Sometimes, life gets really hard.
We struggle with our relationships, our work, or our health. Someone we can’t imagine living without dies. We experience money problems. We see our kids struggling.
We watch the news and wonder if we’re not all just doomed.
When I was younger and encountered a serious problem in my life, I used to dive deep into the thick goo of the problem. If one thing was really bad, everything else seemed horrible, too. The opposite of counting my blessings, I’d stack up all of the negativity I could summon, wallowing in the thick ugliness.
I still struggle with this type of black and white thinking at times.
Some of it is simply how the human brain works—when we’re in the midst of a looming problem, it can be easy to slip into obsession, turning our troubles over and over in our minds.
But when we focus solely on the problem—and let’s face it, there will always be problems—we risk becoming enveloped by it. We risk missing the rest of our lives, which are likely brimming with goodness.
One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned is that there is almost always sweetness mingled with pain, and almost always ache to be found during periods of happiness. Cultivating the ability to hold both strengthens our hearts and minds.
Here are five ways to hold space for goodness when life gets hard:
Get back in your body. By sliding out of our obsessive thinking and back into our bodies, we can often find moments of relief. In the steadiness of our breath as it falls in and out. In the thud of our own vibrating hearts, or the tingle where the pads of our feet meet the floor. If you find it hard to get present in your body, you can start by counting your breaths from one to ten, then starting over again. You can rub your thumb against the fabric of your clothes or notice whether your skin feels warm or cold.
Get outside. We can head to the woods or the ocean, where we might see fallen trees or cracked shells, but where there is still vast, dwarfing beauty. We can notice nature’s recycling program—an old log becomes home for a stretch of soft moss. A shell that once held life dissolves into warm sand. In nature, things are generally more okay than not, and there’s something about noticing that firsthand that’s soothing.
Float. When we wrap our bodies in water, we remember what it feels like to float. It can seem counterintuitive to surrender, to stop grasping so tightly when we feel out of control. And yet without our own resistance, we are buoyant.
Notice goodness. What we focus our attention on grows. By acknowledging beauty and mystery when we encounter it, we shore up our ability to notice more goodness. It can be as simple as an exchanged smile with a stranger, the way dandelions push up through the cracks in the sidewalk, or giggling as you watch a video of cats being spooked by cucumbers.
Protect yourself. When we’re struggling to hold onto slivers of goodness, it’s important to insulate ourselves. Avoid reading or watching upsetting news, watching violent movies or spending time with difficult people. This isn’t the time to schedule that long-procrastinated lunch date with Aunt Judy or rewatch the series finale of Six Feet Under. Treat yourself like you would a frightened child—with gentleness, warmth and protection.
Learning to hold light during difficult times is the work of a lifetime. Be gentle with your sweet self, and know you are not alone.
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Editor: Catherine Monkman