Testing Your Practices in the Fire of Suffering

During her last trimester of pregnancy, my daughter was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. 

This news took me through waves of shock, denial, sadness, fear, and anger. Eventually I simply accepted her cancer as a new reality and focused on how to respond.

Today our grandson is a healthy 2-year-old. And, my daughter is cancer-free.

Reflecting on the experience, a question floats to the top of my mind. It’s especially relevant after my decades of learning about self-care and spiritual practice: What actually helps when the shit hits the fan?  

I invite you to ask the same question — especially when life backs you into a corner and brings you to your knees. 

There’s nothing like suffering to focus your attention and reveal what works.

To stimulate your thinking, I’ll share three things that work for me.

Asking better questions

When my daughter shared her diagnosis, there was only one word on my mind: Why?

WHY is this happening to my daughter when she’s so young? WHY couldn’t it happen later — at least until after her baby is born? And WHY does it have to happen at all?

When I asked why questions, I noticed two results. First, I got no answers. Second, I felt worse — sometimes much worse.

So, I gave up on why and started looking for better questions to ask. This brought relief. 

Michael Hyatt wrote a post about this. He tells a story about rushing out his house for work one morning with a cup of coffee in one hand and a briefcase in the other. Unfortunately he slipped on a carpeted step, fell flat on his back, and broke an ankle.

Michael was laid up for the next 10 days, coping with pain and recovering from surgery. But instead of asking Why am I so clumsy? or Why did this have to happen during such a busy time at work?, he focused on: What does this make possible? 

This is not the first question that most of us would ask in similar circumstances. Yet it turned Michael from victim into victor. He used his down time to catch up on sleep, start a blog, and slow down to “smell the roses.”  

I like Michael’s question about possibility. This is not positive thinking. This is not looking for a “silver lining.” 

This question is about gaining perspective. It’s about becoming less reactive and more responsive. It’s about turning suffering into resilience.

Michael’s question is one of many that I find useful when facing a major obstacle. Others include:

  • What’s another way of looking at this situation? 
  • How is this situation likely to change over the long-term — in six months, one year, five years or more?
  • What areas of my life are still okay — and will continue to be okay despite this setback?
  • Who can I ask for help?
  • Who’s already stepped forward to help, and how can I thank them?
  • How can I respond to this situation in a way that aligns with my values?

I also find that these questions from psychotherapist Gail Brenner can expand my mind and open my heart:

  • Where is my attention going? Is this supporting peace? 
  • What is life asking of me? 
  • What would love do? 
  • How does life want to move me right now? 
  • How can I bring ease to my experience in this moment? 

Asking such questions allowed me to notice the generosity that flowed to my daughter after her diagnosis — the loving letters, emails, conversations, and donations. I’m also grateful for her medical team, a steady source of compassionate and competent care.

Returning to the present moment

Given a situation that rocks me to my core, I can invent worst-case scenarios. I can focus on all the things that might possibly go wrong. 

This is self-defeating. Those scenarios take me into the future — an abstraction that exists only in thought. I get torn from the present moment, the only point at which I can do something constructive.

This is where yoga and meditation enter the picture. These practices gently guide my attention back to the here-and-now. They shift my attention to the present-moment physical sensations of movement (yoga) and the mental space created by silent sitting (meditation). These are places where I can take refuge.

I created some slogans to remind myself of the present moment. They are simple enough to remember even when I freak out:

  • Keep breathing. 
  • Keep moving.
  • Stay here now. 

The practice of yoga nidra — deep relaxation — also helps. A good yoga teacher can guide you through this practice with carefully worded instructions to slowly and systematically relax every muscle in your body.

You can do yoga nidra even when you’re going through tough times. The benefits of this practice do not depend on being problem-free. Yoga nidra offers a taste of unconditional serenity, which you can experience even when life falls apart.

I invite you to sample yoga nidra first hand with these guided meditations by Shar Hills-Bonczyk, one of my yoga teachers.

The Serenity Prayer

I grew up in Iowa, where both my mother and father were raised on farms. Our family was steeped in homespun wisdom, and our primary texts were the Des Moines Register and the Bible (both of which we took literally).

I have vivid memories of visiting relatives as a child and going to rural churches on Sunday mornings. There I often encountered the following words in a sermon, devotional book, or wall plaque:

Lord, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

As a kid I saw those words and rolled my eyes. Now — with the perspective granted age and accumulated suffering — I see the Serenity Prayer as a royal road to sanity.  

This prayer makes for a great writing prompt. When faced with a problem, I list everything about the situation that I can control. As the principles of Constructive Living remind me, these boil down to 2 things: where I place my attention and what I choose to do. 

Next, I list everything about the situation that I do not control. This also boils down to 2 things: the outcome of future events and what other people choose to do. 

I’m reassured by the power of this simple practice. As I remind myself about what I cannot change, the next thing that I can change often becomes clear.