As much as we would all prefer that it wasn’t so, difficult times are an unavoidable part of the ever-changing stream of life. Difficulties come on their own accord irrespective of whether they are deserved or fair and regardless of our ability to bear them. The difficult can manifest in any aspect of life, including physical, mental, or emotional health; career or job; financial situation; and relationships with friends, family, and intimate partners. Sometimes the difficulties we encounter are minor and tedious but numerous. For example, you might have a difficult relationship with a sibling who constantly criticizes you therefore you have an abiding sense of being treated unfairly. Sometimes difficulties are major and dramatic, such as the unexpected death of a loved one or losing your job. And sometimes you’re faced with a difficulty that is constant and cannot be changed, such as a physical disability or chronic illness.
How do you react to difficulty when it arises in your life? Does your mind become rigid or jumpy? Do you become agitated? Tense? Do you space out? Does it make you angry? Apathetic? These are all typical reactions to difficulty that are not only unhelpful but actually make the difficult more difficult! They multiply the chaos in your life and interfere with your ability to see clearly your options for responding to the difficulty. The untrained mind naturally reacts unskillfully to difficulties because it does not realize that there is an alternative response, which is to soften into the experience. By this I mean that you can learn to relax your attention and cease to resist the unpleasant feelings that arise in response to difficult situations.
Attention is the capacity of your mind to focus where you direct it, and the quality of your attention can vary dramatically depending on your life circumstances. During difficult times, when it is disturbed by tension, your attention may have a jumpy, rigid, fixed, or fuzzy quality. As a result you may be unable to effectively respond to difficult circumstances. Therefore it’s crucial to cultivate relaxed attention.
In relaxed attention your focus is neutral. There’s no tension in your attention, so you feel more at ease in the face of difficulty. You cultivate relaxed attention by practicing noticing the tension underlying your attention whenever you experience something difficult and remembering your intention to relax your attention. Most of the time the tension will release immediately. If you are deeply enmeshed in a difficulty, it may take some time for this release to happen, but with continued practice you will develop the ability to focus on any degree of difficulty without added tension.
Relaxed attention sets the stage for softening into your experience. I like to use the phrase softening into your experience because it captures the felt sense of relief that occurs when you become mindful of your resistance to the difficult and then release it. Softening into your experience isn’t about collapsing or quitting on yourself but rather about fully accepting that difficulty is a natural part of life. When you stop objecting to the difficult, two benefits arise: you suffer less, and you have more energy at your disposal to skillfully deal with the difficult when it arises.
Although you can practice softening into your experience anytime, the ideal time to begin is while meditating or doing contemplative prayer or when you’re having a mildly pleasant experience. For example, if you’re enjoying a beautiful sunset or a quiet moment, simply invite this softening into your experience. After practicing with the pleasant for several days or weeks, begin trying to soften into mildly unpleasant experiences, such as when you’re waiting for someone who’s running late or when you’re arguing with your spouse. Pause for a moment, focus your attention on the feeling of this temporary difficult mind state, and then say to yourself, “I accept that this mind state is part of life.” Notice if your mind stops resisting the difficulty, and if so, what happens next. Does your mind feel more spacious? Do you have more choices in how you respond to the difficulty? Do you feel that you’re no longer defined by the difficulty? Don’t expect the difficult to disappear from your life, but your relationship to it will undoubtedly change because your well-being won’t be contingent on circumstances being different.
© Phillip Moffitt, 2012