Tragedy and trouble find us all, sooner or later, even living in the most stable, wealthy, and just societies in history. What do the perennial wisdom traditions have to say about optimal living in difficult times?
They tell us that circumstances come and go, improve and collapse, ebb and flow, but through it all the mind is the turning point. On the deepest level, we possess the same minds as our ancestors. While the content of our challenges may be different than theirs, the contours are the same: gain and loss, fulfillment and disappointment, uncertainty and impermanence.
Luckily, we needn’t renounce to a monastery to encounter this wisdom; it’s all around us and part of our conscious culture. Here’s the caveat: intellectual understanding is fast and easy, but to benefit from this wisdom we must dig into the practices and engage with our struggles.
The entire tradition of asceticism is about creating and joyfully engaging with adversity to foster emotional and spiritual growth.
Here’s a five-point plan for conscious living practices in troubled times:
1 Acceptance vs. action. Perhaps the greatest confusion for modern, lay practitioners is the question of how much to focus on acceptance of reality as it is vs. focus on changing those circumstances. How can we “be here now,” not running away from our problems, yet want to change our lives and solve those problems in the real world?
Here’s the golden rule: work to change the outside, learn to observe the inside.
In meditation practices such as vipassana or mindfulness of breathing, learn to simply allow emotional states — even “bad” emotions—to be felt resonating in the body, as a kind of energy. A lump in the throat or a heavy heart can be experienced intimately without any need to make them go away. You will find that they pass on their own.
2 Lay the groundwork. The time to cultivate a strong yoga practice is now. A regular practice gradually (and permanently) raises our capacity to be responsive rather than reactive in our lives. If and when something unwanted comes along, you’ll be prepared, and even if it doesn’t, you’ll find there’s not an upper limit to the fine-grain improvement you can make in day-to-day living.
3 The body knows. Yoga postures offer an opportunity to feel in our bodies the qualities we would like in our lives: strength, flexibility, balance, equanimity, focus, determination, nurturing, healing, ease, poise, relaxation—the list goes on. These qualities become real experiences in our bodies in real time; they take on a depth far beyond the ideas of those qualities.
4 Break it down. Train yourself to realize that when life overwhelms you, it’s a red flag, and make time to stop and take stock. All experience is made of images, sounds, and sensations. That’s it. Breathe deeply and choose one of these threads to follow, trying to ignore the others. Track the sensations of the breath or the sounds in the room while you get your bearings.
5 The hidden gem. We grow through adversity. The entire tradition of asceticism is about creating and joyfully engaging with adversity to foster emotional and spiritual growth. When difficulty comes into our life, we can decide to step up and make this too part of our practice.
Living a conscious life doesn’t mean being passive. Contemplatives have often worked to change and improve lives though charity and social activism. The same is true today, and practitioners can and should step up and improve their own and others’ circumstances. Ethics is a contact sport. But as hard as you work for change on the outside, you must learn to experience the flow of thoughts and emotions on the inside without interference.
This article was originally published in the YogaIowa’s Spring 2017 issue.