When we meet hard times we’ve learned to react in predictable ways. These reactions fall into three main categories: (1) enmeshment in negative emotions, (2) using pleasure seeking as a remedy, and (3) mobilizing ego-based control and manipulation in an effort to restore an outdated “solid” ground. The first adds resentment, anger, guilt, or shame to what is already a difficult situation. The second seeks to anesthetize discomfort. That’s a temporary relief at best, one that usually complicates our circumstance. The third, using control and manipulation to restore a sense of solid ground, seeks to recover, fix, and freeze the past in denial of life’s fundamental groundlessness and impermanence. Invariably, these responses heap suffering upon suffering. We live through the experience of difficult times, but miss its meaning and possibilities. This is called useless suffering.
I have watched these familiar yet self-betraying responses in my own life. They are deeply ingrained, and often commanders our mind long before we notice them. That’s why it’s not easy to interrupt these ineffectual responses. We cycle through them again and again, mysteriously expecting that what hasn’t worked before will eventually work, if we just try harder and harder. The result is an unbroken cycle of mental distress, which too often leads to downstream hopelessness and depression. Let’s look at two perspectives, Eastern and Western, that offer us a broader perspective, a perspective that offers possibilities beyond our current reactive patterns.
Eastern philosophy and psychology inform us that the transformation of adversity into opportunity occurs when we gain an accurate understanding of the root sources of mental distress. The catalytic agent is an awareness of the truth of our circumstance. Consider this statement: mental distress experienced in the waking state is similar to the mental distress that’s experienced when having an unpleasant night dream. Although the dream experience has images, feelings, thoughts, relationships, colors, sounds, and so on, it is only a mental event. We discover this when we awaken. It remains real in the sense that we experience it in the dream state, but it is not true in that it is occurring anyplace but in our mind. When one is in the dream state, dreams take on the appearance of a solid “objective” reality, a way of existing that in actuality they do not have. They are not actually happening even though they appear to be quite real from the perspective of the dream state. The same can be said of an echo or mirage. They appear real, but are not true.
As difficult as it may be to grasp, mental distress in the waking state is much the same as it is in a dream. It seems quite real. Yet, it is no more real than the night dream. In each instance, these experiences exist only in the mind. And, as mental constructions they lack solidity and substance. This illusion-like nature of mental distress is what enables us to re-shape our experience. If mental distress were solid and real at its core, there would be nothing we could do to alter our experience of it. Fortunately, that is not the case. Mental distress and our experience of adversity are fluid and malleable. They can be worked with. This understanding forms the basis of meditation and mind training, an age-old effort to distinguish between how things appear and the truth of how they actually exist.
Let’s shift to a Western perspective. The famed psychologist C. G. Jung examined in great detail the quest to transform mental distress and adversity into opportunity. In his in-depth study of the 1700 year practice of Alchemy, Jung used the alchemical phrase “turning dirt into gold” to characterize the endeavor of these physicians and sages. On the surface their project was to turn base metals such as lead into precious gold through a variety of arcane chemical procedures. Of course, Jung informs us, that this was no other than the projection of man’s deepest yearning to turn an ordinary human life into the full potential of a precious human life, the gold.
Towards the end of this long endeavor the Alchemists themselves recognized the psychological nature of their efforts. They recognized that their search was for the holy grail of life, the wisdom that brings truth to the human condition and elevates life to its greatest possibilities. If humankind did not have this possibility innately interwoven into the psyche, the early Alchemists could not have unconsciously projected this innate inner impulse into their work. Their effort to turn “dirt into gold” was an unconscious expression of this universal human desire and possibility to experience the full human potential. This understanding forms the basis of Maslow’s developmental psychology and Seligman’s positive psychology.
So how do we do this in day-to-day life? How do we take the difficulties of life and use them to create a large life? How do we shift self-defeating and self-betraying reactions into a proactive life-enhancing opportunity? How do we turn dirt into gold? As we shall discover, that is neither the job of a magician nor a mystery reserved for a very few. But rather, it is the skill of a wise human life.
What do I mean when I use the word “skill?” My point is that the capacity to transform adversity into a larger life is learned. Actually, it would be more precise to say that this capacity emerges as we learn and develop a series of important skills. What are these skills? They include: intention, gentleness and kindness towards oneself, attention, mental stability, meditation, and insight. As these skills are developed, the capacity to transform adversity into opportunity, personal growth, and a larger life naturally emerges. It does so early on, soon after we begin to develop these skills. The development of this skill-based capacity to use emotional distress as an opportunity to grow our lives is the promise and path left to us by the great healers and wise ones of the past, irrespective of their culture or generation. It is a universal and unchanging human truth.
Before we discuss these skills, it may be helpful to pause and reflect upon those who have served as models of such an accomplishment, those who affirm to us that this human endeavor is indeed possible. Consider the following example. Several years ago I recall listening to the Dalai Lama speak about an elderly monk who crossed over the mountains from Tibet to Dharamsala, India. When the Dalai Lama asked the monk to describe the most difficult moment in his 20 years of incarceration in a Chinese prison, the answer was quick in coming. He responded, “When I felt I might lose compassion for my captors.” Wow. After 20 years of unspeakable conditions this monk was mentally healthier than when he entered prison, The same can be said of Nelson Mandela, the psychologist Victor Frankle, and many others, known and unknown to us, who have experienced great adversity. Instead of falling into despair they fell into a larger life. It is likely that we all know an individual who has similarly accomplished this in small and large ways. So it is definitely possible to turn “dirt into gold.”
For a few individuals this comes naturally. For others, like us, this capacity gradually emerges as the result of the intentional development of the requisite skills. Let’s now look at each of these skills.
