Image by Milada Vigerova
Feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. . . . They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck.
— Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart
The wisdom of non-attachment [in Buddhism] is most applicable when dealing with life’s problems: whether small irritants or major life losses. The secret is to befriend our problems and create new relationships with them. This does not imply that Buddhists are masochists who seek out problems and suffering or that they choose to deeply feel and get lost in negative emotions like anger, hate, or irritation. Instead, they invite problems to play.
A playful and friendly attitude toward problems begins by being curious and open to learning about their role in your life. Think of yourself a year ago at this time. Can you remember what you were really worried about? How much of that is worth worrying about today? Think of what you were worried about five years ago. How much of that is worth worrying about now? For most of us, the answers to these questions reveal that we remember very little about the things we agonized over in the past and that the things we worry about are rarely of consequence.
FIVE STEPS TO BEFRIENDING PROBLEMS
The seeds of wisdom, peace, and wholeness
are within each of our difficulties.
— Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart
How do you befriend problems? On one level it is quite simple: It is a choice. Each time you identify something as a problem in your life, you choose to see it as a friend, perhaps a messenger, or simply another opportunity to do something different.
Most of us are so conditioned to mindlessly react to problems that the alternative to “do something different” requires discipline. However—ultimately—this is the only actual challenge.
I have learned from my work as a therapist, once you can calm your emotional reactivity, most of us are quite capable of creatively, meaningfully, and playfully coping with life stressors. The hardest part is interrupting our reactivity cycle.
To help interrupt this cycle, I recommend these five steps:
- Identify the Problem: What exactly is the problem and why is it a problem for you?
- Identify Its Effects: Identify the negative and positive effects of the problem in all aspects of your life.
- Identify Your Reaction: Identify how you react to the problem and the effects of your reaction on your life.
- Identify Potentials for Friendship: Identify avenues for befriending problems.
- Identify Small Action Steps: Identify small, realistic steps for action.
STEP 1: IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM
It’s strange. When we have a problem, it seems painfully clear to us that it is a problem. But when asked how or in what way it is a problem, it is hard for most of us to articulate. Too often, the bottom line is this: “I am not getting what I want.” It is that simple.
Most often, when I ask myself, “What’s the bottom-line problem here?” it becomes clear that this is what I call a “milk-white-or-dark chocolate” issue: It is a matter of preference.
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The question then becomes, How important is this preference for me? Is it worth fighting for? If there are multiple preferences at stake, which is most important to me? How do I focus on this priority? Sometimes this first step is all it takes to shrink a big headache into a good-sized laugh.
STEP 2: IDENTIFYING NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE EFFECTS
The next step is to identify the negative and positive effects of the problem. I think it is helpful to explore how the problem affects your life in all areas: physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, occupational, and social. We generally view a problem as affecting one area of our life; however, most problems trickle over into other areas.
For example, if you are not happy with your weight (physical), you may find it spills over to your self-confidence in your relationships (social), your job (work), and even your relationship to God (spiritual). Similarly, you may also find that there are surprising positive effects. Perhaps you have joined a gym (physical) with your partner (relational) and met a new friend (social) or a new business contact (work) while working out. Even with the worst life events—death of a loved one, divorce, life-threatening illness, or sexual abuse—there ultimately is some sort of potential positive developments if you can compassionately stay with them.
In fact, the bigger the problem, the greater the possibility of positive effects in the long run.
STEP 3: IDENTIFYING YOUR REACTION
The next step is to examine how you react to the problem. When faced with the same problem, we all react differently. So, what are your favorite ways to react: Do you become angry, fearful, or irritated? Do you obsess over it, ignore it, hide it, or dwell on it? Do you feel cheated, freeze up, or gear up for action? Do you become hopeless, highly emotional, or overly logical? Do you react the same to all problems? When do you do what?
Once you identify your reaction, the next question is: How does this affect the situation? In what ways does your response make things better? In what ways worse? Although we dislike answering these questions, the answers offer insight into how we habitually relate to problems, and often those insights are enough to inspire us to do something different.
Typically, when we analyze our reaction to problems, we find we go to war with problems, try to evict them from our lives as quickly as possible, or pretend they are not there. This is where befriending problems can offer a fresh way to respond.
STEP 4: IDENTIFY POTENTIALS FOR FRIENDSHIP
Rather than ignore or attack the problem, take a moment to relate to it a bit differently. Some options include:
- Curiosity: Often it helps to be curious about it. What do you not know about the problem or situation? What other reasonable explanations could there be for the situation? Perhaps you made assumptions about another’s intentions or the actual possibilities in a situation? Sometimes when we soften by becoming curious about what is going on, we discover answers and possibilities we could not see in our reactive and panicked state.
- Problem as Teacher: For many, it is helpful to wonder about possible lessons you are being allowed to learn. What are you being asked to learn about life, yourself, your relationship, or the human condition by this problem situation?
- Problem as Preparation: In what ways might the problem be preparation for things to come? Might it be an opportunity to face a long-held fear? Is there a possible purpose for the problem that we cannot yet see?
- Just Is What Is: Other times, it is helpful to acknowledge that this is just how things are in life, at least at this moment. Openheartedly accepting what is must be distinguished from hopeless resignation. Embracing what is—in the Buddhist tradition—results in a sense of freedom and liberation.
