 20 minutes is a deep form of self-compassion. When we commit that time and effort to a practice that is all about seeing what’s really happening, watching our thoughts arise and learning how to be less identified with them, exposing our self-destructive habits of mind, uncovering our deepest truths, and tending to our broken places, we begin to change, to wake up, to love and accept ourselves more fully. And we reap invaluable rewards.
We also have the opportunity to practice being compassionate with ourselves in every single moment — whether we’re walking, or washing dishes, or listening to our child or partner, or driving a car, or even paying our bills. As long as we are bringing in the energy, the power, of mindfulness — paying attention to what’s actually happening, in the present moment, on purpose, without judgment — we are doing the opposite of abandoning ourselves.
So, to truly transform, we have to care enough about the process to put in the effort, and we have to embrace the difficult and ugly stuff when it comes our way — welcome it as we would a friend, a teacher, a guide, a doorway to love. Maybe we can (on a good day ;-) ) open to the possibility of feeling grateful for all the darkness and challenges and defeats and breakdowns and dysfunction that come our way or that we wittingly or unwittingly put into the world. And feel thankful for the opportunity, every day, every moment, to learn what we may have never learned in school or from our society or even from our ancestors: how to remain present; how to allow our intuition to speak and be heard; how to find our way through this crazy maze with compassion, wisdom, strength and joy; how to come home.