On December 17, 2013, at 31 years old, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Acute Lymphoblasic Lymphoma.
Since then, my reality has been one huge life lesson on how to handle challenging life experiences. The most common way to deal with painful experiences is to reject them. We squash down the difficult feelings, distract ourselves by keeping busy, and ask ourselves, "When will this be over?"
The problem with this approach is that pain is a part of life. Part of being human means living a life that encompasses the highest highs and the lowest lows. It is not possible, nor desirable, to string happy moment after happy moment, as if we could prevent anything bad from happening in between.
Maybe you'll be able to muscle through one bad experience, but then what? What do you do when the next catastrophe strikes? How much of your life do you want to fear? How much of your life do you want to reject?
If we reject all of our painful experiences, we are rejecting a big part of our lives, and a big part of ourselves. We are rejecting the opportunity to learn from these experiences and therefore transform into more evolved people.
Over this past year, I've struggled with how to integrate my cancer experience into my life story. While there are moments of serious (physical) pain and discomfort that I just have to muscle through, there has not been a day that does not bring some sort of challenge. I've had to learn how to accept these days -- the good and the bad -- into my heart, with as much compassion as possible.
How do I do this? Thankfully, there are many tools available to us to help transform difficult experiences into opportunities for acceptance and growth.
Equanimity is the practice of holding all experiences (the good and the bad) with evenness. Equanimity is the cliff that holds fast in the face of crashing waves. We can practice equanimity by repeating this phrase:
May I accept things just as they are
May I accept myself just as I am
By repeating these phrases we set an intention, and over time this intention can transform our thought patterns.
Acceptance is not an excuse to sit back passively when there are ways you can better your situation. Examine the difficulty you are going through. What do you need to accept? What do you need to change?
When you identify areas of potential change, create small action steps you can accomplish immediately. This will boost your confidence and help you recognize that you do have power and autonomy over your life.
For example, during one moment when I was having a lot of physical pain, I wrote a list of things I could do to help. It included: Make an appointment to discuss with my pain doctor, go for a walk, sit in the hot tub, get a massage, etc. Now when I have pain that feels unbearable, I look at my list and take advantage of the tools I have available to address it.
Find joy in small pleasures
The problem is not that there is not enough joy in our life; the problem is that there is joy all around us that we fail to notice. Practice noticing small joys -- a good meal, a beautiful sunset, a pleasant breeze, a fun song on the radio.
There are lots of ways to practice bringing joy in your life, including keeping a gratitude journal, getting a "joy buddy" (someone you call, email or text your small joys to throughout the day), and setting a joy intention (put a post-it on your fridge that says, May I open myself to joy or a similar phrase that resonates with you).
Pain does not need to lead to suffering. While pain is an inevitable part of life, suffering is the unnecessary difficulty we create for ourselves on top of that. We can't end pain, but we can work to end suffering.
Elana Miller, MD is a psychiatrist and writer at Zen Psychiatry. She is passionate about integrating Western medicine with Eastern Wisdom to help people live fuller and happier lives. Check out her new digital course on perservering through difficult life experiences, Reclaim Your Resiliency: 4 Strategies for Healthy Coping.