- Situation without Your Interpretation: If you could be in this exact situation without the ability to think that it was a problem—that the situation just “was,” as natural as wind and rain, how would you respond differently? What thoughts and actions might be different?
Each situation must be befriended on its own terms. For example, traffic or a delayed train can be viewed as a divine permission for quiet, peaceful time in an otherwise hectic schedule; a bad restaurant meal, a nice compliment on your own or spouse’s home cooking; an argument with a friend, an opportunity to deepen the connection by moving beyond Pollyanna conversation. In most cases, if you can come up with even one plausible alternative, your stress level goes down and you can find a more proactive and effective way to approach the situation.
STEP 5: IDENTIFY SMALL STEPS
The most important step is to do something—even a little something— different. Notice, I said different, not better or more correct. I recommend that you come up with small, realistic steps for action based on what has worked for you in the past.
As you become more comfortable and adventurous with befriending problems, you will be surprised at how quickly things transform and how easily problems can become your best friend.
ADVANCED COURSE IN BEFRIENDING PROBLEMS
There is no such thing as a problem
—just opportunities to learn things
that I have not yet mastered.
—From me to me on a bad day
Once you master the five steps to befriending problems, you may want to advance to this shortcut of an insight: There is no such thing as a problem—just learning opportunities. Each perceived “problem” is actually a flashing neon sign pointing to how you need to adjust your map in order for it to more accurately reflect what is.
If you prefer a more benevolent view of the universe, a “problem” is a lesson or task that was specifically crafted for you to learn something—problems are oddly disguised gifts, even during the most difficult moments of our lives.
BEFRIENDING THE IMPOSSIBLE
Befriending problems is not so difficult when it involves the little things: long lines, self-doubt, or our partner’s foibles. But when the big things hit—a loved one dies, we receive a serious diagnosis, our partner leaves, we lose a job—it becomes much harder to be open, playful, present, or friendly. However, these are the moments most critical to befriend. The costs of not befriending are too high. Yet mustering the courage to open our hearts in these situations sometimes seems too much to bear.
It may take months or even years to get to the point where you can befriend the darkest moments in your life. When tragedy strikes—a loved one is senselessly murdered, your child receives a life-threatening diagnosis, your partner walks out on you and your children, or you contemplate ending your own life—do not rush yourself (and certainly not others) to befriend such moments until you are ready. Sometimes, a long period of profound grieving is necessary before entertaining such an idea.
At other times, you may ache so deeply and are so exhausted from grief that you are brought to your knees and are willing to consider that God may not be evil after all and consider another perspective. The one thing I can promise you is that after you do it once, each time thereafter it gets easier.
Eventually, we all encounter one of our worst fears—something we believe we cannot bear. It will come, and in fact, such moments typically come several times in all of our lives. In these moments, we will break. Every time. But we must choose whether we break down or break open. We will most likely cry, get angry, and feel overwhelmed at first. But at any point, we are free to choose to befriend the moment.
The first step is simple but terrifying: acknowledging what has just happened. You may not be able to do this with your first major life tragedy, and that is OK. I could not. But as you practice on the little things, you develop the courage to one day use it with one of your bigger challenges. Each time you do this, you become braver and more confident that you can survive the next round. And, forgive my honesty, but there will be another one most likely at some point—until the day comes when you simply know that no matter what happens, you will not just survive, but grow through it.
With each new trial I face, I have learned that if I quiet the part of me that wants to run away from the painful reality, the answer comes—with laser-like clarity and a deep-seated calm in my darkest hour. A voice that I know only from the quietest moments of meditation provides the answer. Although meditation is quite useful for daily stresses, you won’t discover the real value of such an arguably boring practice until you face such a moment.
When you can still your mind, you can make agonizing decisions with lucidity and peace. You finally know freedom when you can consciously befriend your worst nightmare. Befriending allows you to be fully present when making life-altering decisions that you can then unwaveringly uphold, even in the most unimaginable of circumstances.
Perhaps the most remarkable lesson the Buddhists offer is that simply “being with” a problem radically transforms our experience of it. I encourage you to try this in the Befriending Meditation below.
Note: If this becomes overwhelming, simply stop. You may need some more time with the issue before you are able to fully experience it. You may also want to try using less emotionally charged problems for this exercise until it becomes easier.
©2019 by Diane R. Gehart. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted with permission from Mindfulness for Chocolate Lovers.
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield. www.rowman.com.
Mindfulness for Chocolate Lovers: A Lighthearted Way to Stress Less and Savor More Each Day
by Diane R. Gehart
Ultimately, this book invites you to play. To laugh. To love. To heal old heartbreaks. To overcome what was once impossible. To open your heart to life and all it has to offer: white, milk, and dark. The stresses of modern life often create the illusion that life is hard, painful, and lonely. You are only a few bites away from an entirely different approach to living a sweeter life.
(Also available as a Kindle edition.)
For more info, or to order this book, click here.
About the Author
Diane R. Gehart, Ph.D., is an award-winning professor of Counseling and Family Therapy at California State University, Northridge, and author of numerous best-selling books for professionals, including Mindfulness and Acceptance in Couple and Family Therapy and Mastering Competencies in Family Therapy. She maintains an active psychotherapy practice in the Los Angeles area, working with adults, couples, and families to find effective and meaningful ways to address their greatest life challenges—while having some fun along the way. You can follow her on YouTube. Learn more: www.dianegehart.com and www.mindfulnessforchocolatelovers.com.