By Dr Joe Flanders
The last 6 months have been difficult for my family and me. In fact, I can’t recall another period in my life in which I felt so overwhelmed, depleted, and discouraged. Thankfully, the worst of it has past. I’ve since had time to reflect on this period and, in particular, how my mindfulness practice helped me cope. While much of what follows is an account of my personal experience, I believe the value of the practice as it is applied here is universal.
I’ll try to get you up to speed on what happened without boring you to death with the minutiae of my “first-world” problems: My wife and I live with our 2 little kids (M, 4 years old & G, 1.5 years old) in a condo in Montreal. Last spring, we discovered a significant mould infestation in our basement. The problem was so bad that it was compromising the structural integrity of our kitchen and bathroom floors (we were lucky the floor didn’t caved in while M & G were in the bath) and poisoning the air quality in our home. Imagine: G had been breathing this toxic air since she came home from the hospital at 2 days old! The upshot was that we had to: move out; hire specialists to decontaminate the crawlspace; rip out the floors; dig up our yard to fix the water infiltration problem; and then rebuild and refinish everything. To make matters worse, we had to pursue 3 separate lawsuits if we wanted to recoup the 6-figure costs of the job.
In the middle of all of this, I got some devastating news from my mother: her cancer relapsed. It had been under control for 3 years thanks to an amazing new drug, but sadly, the disease had progressed and the drug was no longer effective. We didn’t know how much longer she had to live.
I have learned over the years that when I’m processing emotion or feeling overwhelmed, the primary symptom is irritability. I am easily frustrated by minor setbacks and impatient with people around me. What I lived over the summer was the perfect storm of triggers for me in my vulnerable state: we moved in and out of 6 different homes, supported our children through the change, managed the financial burden of all the work on our home, had countless meetings with contractors and lawyers, all while having to process this troubling news about my mother’s health.
Because we moved around a lot over the summer, it was tough to keep track of our stuff. I’d go to the bathroom to shave before work, only to realize I’d left my shaving stuff in another bag at home; my daughter wanted to sleep with her 2nd favorite stuffed animal, but that one was in storage; my wife wants to charge her iPhone, but I forgot to pack it at the other apartment. On and on like this for 3 months. And each each of these little frustrations would infuriate me. I would tighten up, growl inside, and think (over and over again) “This is so irritating! I can’t deal with all this frustration! I can’t believe I have to buy yet another iPhone charger!” As you can imagine, my head was not a fun place to be.
In one of my more acute moments of discouragement, it occurred to me that the magnitude of these challenges superseded my capacity to practice and cope with them. So I looked for inspiration from Pema Chodron, whose books had helped me through difficult times in the past. I picked up Living Comfortably with Uncertainty and Change and was reminded of one of her most compelling theses: that moments of difficulty offer the best opportunities to deepen insight and wisdom.
According to Pema, when things don’t go according to plan – when things fall apart to use her phrase – we typically react with some form of resistance such as frustration, disappointment, sadness, or indignation. We are attached to having things the way we want them and all of these reactions involve emotionally doubling-down on the plans that have not worked out.
Rather than tightening our grip on what has already slipped away, Pema invites us to let go and relax into the “fundamental groundlessness of being.” That phrase is fancy spiritual jargon referring to the impermanent and unsatisfying nature of reality. The fact is that my desire to have my “stuff” in order is bound to be unsatisfied because “stuff” invariably falls out of order again. iPhone chargers get lost and found; the soothing presence of stuffed animals comes and goes; apartments floors rot and get rebuilt; relationships fall apart and come together; even human life itself arises and passes. So as long as we are attached to having things a certain way, we will inevitably experience that dissatisfaction. In Buddhism, this is called dukkha.
Most of us, myself included, can’t really help it. Our brains evolved to make us feel more at ease in familiar environments that are predictable and under control. It requires more effort and energy to adapt to novel, unpredictable circumstances – and who knows what unknown threats lurk in the disorder? So adaptation to change is often accompanied by stress, anxiety, and depletion. Stretching beyond our evolutionary heritage and working skillfully with dukkha requires significant practice.
According to Pema, we can open up and ease into moments of frustration and stress. This practice begins with mindfulness. The idea is to drop into the moment-by-moment unfolding of an awareness that is not hooked or shaped by our preferences or judgements. The resistance itself can be used as an invitation to shift into openness and curiosity. In my case, that refers to the tightness in neck and shoulders, accelerating frustrated feeling, and racing thoughts about how my circumstances. Any of these elements could serve as a cue to stop and say “wow, resistance is here; let’s see what this is like.” At one level, this attitude disrupts the automatic habitual reactions of irritation and rumination and makes it possible to relate to the moment differently, such as with kindness and self-compassion. At a deeper level, it also opens the door to the experiential insight of impermanence, a deep and clear understanding that conditions change and sustainable well-being arises from a willingness to accept and work with what shows up.
Of course, a lot of repetition and deliberate practice is required to move from a momentary insight to new way of being. And I have to admit I did fail to make this shift more often than I succeeded. But I do have one interesting experience to share.
One morning in the middle of the summer, I took my daughters out for a walk so my wife could catch up on sleep. The weather was lousy, but it hadn’t started raining yet and the kids needed to get out. So we went and had a reasonably good time. On the way back, the whining started: “I’m huuunnngry. I’m tiiiiirred. I don’t want to walk anymore, etc.” Shorty after that, it started pouring rain (obviously) and the whining escalated to crying. Somehow, despite headache, fatigue, and own wet clothes, I managed to not react. I didn’t say or do anything except observe the moment unfolding. To be clear, this wasn’t an act of suppression or self-deception; there were simply no other “strategies” available to me aside from letting go of my preferences and working with what was present. After a minute or 2, the kids calmed down and walked along quietly. Then, the rain actually let up. And as we approached our home, I noticed a feeling of peaceful gratitude set in as the beauty of my surroundings registered, as well as a sense that everything was going to be ok.
For a brief moment I was attuned to the “fundamental groundlessness of being.” And as hard and complicated as that sounds, it actually involved little effort or technique – just slowing down and tuning in. So here is your invitation to try relaxing into those moments (big or small) when you’re feeling stuck in reactivity. It may help bring back intentionality and a deeper appreciation of impermanence.