Only as a [spiritual] warrior can one withstand the path of knowledge. A warrior cannot complain or regret anything. His life is an endless challenge and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. Challenges are simply challenges. The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse. -- Don Juan, as quoted by Jack Kornfield in A Path With Heart
I first read these words in medical school, in the middle of a difficult surgical rotation. I felt depressed and beaten down from working 80+ hour weeks and arduous overnight shifts, and demoralized by poor treatment from my superiors (who were undoubtedly demoralized, themselves). I wanted to be a surgeon, but couldn't imagine the rest of my life looking like this. And then, out of nowhere, my boyfriend broke up with me. It felt like things couldn't get much worse.
Then, I read these words in Jack Kornfield's book, A Path With Heart. I mulled over what he said, and turned it over in my mind. I began to consider whether it was possible to see painful experiences as challenges to work through, and not as bad luck to lament. I wondered, could I see the same circumstances through different eyes? Soon after, I decided to abandon a career in surgery for a future in psychiatry (and haven't looked back since). Here are some ways we can all cultivate our own inner spiritual warrior -- the part of us that faces challenge with wisdom, equanimity, and compassion.
1. Turn straw into gold. Our deepest suffering is often our greatest opportunity to learn about ourselves and take action to be better people. Working through suffering is how you learn to be patient, humble, and grateful. And developing strength in the face of painful circumstances teaches you that you don't need to fear the natural ups and downs of life, and instead can face whatever comes your way with inner calm and peace.
2. Integrate mindfulness into daily life. Being mindful doesn't mean you need to spend hours a day meditating -- you just need to pay attention. We think we don't have the time, but it doesn't need to take any extra time. Practice paying attention when you're engaged in daily activities. When you're washing the dishes, wash the dishes, and try not to let your mind wander to the past or future. When you're eating, eat. When you're walking, walk, and pay attention to the ground under each step.
3. See everyone as your Buddha. Just as difficult circumstances can be opportunities for growth, so can interactions with difficult people. Imagine that any difficult person you encounter is actually the Buddha in disguise, put there to teach you a specific lesson about life or about yourself. What do you think the universe is trying to teach you?
4. Recognize the difference between pain and suffering. In Eastern philosophy, pain and suffering are two very different things. Pain is the inevitable hardships of life, and suffering is the avoidable negative narrative we add on top of that. Losing your job is pain -- telling yourself that this means you're a failure is suffering. Ending a relationship is pain -- interpreting this to mean that you'll never meet anyone again is suffering. You can't eliminate pain, but you can end suffering.
5. Set a daily intention. In many meditation and yoga classes the teacher will ask the students to set an intention at the beginning of their practice. The same exercise can be useful in your day-to-day life. Try asking yourself every morning, "What emotion or feeling do I want to cultivate today?" Maybe it's to be patient, nonjudgmental, self-assured, happy, or open-minded. Whatever it is, set an intention to foster this quality throughout your day.
6. Create space for negative emotions. A common reaction to painful emotions like doubt, fear, or anger is to squash them down and pretend they're not there. You'll actually find it a lot more tolerable if you create space for them, instead. Imagine whatever painful emotion you're feeling as a compact ball of energy at your heart. Now expand that ball of energy to take up the whole room, the whole street, the whole planet, the whole universe. As it diffuses outward, the strength of the emotion wanes. As you pay attention to it, it loses power.
7. Cultivate wise thoughts. So little of how we see the world is based on fact and reality, and so much is based on subjective perceptions and interpretations. This is why unwise thoughts can be so destructive and wise thoughts can be so empowering. Choose to cultivate wise thoughts. We can't always choose how we feel, but we can choose what thoughts patterns and narratives we want to nurture.
8. Do something you're afraid of every day. In order to be able to do anything really amazing or courageous, we need to be able to act even when we're afraid. This is learned skill. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Practicing in small ways can help you build the momentum for something bigger. Maybe it's asking that cute girl out at the grocery store, or negotiating a price when you don't feel comfortable haggling, or speaking up at work when normally you keep quiet. Whatever you're afraid of, practice doing it.
9. Act out of love, not fear. Many people think the opposite of love is hate, but I would argue it's fear. While fear is a closing and contraction of the heart, love is a warmness and openness to yourself, the people around you, and whatever circumstance comes your way. If you're ever confused and unsure how to act, ask yourself one question: Does the action you're considering spring from love or from fear? Always choose love.
Elana Miller, M.D. writes at Zen Psychiatry. She is a psychiatrist who is passionate about integrating western medicine with eastern philosophy to help people live fuller and happier lives. To get new articles on improving your health and happiness, join her weekly newsletter.
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