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Practice when life gets tough

Sometimes life comes at us full force and overwhelms us. That’s what happened to me the last few months. Things happened that were so overpowering that all my usual routines went out the window just so I could get through each day. My work, my social life – and yes, my sitting practice – pretty much dropped off my plate.

At times like this, people often say, “Life got in my way.” But that’s so not true. This IS my life. Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s standing in my way. Actually, I think it’s exactly the opposite. It’s showing me exactly where I need to go to push beyond my comfort zone. It’s like a custom designed life lesson created just for me.

So what happened? My husband and I had been thinking about moving. He has a disability that’s making it increasingly difficult to live in our three-level townhouse. So our plan was to slowly fix up the house over the next year or so in preparation for selling, while casually looking for a new place.

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But life rarely goes according to plan.

Our casual looking turned up the ideal place for us – all on one floor, fully wheelchair accessible, in the city, near public transportation (which we need), that we could afford. A rare find. But we couldn’t buy it outright. We had to sell our place first to pay for it. Could we do it? Could we commit to buying this place and then get our current house fixed up and sold in time to pay for it? A major part of our life savings is tied up in our house, so taking big risks wasn’t something we were keen to do.

To make a long story short, we decided to jump. After agonizing about it for a day, we committed to a) buying that property, and b) doing 22 years worth of fixing, cleaning, and clearing out of stuff, under a very tight deadline, to pay for it. And because my husband has that disability, it was pretty much up to yours truly to manage the whole thing.

During the worst of it, it went something like this. I’d wake up, having slept on the couch because the bed had been taken apart and cleared out for the carpet cleaners. I’d go to turn on the light in the bathroom, but the fixture had been ripped out. The microwave, which I needed to make breakfast, was on the floor in the living room. And I had to move the vacuum cleaner and boxes of stuff aside to open the door. Every plate and spoon I used had to be washed and put away immediately after use because the kitchen counter was being sanded and refinished. Workmen were around the house, banging and clanging. Meanwhile, every delay and setback — and there were several — meant that unmovable deadline loomed closer and closer.

As the weeks dragged on, I grew exhausted and irritable. I snapped at my husband. I got into arguments with our broker. I felt grouchy and miserable, but I was too stressed out to do much better. And no surprise, my meditation practice was in tatters. If I could sit at all, my mind was racing around all the things I was worrying and feeling anxious about.

But even though my daily sits were a mess, I tried to stay close to my practice — my informal practice, that is. I noted all the ways I screwed up, flew off the handle, and didn’t live up to my expectations. I also saw when I handled things gracefully, resolved a dispute, and calmed myself down. It wasn’t about beating myself up over my mistakes, or congratulating myself for doing well. It was simply to see myself more clearly, and learn from it.

These are some of the ways I practiced during this period.

  1. Don’t fight it. My mind was all over the place – both when I sat and otherwise. This was expected. There was no point in getting upset about it. Why not just observe that mile-a-minute mind? Sure, I didn’t like it, but that’s never relevant. Why make things worse by getting all wound up about something I can’t change? Some forces of nature are bigger than me, so I need to step aside and let them play themselves out. They will pass, given time. This was my practice of acceptance.
  2. Do what I can. As far as my formal practice, I did what I could, which meant some days it didn’t happen at all. No regrets, no beating myself up. I knew this was just a rough phase, and it too would change. I could try again the next day. This was my practice of patience and non-judgment.
  3. Return to my breath. When my worries and anxieties got overwhelming, I kept coming back to my body and my breath. What’s really going on here? This was my practice of staying in the present moment.
  4. Be aware that I’m in a negative state of mind. When feeling stressed, I’m likely to take things personally or see things in the worst possible light. I often stopped and took a breath. What’s really important here? Often I did this only well AFTER I snapped at someone. So be it. That’s better than not noticing. This was my practice of keeping a bigger perspective.
  5. Take ownership of my mistakes. When I said or did things to another person that I later regretted, I went back to apologize as soon as possible. This was my practice of taking responsibility for my actions.
  6. Don’t forget to take care of myself. With all my health issues, eating right and getting enough sleep are essential. I never cut corners on those. But I admit my yoga and exercise routine fell apart. Since I was being somewhat physically active, I allowed myself to slip on those. I felt reasonably sure I could get myself back on track once it was all over. I was doing the best I could. This was my practice of self-compassion.
  7. Stay committed to my aspirations. Even at my worst, I kept connected to my longer term aspiration to be a better person, to live up to my highest ideals. I didn’t always succeed, obviously. But I didn’t give up on them. This was my practice of keeping my intentions.
  8. Let go, and trust that things will work out. One of my weaknesses is that I’m a control freak. It’s incredibly hard for me to let go of doing everything myself, my own way. But even though things don’t go as I think they should, they always end up at what I need. I was constantly reminded that the universe is working the way it should – and I am held in its wise and compassionate embrace.

