“All great changes are preceded by chaos.” ~Deepak Chopra
A personal tempest blew through the doors and windows of my life, and I am forever changed. Think major upheaval in every area of your life. Conjure Dorothy Gale, Robinson Crusoe, Job, yeah them.
In the process, I’ve learned that the disorienting storms of life are not just about survival but of learning to thrive. It is not in spite of daunting circumstances that we grow but because of them.
For three years, painful and unexpected events descended all at once. My long-term marriage, often filled with anger, hurt, mistrust, and not surprisingly, a lack of intimacy, was imploding. My teenage son, who had been very ill, was hospitalized.
In the midst of this, my three children and I moved from our family home of twenty years to a new town. When things seemed to quiet down, my eldest daughter was diagnosed with a chronic and life-altering disease. Oh yes, and I was restarting a career.
Chaos. The utter confusion left in in its wake caused me to stop and reevaluate many of my assumptions about myself and life.
What made this period even more difficult to endure was a sense of abandonment by some whom I thought would always be there, yet perhaps through a sense of helplessness or their own fears could not. Maybe they thought I was contagious. I started to wonder about that myself.
The irony of all of this was, through the lens of the outside world, my life had been seemingly idyllic before. Or had it?
I began to see that my tendency to avoid chaos at all costs lead me right into the belly of it. As humans, we desire harmony and seek order, in our surroundings, our relationships, and in our daily routines. We all crave certainty.
I found the paradox is that when you cling to the illusion of safety, you chain your ability to change.
I also discovered several anchors that kept me grounded in the midst of feeling uprooted. In fact, they never failed me.
Here is what I’ve learned that “worked’ consistently:
This is a difficult concept to grasp on an emotional level. This is because we are hard wired, evolutionarily, to fight or to flee when experiencing turmoil. This response served us very well when we were being chased by saber tooth tigers. Unfortunately, it creates more conflict internally.
It takes courage to allow strong uncomfortable feelings, whether grief, anger, or loneliness, to just be instead of trying to force them away. But acceptance brings relief.
Someone once told me to meditate as if my life depended on it. I do, because it does. Desperation does wonders. My more formal practice consists of twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the early evening, sitting quietly and focusing on my breathing. If my mind is especially active on any given day, I use my “mantra” (the word joy) as I breathe.
Throughout the day, I strive to practice mindfulness, which simply means to bring my full presence to all that I do. Conscious attention to each activity and interaction brings a calm to my mind and heart. It brings me back to myself.
Another meditation technique I found to be extremely helpful during a sea change of hard times is the meditative practice called tonglen.
Our pain can feel such a heavy burden at times. Tonglen helps by easing the sometimes intense sense of our own suffering by powerfully connecting us with the struggles of others.
Instead of primarily focusing on our own set of difficulties, we purposefully visualize and take on the suffering of others on the in-breath and release happiness for them on the out breath.
It may sound counterintuitive, but I found it relieved me of my own sense of isolation and gave me the gift of perspective. It also helps me to develop greater compassion for myself and others.
3. Observe nature.
When a storm is coming, they hunker down. They prepare the best they can. Birds’ nests and beavers’ dams are fortified. Food is foraged. They don’t foolishly (read: egotistically) try to soldier on.
They wait it out. They trust the process.
When our own personal storms occur, we simply do what we need to do to protect ourselves. For me, that means to stop rushing around accomplishing “one more thing.” I take safety in the shelter of my own home, having stores of healthy and comfort food on hand, books and magazines for fun and for personal growth to read, and the perennial elixir, bath salts, to recharge.
I do not have to fully understand in the moment why or how the storm came to be or if there is a lesson to be learned from it. I simply have to get out of harm’s way. We can analyze to no avail now knowledge that will come effortlessly to us in retrospect.
4. Lean on others.
We all know that family and friends are often a precious salve during times of crisis, change, or loss. Reach out. Stay connected. And realize that if you can’t immediately find someone to give you the kind of support you need, there are those to help you see the situation with new eyes.
People came into my life during this period, serendipitously so, who were engaging, loving, and continue to help me expand and grow. The universe opens up a host of unexpected resources when you risk being vulnerable.
5. Keep the insights.
Some amazing realizations emerge during these times of struggle. We learn what’s truly important and to let the rest go.
Cliché as it may sound, my health and well-being and those that I love are paramount, and I treat them as such. It’s very difficult to be happy or effect positive changes in the world if you are in some state of dis-ease.
I’ve discovered the vitality of finding moments and experiences in life’s everyday activities that lift my spirit and make me smile. My morning cup of coffee, the soft fur on my old dog’s face, the bright pink rose bush against the white picket fence out my study window, all perfect in their simple abundance.
As I practiced healthy behaviors like meditation, exercising, eating well, and other avenues available on the road of loving self-care, I began to heal and see situations improving.
I also discovered that in order to cultivate this deeper, more meaningful life, I found I must maintain these practices. When things are going well, I tend to relax my vigilance. Some of the old behaviors of mismanaging stress creep in. Complacency has been a stubborn roadblock on the journey.
There is where change can be my friend. It doesn’t allow me to be complacent. If change is accepted in this spirit, it can be a catalyst for greatness. Buddhist nun Pema Chodron affirms that “to be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” In fact, it is the only way to learn how to fly.
Looking back on my life before all the chaos, I realized I was chasing status in my work and even my family life, and choosing security (an illusion at best) over listening to my heart.
Now I listen without jumping to conclusions or searching for quick fix solutions. I enjoy strong and vibrant relationships with my children, knowing I don’t ultimately control outcomes. I am currently in a partnership where we encourage each other to grow and risk and be vulnerable.
My work is now more like a calling than a job, providing me with rare and wonderful opportunities to engage with people about their own personal journeys and how they make meaning in their life.
I am amazed by the profound ways my life has “taken off,” unimagined by me, still in mid-flight.
Photo by Eddi van W
About Katherine McHugh
Katherine McHugh, M.A., is a writer, lecturer, and experienced retreat leader. Currently writing a book on the history and practices of forgiveness across religions and cultures, you can find her sometimes mild musings on her blog, Nun Tuck’s Almanac. Katherine is the founder of AWAKEN Meditation and Stress Reduction Training, Awakenmeditationresources.com.