6 things to practice when life shows up in challenging ways

Last week I shared parts of my spiritual journey with a New Year that started in unexpected ways. The passing of my beloved Leo created a spiritual pause, which opened the space for deep introspection and self-study. I ruminated about compassion, and why our yoga exercises are not the key to finding peace and balance in our life.

I also talked about lessons I have drawn from it and how I had to resort to the true heart of yoga, which is to become still. Through this practice, I was able to sit with the pain and listen to the soft but wise voice of my spirit.

Today I am sharing the key lesson that came up for me; I believe many of you can relate to:

“We are a lot stronger than we perceive ourselves to be.”

The word strength can have different meanings. Besides physical strength, there is the mental capacity to handle what life throws at us, including physical and emotional pain. It is that form of strength we don’t encounter in everyday life until we are facing a challenging situation.

This situation reminds us to dig deeper and realize that indeed we are a lot stronger than we perceive ourselves to be. Life examples that help us find this type of strength, which also can be called resilience are childbirth, loss of a loved one, divorce, sickness, loss of our job, etc.

Even if each one of these life situations ranges from ‘not easy to excruciating,’ they do help us focus our mental and emotional energy. And more often than not these challenging phases open the space for us to experience a transformation, through which we learn “I can do this.” And that is an empowering lesson to remember for the next time we find ourselves facing challenges and hardship.

Today, I can think of Leo, and instead of tears rolling down my cheeks, I can smile. I can cherish my memories of him and the time we had together. I can appreciate the time spent with Lilly even more…We miss him. We always will. But having gone through this unexpected loss reminded me how strong I am, no matter how painful it still is.

I would like to end today’s letter with letting you in on what I practiced daily when my New Year did not start the way I had planned.

The 6 things we can do when life shows up with unexpected twists and turns.

1. Be kind to yourself

One of the essential practices in dealing with all obstacles in life is to be kind to yourself. I know many people, including myself, who have abundant kindness and gentleness for others in their life but not (always) for themselves. It seems to be part of our cultural upbringing, especially for women, to easily take care of others but internally face our self-judgment or expectations, impatience or just ignorance for our own struggles.

These thoughts help me:

“Be kind and gentle in these days, understand that what you are going through is not permanent. Be ok with whatever comes up. Sit with all the emotions that arise within you. You do not have to figure it all out right here. Retreat when you need to rest. Permit yourself to cry. Let time help you heal. Breathe…one breath at a time…”

There was a time in my life, where I did not have this clarity and these thoughts available to me. But this time I did, and it helped tremendously.

2. Don’t follow the stories in your mind

Most of our suffering when facing the unexpected are the stories our mind generates around the situation we all of a sudden find ourselves in. What that means can be explained through the analogy “to have the rug pulled away from under your feet.”
This image beautifully represents the state of not being grounded anymore, mentally or spiritually. It feels like we are in free fall and are looking for things to hold on to.

Our mind dutifully and creatively answers the call immediately — logical or irrational explanations, questions and more questions looking for answers, comparisons to past experiences, everybody else’s opinions, the history of past hurts and pains jumping up from the back rows and various more players come out to play — “the stories.”

Being able to see those stories for what they are, constructs of our mind is the first step to take ownership of our pain. It gives us the option of either running with them or not. In meditation teaching, these options are called ‘attachment or detachment.’ 

It does not make the pain immediately easier. But the awareness of the stories empowers us to understand why some emotions might come up. I have learned “not to be mad” at my mind for coming up with all the stories and thoughts I then have to deal with. I have accepted the fact that this is merely part of our human conditioning and being aware of it is half the battle.

3. Be still and listen

The dedicated and diligent practice of meditation is a powerful antidote not be enslaved to the plays of our mind but rather look at it with a little distance instead of getting emotionally entangled. With it, we can realize that we do have a choice of how to respond to the things coming our way. If we have the awareness to see our thoughts for what they are, they lose their power or stronghold. We have all heard it before in some form or the other:

The practice of stillness, which according to the historical tradition is the literal definition of Yoga, allows us the space to be with what is in each moment. A lost art, which we so urgently need in a world that could not be any noisier. I love the words of Carl Sandburg:

“If you don’t know what to do, sit still and listen, you might hear something.”

So that is what I did. I sat, I walked, I laid on the floor and listened. I listened to the dialogue in my mind and the cries of my heart. And in that process of listening, I noticed things revealed themselves with ease without me even trying.

Ask yourself, when was the last time you became still and listened? Can you learn how to be still and listen?

“It is not what happens to you that matters, but how you respond to it”

Epictetus

4. Focus on gratitude

The practice of gratitude is another powerful tool which helped me to refocus my mind and my heart away from the pain. Practicing gratitude is easy when life is going according to plan, when we are healthy, in love, when we have perceived stability and security.

But what happened when Leo got so sick that there was no other option but to let him go? How did I find gratitude in those days?

I focused on my sweet Lilly. A sensitive spirit, who also was going through a challenging time coping with the loss of her brother. Her warm body beside mine reminded me that there still is life here right beside me. And that I need to cherish the time I have with her. We needed each other to get through the hard days. And having her still by my side became a special gift I focused on every day since then.

I found gratitude for my beloved partner Knut. I was grateful I could lean into his arms and silently cry when I needed to. I was not alone, I felt loved and how could I not be thankful for that?

I was able to take time off teaching. Being in a situation where I could retreat and take care of myself, is an incredible gift for me I will never take for granted. There was a time in my life; I was not able to do that. But this time I could. What a blessing.

I was grateful for the time I had with Leo. I realized all that this dog represented in my life. And for that gift, it was so easy to be profoundly grateful.

I received love and caring thoughts via email, texts, and letters from my beloved students and Yoginis around me. Many shared their heart and connected with me through expressing, that they too have gone through a similar type of loss. They extended healing words and thoughts which I will never forget. Receiving those letters made me realize how fortunate I am to be surrounded by such energy and love.

These are just a few examples; there were many more. I firmly believe everybody has things in their life that you can choose to be deeply grateful for – at any given moment in time.

I practice gratitude every day. It has become second nature to me. Maybe because my life’s journey has never been easy or simple, maybe because I have experienced pain so deeply and intensely, physically and emotionally, it has become an even more important part of my life to focus on gratitude.

5. Trust that this too shall pass

At last, having the faith that this state of pain and suffering will not stay forever with me, but will pass, has been for many years one of my faithful companions through the tough days. I believe this quote makes more and more sense the older and wiser we grow. We can connect to challenges in our own life’s history and remember that we had gone through something before and came out of the tunnel back into the sunlight.

I lost a beloved dog eight years ago, my sweet Zoe, to a fatal car accident that took her life. It was excruciating, but I survived…and she will always have a special place in my heart.

6. Breathe…inhale – exhale, inhale – exhale…

…and never forget “You are a lot stronger than you perceive yourself to be.”

We will talk again soon.

Love and stillness,

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Emme
Emme

Coach, Teacher, Mentor for Holistic Training, Founder of Next Level Yoga, Yogini of 20+ years & life enthusiast dedicated to helping you move through life with grace.