Our habitual ways of relating to unpleasant feelings, emotions, or experiences are quite tenacious. On could say we have a sort of “nostalgia” for well-trodden ways, even if they lead us into a deeper and deeper quagmire of distress. We are comfortable in turning the present into the past. So the first step is waking up to the possibility that there is an alternative way to deal with difficulties, one that will lead to freedom rather than further anxiety, despair, self-loathing, or even depression. If you have read this far, you likely share this viewpoint, even if the path forward will take effort. So we begin with the intention to avoid our usual and familiar ways of reacting to adversity, and we begin to practice the skills that will progressively lead to a new and life-enhancing response.
We decide not to be so predictable! That is where we begin, and it is necessary to reaffirm that intention on a daily basis. When I experience difficulty I learn to immediately label it as opportunity and challenge rather than adversity. I become curious about what I can learn, and how I can shift perspectives. I mine the dirt for gold, like churning milk for the sweetness of butter. I consider adversity as the gateway to a larger life.
Attention – Attention
Unless we gain control over our overactive mind and its automatic reactive patterns we cannot go further. That is the first skill we must learn. It is essential to slow the relentless busyness of our mind, taming it in order to gain sufficient space for new possibilities. This initial step is called “mindfulness” training. Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. It is the ability to focus on what is occurring in the moment without distraction.
There are two basic ways to develop the skill of mindfulness. The first is in daily life. Here we train ourselves to continuously bring our wandering mind back to the present moment, back to the experience of “nowness.” This may be eating a meal, tying ones shoes, listening to a loved one, or enjoying a walk in nature. The second practice utilizes mindfulness as the first step in a formal meditation practice. Usually this involves maintaining a focus on the breath while sitting in a relaxed manner. To succeed in meditation requires both a teacher and proper and precise instructions. With this assistance anyone can learn to tame the mind. Gaining the skill of attention, which is a pre-requisite for altering the way we deal with mental distress and adversity.
Gentleness and Kindness
Learning new skills can have its moments. That is the case with learning attention and meditation. There are ups and downs that require patience and persistence. That is how it is to learn. When an infant learning to walk falls down, it just gets up and tries again. There is no self-condemnation, sense of failure, shame, or guilt. That is how it must be for us as well. Falling down is part of the way we learn. We must be kind and gentle to ourselves. Non-judgment is the key. Maintaining a clear intention, but at the same time leave room for all of the learning process – the steps forward and backward. When we are harsh with ourselves we simply perpetuate the self-betraying and sabotaging ways of the past. So gentleness, kindness, and compassion for oneself, that is essential – smile for the human condition in its natural frailties
The intention to turn adversity into opportunity and the slow process of taming the mind through mindfulness training – both in daily life and formal meditation practice – will progressively lead to mental stability. Mental stability and emotional stability come together. This is a state of being in which the mind can rest without being distracted by and under the influence of every thought, feeling, and sensation that arises. The metaphor often used is of the stability of the ocean depths, a stability which is unaffected by surface waves or turbulence. Mental stability enables us to diminish and eliminate the reactions that automatically unfold when we are influenced by fear, discomfort, anxiety, and so on. If we can “hold our seat,” we can learn how to be with these difficult experiences without being moved to action by them. This puts a stop to the enmeshment in a cascading series of negative emotions, pleasure seeking as a temporary anesthetic, or a frantic mobilization of manipulation and control for the purposes of re-establishing a stable ground.
With practice, we gain confidence in our ability to experience mental distress and adversity without reacting to it. By cultivating a non-judgmental response to whatever arises in our mind we develop an inner neutrality, a choiceless awareness. We don’t cling to and ruminate on mental activity. We don’t push it away. We don’t like this or dislike that. The metaphor is that of a highly polished mirror surface that allows all images to appear and disappear on their own without any reaction. Some call this a bare awareness. We sort of say “hello” to what comes up and leave it alone. When we do so we discover that thoughts and feelings dissolve on their own, leaving a sense of well-being in their wake. The formula that we practice in meditation is non-judgmental awareness, let be, let go, and rest in the authentic presence that remains (which some call our “true” self.) It is this understanding and skill that gets carried over into daily life. The same formula applies there as well. With practice this becomes our default response to perceived mental distress or adversity.
This core skill allows us to experience all of life without suffering from it. For the first time we are free to live without fear of ourselves – without fear of our negative emotions, and life’s usual difficulties. This freedom is a state of creativity rather than reactivity, a state of openness and peace rather than contraction and anxiety.
Insight and Wisdom
We gain new insights and understandings on the basis of the skills previously mentioned. We gain confidence that there is a place within each of us of eternal peace and ease, even when confronting mental or experiential difficulties. We learn that we can be calm inside even when dealing with the complexities in life. Yes, calm inside and complex outside, a seemingly impossibility, but it’s not.
And what do we learn? We learn we can always be free and calm inside even in the midst of turbulence. We learn that adversity is adversity only because we’ve learned to perceive it that way. We learn that what arises in our mind is flexible and impermanent. We learn that we can rest in a non-judgmental awareness of difficult thoughts or emotions, merely watching them without reacting. We discover that they are not the solid and fearful monoliths we imagined them to be. We learn they are not who we are, that we do not need to identify with all that floats through our mind. We learn that left alone thoughts, feelings, and mental images will dissipate on their own, leaving a core of well-being in their wake. That is their deeper nature.
As we progressively gain confidence in these insights we will no longer fear our life. How extraordinary it is not to fear our self. We will become friends with all that arises. We will experience life fully, but not suffer from it. These are the core insights that will allow us to move beyond mental distress and adversity. And of course, like the mastery of any art or skill, it takes patience, discipline, and excellent guidance. But what choice do we have? What other would we choose to do with this precious life of ours?
These are the skills and practices that allow us to remain calm inside amidst complexity outside. It is timeless heart advice for times of personal difficulty.