Life is difficult. The struggles and effort required to keep going have lead people since the beginning of time to try to find deeper meaning in their existence. A powerful approach to living is to view these difficulties as learning opportunities. This is a strategy long offered by great teachers and spiritual leaders. It is a strategy that allows you to gain strength and energy by embracing hardship, rather than being beaten down and broken by it. In this article, we will look at ways to learn from our most difficult experiences.
We will begin with Karma. Karma is a Sanskrit word that is used in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. It describes a very simple concept – Cause and Effect. In the West, we often interpret Karma through a Judeo-Christian lens, seeing a cosmic retribution or reward. We say things like, “When that guy’s Karma catches up with him, he’ll get his!” or “Something nice happened to me, I guess I had some good Karma coming my way.” In Eastern traditions, Karma does not have this connotation of judgment. It does not leave one helpless in the face of the powers that be. Instead, it is viewed as a law that simply states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It is basically Newton’s Third Law of physics applied to our lives.
In Buddhism and Hinduism, Karma is applied to understand the consequences of our actions on future lives. Each life is lived with the intention of generating more and more positive Karma so that each life gets closer to escaping the suffering that comes with ordinary existence. For our purposes though, we can tweeze the concept of Karma from this religious context, and apply it as a source of wisdom for our everyday lives.
Instead of looking to future lives or other assurances of a happy afterlife, we can look at how this life that we are in right now can be more rewarding, more fulfilling and, most importantly, more happy. By using the concept of Karma, we can look at the Effects (frustrating job, poor marriage, low grades, etc.) and seek the Cause within our own hearts, minds and actions. We can begin to hold ourselves responsible for our own lives.
For some this may seem like a condemnation. “My life is unhappy and it’s my fault, therefore I am a bad person.” Leave this judgment out of it. Instead, embrace the fact that you create your life. If you have created unhappiness, you have just as much power to create joy. By moving into your suffering and recognizing it as an Effect, you can be objective and honest about seeking its cause. With that, you begin to see how much power over your life you really have.
Life is a series of lessons and they never stop coming to us. Experience teaches us and we grow wiser. Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed as life seems to pile it on. It’s important in times like these to remember that life always gives us what we are ready for. It may not feel like it at the time, but that can often be part of the lesson. With each experience from which we learn, we grow stronger and more capable of handling more difficult lessons. Sometimes we can lose perspective and feel like life is just always hard and we are not getting anywhere. This is where good friends, family and journals come in handy. They offer witness to the past and can remind us how much we have actually grown.
In dealing with the feelings of being overwhelmed, it is also essential that we access gratitude for our lives and the experiences that fill them. Gratitude fills us with the positive energy we need to embrace difficulty and to learn from it. It allows us to access joy, even when working difficult experiences.
Tough times are important pivot points in our lives. Through them, we are able to transform ourselves and release hidden potential to become happier and healthier. But sometimes we resist. We feel we are not strong enough or that we are victims. We can get caught up in jealousy for those who seem to have it easier or anger at having it so rough. The list of ways we can get stuck is endless. Life is meant to be like a river, flowing smoothly and powerfully, gaining energy as it moves through experience. But when we get stuck, it is like placing a dam in the middle of that flow. Life stops moving forward and pressure builds. When we are grateful for our experiences and the opportunities for growth and wisdom that they offer, we invigorate our lives so that they have the energy to flow through any obstruction.