Practice isn’t just about what we do when conditions are perfect, when we succeed at being mindful and kind. Those times when we’re out of control, feeling crummy, and stressed out – they’re also a great time to observe ourselves and learn how we are in the world. After all, don’t we take up meditation so we could learn how to navigate life’s difficulties more gracefully? Life gave me a perfect opportunity to practice exactly that.

By the way, we sold our house last week. We move to our new place in mid-September. All is well, and hopefully life will return to normal soon.

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About Sunada Takagi

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Sunada Takagi is on a mission to help people open their hearts and minds through mindfulness. Her work includes leading classes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in the Boston area, and coaching individual clients through life transitions -- from anywhere in the world via phone and Skype. Read more at her site, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching.

Sunada also teaches and leads retreats at Boston Triratna Buddhist Community and Aryaloka Buddhist Center. Sunada was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 2004. This is where she received her name, which means "beautiful, excellent sound."

You can follow her at her Mindful Living Blog as well as on Facebook and Twitter. Read more articles by .

Comments

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Comment from Jillian Coleman Wheeler
Time: August 28, 2012, 12:57 pm

I very much enjoyed this article. Your experience is so typical of what we all go through at times, when life doesn’t cooperate with our immediate preferences. Yet you were able to remain present, and authentic, throughout. Thank you for sharing.

Jillian
http://JillianColemanWheeler.com

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Comment from kate willeford
Time: August 28, 2012, 3:35 pm

Sunada,
I am glad to hear that you are on your way to your new ‘nest’. Thanks for the post and may your upcoming move go smoothly!
kate w.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: August 28, 2012, 4:01 pm

Thank you Jillian and Kate!

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Comment from elissa
Time: August 28, 2012, 9:26 pm

Thanks so much… I’ve been in one of those states at work – moving and reorganizing. No wonder my mind won’t sit still and my physical practices/outlets nonexistent. Hopefully I keep these pointers mind especially the part about compassion and self-compassion.

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Comment from Mike T
Time: August 29, 2012, 6:44 am

I’m in a similar position to you; we’re trying to sell our house at the moment so we’ve got lots of stress about that, and I’ve not had the time to meditate for a while. In fact i meditated for the first time in several weeks yesterday and only managed about 20 minutes. I need to get back in to practise and this has been encouraging, thanks!

Mike

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Comment from Natasha
Time: August 29, 2012, 7:55 am

Thank you so much for this article. I can relate so much to this experience. Over the last year, both my elderly parents were gravely ill, and I watched them get worse, until they passed away. I have never had a more severe test of my meditation practice.
Eventually, I decided that grieving was going to be my practice for as long as it takes.

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Comment from Sunada
Time: August 29, 2012, 8:56 am

Elissa and Mike, good luck with your selling/moving! And Natasha, my sympathies go to you. My mother is 88 and also declining, so I can relate. I hope you’re able to find comfort in your practice, somewhere.

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Comment from Dan O
Time: August 29, 2012, 9:56 am

Sunada, I always enjoy your writings as they are down-to-earth and resonate often with things in my life. While I don’t have the major upheavals in my life that you did I just have lots of distractions from work and home. It seems my practice has been slipping and slipping-away from me lately — and my just acknowledging that fact makes me even more anxious and concerned.

So it helpful to hear you say that these moments were your practice and were lessons that needed to be given and processed. That is more comforting. I feel ‘somewhat’ connected and not so out of touch. :)

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Comment from Sunada
Time: August 29, 2012, 10:56 am

Thanks Dan. I think the lesson for me has been that whatever is happening is what it is –and that adding more anxiety and self-blame over it is SO not helpful. I’ve been trying to just choose in each moment whatever positive step I could take then, and keep going forward.

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Comment from supergenkilife
Time: August 30, 2012, 10:18 pm

What a breath of fresh air to read an article about life when practice does not go as well as they say it should in the manual.

I first came to awareness practice as a way of examining some things with which I had long struggled and that I wanted to better understand in order to befriend myself and learn to live in loving-kindness, but soon realized once again that old habits die hard.

Your honest recounting of your experience has reminded me that every experience (whether the mind labels it good or bad, positive or negative) is an invitation to be mindful, to observe, and to accept. I appreciate your account of your experiences and impressions and also the list of lessons you found there. I will continue to refer to this article going forward. Thank you!

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Comment from Sunada
Time: August 31, 2012, 4:37 pm

Thanks, supergenkilife. Yeah, old habits do die hard. But on the other hand, it IS possible to chip away at them!

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Pingback from How to get out of your own way | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation
Time: March 27, 2013, 12:38 pm

[...] regularly for this blog. Pretty much every month, for years. But then last summer I went through a major house move that totally disrupted my life and brought my writing to a [...]

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