It was in about 1990. So many things were going wrong in every direction in my life that I had come to a place of deep despair. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it. I looked around, as we do in dark times, and thought that everyone else seemed to be managing just fine, why was my life going off the rails in every direction? Of course that was not true of other people’s lives but we don’t see that when we are deep in the darkness, and one day, in one miraculous instant, I had a moment of such clarity it was as though the world had opened up to me and I could see, for the first time, what life was really all about.
Until this time I kept thinking, albeit mostly unconsciously, that if I just did the “right” things everything in my life would line up and there would be no more suffering, no more pain, things would flow more easily. Sure there would be ups and downs but if I could just line things up right I would have a happy life. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be working toward, that elusive happy life? But in that moment of clarity I saw through it all and I wept with relief. I sat down and started writing a series of exercises I would do with my students, determined that if they could just grasp this concept, learn this, take it into their heart and lives, they could make it through anything. Nearly 25 years later it is probably the thing that has saved my life, over and over again, and after teaching students for over 35 years in a journal keeping class that was designed to be deeply spiritual and healing, teaching hundreds and hundreds of people over time, this is the one set of exercises that people still write to me about today and say, “Thank you, I use this all the time, it has changed my life.” I call this set of exercises Hurdles.
In that moment of divine clarity what I realized was this. Life is not supposed to be easy. There is not one person on this planet that is not suffering, somehow, some times, in varying degrees, and one of the cruelest judgments we make, both for ourselves and others, is to assume that “they” have it easy and we don’t. First, stop worrying about what’s out there, what this person or that person has or does or is. You don’t know. The truth is you just don’t know. Opening your heart to a kind compassion for yourself as well as others is the ground of everything, and until you get that, you might as well not go any further.
In this soft, calm, gentle space I want you to understand this. We are not here to lead an easy life. We may but it comes from work that we do from the inside out, never the reverse. The goal is not to live a certain way so that some day we will be happy. If you try to do it that way that day will never come. Life is meant to be a series of hurdles and our work is to learn to cross the hurdles with as much grace as we can muster. It is this work that leads to a life of inner peace and fulfillment because when we realize that we can do this, that we have the tools that we need to handle every hurdle that comes our way, when we truly take this in, we can handle anything. To that end I give you these three exercises. Write them down. Do them every day for the little things and build a practice so that when the bigger things come up you have them firmly in place. Are you ready?
First write down “These are the hurdles in my path today…”
Make the list as long as you possibly can. Include everything. Anything that you feel is ahead of you that keeps you from your happiness, fills you with fear, impedes your life in any way. It may be a trip to the dentist, it may be the inability to pay your bills, it may be dealing with a loved one’s illness, it may be having to tell someone that they you can no longer be in one another’s lives if you are to be well and healthy and happy. It may be because you have to brush your teeth and you don’t want to.
The purpose of the first part of this exercise is not to make a judgment about one thing being bigger or smaller, more or less important, it is to notice all of the things that you feel resistance to, that you are afraid of, that are a block to your sense of inner peace and well-being. Often we have habitual resistance to things and don’t even know it and we carry a lot of tension and stress in our body that we don’t need to. Awareness is an amazing tool to letting go. When you write every single thing that you can think of down, no matter how seemingly large or small, you will be able to face and release a lot of fear, anxiety, and tension in your life simply by naming them, facing them, and then releasing them, those that you can.
Now, shift gears…
Write this down… “These are the things that sustain me…”
What are the things that sustain you in life, that lift you up, that you get caught up in so that you forget, for awhile, the rest of the world? Who are the people you can rely on, you are there for them and they are there for you? Where are the places that you can go that will help you shift the state of mind you are in, even for a moment. What creates the kind of alchemy that turns a dark moment into gold?
Often these are the things we do when we are already up, but forget when we are down. Prayer, meditation, a walk, a good book, a hot bath, a movie, a manicure, pedicure, new hair cut, calling a friend. Go on, make a list, every single thing you can think of that you love, that makes you happy, that lifts your spirits, which, no matter how seemingly small, completely changes the mood you were in before you did it. Work on this list for days, for weeks, keep a small journal with you and continue to add to this list whenever something pops into your mind.
Finally, the third and final piece… “This is how I will use the things that sustain me to get me over the hurdles.”
This is a practice and one that you must cultivate over time. Name every thing in your life that is a hurdle you must cross from the smallest to the ones that feel like climbing Mount Everest. Keep an ongoing list of things that sustain you, and more than that, have the things on hand, good books to read, bubbles to blow, things that you only use for special occasions, when you really need them. Don’t wait until you are in the depths of despar in the middle of the night and find nothing at hand. Keep candles and beautiful bath salts or whatever you need to transform your bathroom into a mini spa if that makes you happy. AND KEEP THAT BOOK GOING because I can guarantee you that you will forget.
And then establish the practice of making yourself, if you have to, to pick things out of that book or off that list and do them. And if you think it’s easy for me or I don’t know what I am talking about I assure you I do. Today it’s what gets me through every single day. I spent years barely able to move I was so profoundly depressed, and I am bi polar and clinically depressed and more and that is not going to change. What can change is my ability to deal with my challenges in constructive and meaningful ways. And I go through these exercises every day. And I’m still here. I am no longer suicidal, or hospitalized, and yes I have a good doctor and medication helps but if I didn’t have practices in place for self care this ship would sink. It is a conscious choice, to take care of oneself. Our quality of life is in our hands. Not a perfect life, not happy all the time, that does not exist. Finding peace, being able to cope, and yes, being happy, that is within our reach.
Bend down, touch your toes, stand up. Identify the hurdle, find the thing that sustains you, use it to get you over the hurdle. Repeat. I have found peace and joy that I never knew would be possible, or attainable for me. Not easy, not happy all the time, but good. I love my life, no matter what comes, because I know that I can get through. And so can you. Get out your notebook. Start here. Begin now.