Turning problems into spiritual opportunities
I remember one day, thirty years ago, when I was living in Glasgow, Scotland, and was depressed. I can’t remember what I was feeling down about, exactly, although it definitely wasn’t a clinical depression. There were just things in my life that weren’t going well, and I was taking things too seriously. But there I was, in a state of self-pity, heading home on the bus. It was a rainy night, and being on a bus in Glasgow when it’s dark and raining, and the windows are running with condensation, is not a cheery experience. I guess I spent much of the bus-ride mulling over my woes and talking myself deeper into a state of despondency. Then I stepped out into the rain, and started trudging along the sidewalk in the direction of home. I must not have been paying enough attention, because the climax of my crappy day came when I tripped on a crack in the concrete and fell flat on my face in a puddle.
How do you imagine I felt? Despondent? Humiliated? Angry? Actually, I was delighted. So much so that I burst out laughing, and had a grin on my face all the rest of the way home. I bet that sounds weird.
The reason I was so happy was that when I landed in the puddle, my first thought was “It’s a test.” I can’t say exactly why that thought popped up at that particular moment, but the notion of treating difficulties as if they were tests — of mindfulness, of character, of spiritual development — was one I’d heard a number of times. And so, instead of interpreting my fall as a sign that the universe had it in for me, or as a confirmation that things were going badly in my life, or as affirmation that I was a failure, I took it as an opportunity to practice patience, acceptance, and mindfulness, and to meet difficulties with good humor.
This kind of reinterpretation of our experience is called “reframing.” Reframing is one of the approaches that I teach to help people develop greater self compassion. Self compassion is when we relate with kindness to our painful feelings. Those feelings arise because ancient parts of the brain constantly scan our environment, looking for things that may be threats or benefits. When your mind detects a potential benefit, it sends signals into the body, creating feelings of pleasure — perhaps a sense of pleasant anticipation, or a warm glow. When your mind detects a threat, or potential threat, it sends signals that activate pain receptors in the body, and so we have a painful feeling, often in the heart or solar plexus. This painful feeling may be the heaviness of depression, or the nervousness of anxiety, or a feeling of hurt, for example. The point of this is to catch the attention of the rest of your mind, so that you can bring heightened awareness to the threat or benefit.
Falling flat on your face into a puddle is usually interpreted as a threat. We’ll assume that our clumsiness is a sign to others that we’re incompetent, and that our social status will drop, which is a painful thing.
But this thing is that this is just an interpretation, not a reality. It’s possible to change our interpretations — the filters that lead to the arising of pleasant and unpleasant feelings — either so that different feelings arise, or so we’re able to bear our suffering more easily.
- We can reframe by considering unpleasant experiences as being a test, or an opportunity to cultivate patience.
- We can reframe by considering our misfortunes to be the ripening of past karma, so that we’ll suffer less in the future, that particular stream of negativity having now passed though our life.
- We can reframe by considering that unpleasant experiences are impermanent.
- We can reframe by considering that unpleasant experiences are not us, but are simply passing though us, like clouds through the sky.
- We can reframe by reminding ourselves that there are others who are suffering as badly, or worse, so that we feel a sense of gratitude.
- We can reframe by seeing our misfortunes as being a way to develop empathy with others who are suffering, so that we can increase our compassion.
What’s we’re doing in all of these reframes is changing the mental filters that interpret our experience and that normally lead to the mind flagging up potential threats by creating unpleasant sensation. Now the mind registers our experiences as opportunities. We’ve turned a threat into an opportunity, and although we may not find that our unpleasant feelings vanish (though that happens sometimes) we’ll find them easier to be with, and so we won’t cause ourselves unnecessary suffering by engaging in self pity, and won’t cause others unnecessary suffering by acting out in anger.