Very often what nourishes our spirit most is what brings us face to face with our greatest limitations and difficulties. My teacher Ajahn Chah called this “practicing against the grain,” or “facing into one’s difficulties.” Every life has periods and situations of great difficulty that call on our spirit. Sometimes we are faced with the pain or illness of a child or a parent we love dearly. Sometimes it is a loss we face in career or business. Sometimes it is just our own loneliness or confusion or fear. Sometimes we are forced to live with painful circumstances or difficult people. In this time of pandemic these problems can become more intense. Yet in these very difficulties, we can learn the true strength of our practice. At these times, the wisdom we have cultivated and the depth of our love is our chief resource. To meditate, to pray, to practice at such times can be like pouring soothing balm onto the aches of our heart. The great forces of greed, hatred, fear, and ignorance that we encounter can be met by the equally great courage of our heart.
Freedom is born out of our capacity to work with any energy or difficulty that arises. It’s the freedom to enter wisely into all the realms of this world, the beautiful and painful realms, the realms of sickness and health, the realms of war and of peace. We can’t find freedom in some other place or some other time, we must find it here and now in this very life.
Often we see only two choices for dealing with our problems. One is to suppress them and deny them, to try to fill our lives with only light, beauty, and ideal feelings. In the long run we find that this does not work, for what we suppress with one hand or one part of our body cries out from another. If we suppress thoughts in the mind, we get ulcers; and if we clench problems in our body, our mind later becomes agitated or rigid, filled with unfaced fear. A second strategy is the opposite, to let all our reactions out, freely venting our feelings about each situation. This, too, becomes a problem, for if we act out every feeling that arises, all our dislikes, opinions, and agitations, our habitual reactions grow until they become tiresome, painful, confusing, contradictory, difficult, and finally overwhelming. What is left? The third alternative is the power of our wakeful and attentive heart. We can face these forces, these difficulties with loving awareness.
The maturity we can develop in approaching our difficulties is illustrated by the traditional story of a poisoned tree. On first discovering a poisoned tree, some people see only its danger. Their immediate reaction is, “Let’s cut this down before we are hurt. Let’s cut it down before anyone else eats the poisoned fruit.” This resembles our initial response to the difficulties that arise in our lives, when we encounter aggression, compulsion, greed, or fear, when we are faced with stress, loss, conflict, depression, or sorrow in ourselves and in those around us. Our initial response is to avoid them, saying, “These poisons afflict us. Let us uproot them; let us be rid of them. Let us cut them down.”
Other people, who have journeyed further along the spiritual path, discover this poisoned tree and do not meet it with aversion. They have realized that to open to life requires a deep and heartfelt compassion for all. Knowing the poisoned tree is somehow a part of us, they say, “Let us not cut it down. Instead, let’s have compassion for the tree as well.” So out of kindness they build a fence around the tree so that others may not be poisoned and the tree may also have its life. This second approach shows a profound shift of relationship from judgment and fear to compassion.
A third type of person, who has traveled yet deeper in spiritual life, sees this same tree. This person, who has gained much vision, looks and says, “Oh, a poisoned tree. Perfect! Just what I was looking for.” This individual picks the poisoned fruit, investigates its properties, mixes it with other ingredients, and uses the poison as a great medicine to heal the sick and transform the ills of the world.
How can we do this? We can develop the seeds of wisdom, peace, and wholeness within each of our difficulties. We can make our very difficulties the place of our practice. Then our life becomes not a struggle with success and failure but a dance of the heart. Where better to meditate, to steady our hearts, to practice patience, calm, generosity, compassion than in our tough times? This is where the straw becomes spun into the gold of love.
MEDITATION: REFLECTING ON DIFFICULTY
Sit quietly, feeling the rhythm of your breathing, allowing yourself to become calm and receptive. Then think of a difficulty that you face, whether in your spiritual practice or anywhere in your life. As you sense this difficulty, take your time. Notice how it affects your body, how it feels in the heart, its energy in the mind. Feeling it carefully, begin to ask yourself a few questions, listening inwardly for their answers.
How have I approached this difficulty so far?
How have I suffered by my own response and reaction to it?
What does this problem ask me to let go of?
What suffering here is unavoidable, is my measure to accept?
What happens if I bring tender compassion to all the parts of this difficulty?
What courage is asked as I respond?
What great lesson might it be able to teach me?
What is the gold, the value, hidden in this situation?
In using this reflection to consider your difficulties, the understanding and openings may come slowly. Take your time. As with all meditations, it can be helpful to repeat this reflection a number of times, listening each time for deeper answers from your body, heart, and spirit.