zenhabits : breathe

On Making It Through Tough Journeys

By Leo Babauta

A reader wrote to me about a very tough journey he and his wife are setting out upon, and asked for some words of advice or motivation though this tough time.

Difficult times can be a test of our souls, and as such can be some of the most instructive times possible.

It’s easy to be happy and motivated when things are going well. But what happens when they fall apart, or unexpected troubles come your way, or things go exactly as you don’t want them to? What do you do then?

I’ll share some things I’ve been learning about personally, and give you a word of encouragement: you are stronger than you think.

You’ll go through difficult times, and suffer, and learn. And come out stronger and better at the other side.

There are four things that I’ve been learning about that help me through tough times:

1. Happiness isn’t outside of us

We often seek happiness outside of ourselves, through pleasure (food, shopping, video games, TV, Internet, alcohol, cigarettes, drugs) or other people (the person of our dreams, approval of others, social networks) or big life goals (travel, creating a business, art).

But I’ve learned that none of those things actually makes you happy. Sure, they can give you a boost of pleasure or joy, but it’s temporary and soon you’re looking for the next thing that will make you happy. This leaves you in a constant state of seeking pleasure, distraction, approval, comparisons to others, and so on. And it doesn’t result in contentment.

However, if we realize that happiness isn’t outside of us, but actually comes from within … then we can always access it. What is the source of this inner happiness? I find that I can do certain things that make me happy: being grateful for who I am and what I have, learning about myself and the world, playing and being curious, thinking about others and wishing them happiness … these things might be tied to external things (what I have, other people), but they are available no matter where I am, what I have, who is in the world.

And they can help during a tough journey. If you can find happiness inside you, then no matter what’s happening externally, you can access this source of happiness. You might lose your job, get sick, lose a loved one, have to go through a difficult medical procedure, go through a divorce … and you can still find this happiness. It’s there if you choose to use it. The external circumstances of your life matter, but they don’t take away your true source of happiness.

2. Embrace your entire range of experiences

Too often we want just a small range of experiences — the good things, the comfortable things, the experiences that make us feel good about ourselves. And yet, reality is different. It gives us a lot of different kinds of experiences, from anger and frustration to joy to pleasure to coldness to loneliness and grief. These are all part of our human condition, unavoidable.

So we can rail against the injustice of having to lose something we love, having to go through difficulty, having to be lonely and sad, having to be treated unfairly. That will just lead to more unhappiness.

Or we can embrace the entire range of our experiences. That will include all our emotions, all our joyful moments and painful ones and everything in between. Life is not just the warm and beautiful. It’s all of it.

Embracing these experiences means taking everything in with open arms, being vulnerable to whatever happens, being compassionate with ourselves when things are hard, giving ourselves some kindness and love and gratitude no matter what happens. It means accepting what is, and accepting ourselves as we are, not trying to mold ourselves into the perfect human, whatever we think that may be. Not trying to mold our lives into the perfect lives, whatever we think that may be.

This isn’t easy, I’ll admit, but this kind of openness leads to much greater happiness with life.

3. Renew your gratitude

Our lives are filled with miraculous gifts, and we are constantly taking them for granted, and complaining that life isn’t better. I do it myself, all the time. But when I catch myself doing this, and remember to be grateful, life is suddenly so much better.

Is your job boring? You might be grateful you have a job at all, a roof over your head, food on the table. Are you unappreciated? You might be grateful you have anyone in your life at all, perhaps some loved ones.

You have life. This is such an incredible gift.

You might be grateful for your health, if you have it. Or you might not have perfect health, but you have legs to walk on. If you have no legs, perhaps you have eyes to enjoy the sight of a cherry blossom or sunset. If you have no eyes, perhaps you can hear music. If you have none of these, perhaps you can still learn things from reading in Braille. Imagine being without the joy of Tolstoy and Shakespeare and Cervantes! We live in an amazing world, no matter what our circumstances.

And for anyone reading this (myself included), we need to think about how incredible it is that we have computers, and smart phones, connected to a powerful thing called the Internet. We have comfortable homes, great food, fairly good health, books to read, gorgeous nature all around us, people who love us. That’s quite miraculous, and yet we take it all for granted.

When times get tough, you might not have all of this. But you still have a lot to be grateful for.

4. Find Lovingkindness to yourself

As we work on embracing the entire range of our experiences, there will be some difficulty. It’s not always easy to allow ourselves to be sad, scared, frustrated, or grieving.

How do we live through these experiences without giving up?

We find compassion for ourselves, kindness, love.

Suffering in all kinds of ways is part of our experiences as humans. We suffer, in ways small and large, and we want to be happy. We all have that in common.

And so accepting our suffering and desire to be happy as a part of being human … we then turn to wanting our suffering to end. Wishing ourselves happiness and wellbeing.

This is kindness and compassion for our suffering selves. It’s not feeling sorry for ourselves, but wanting ourselves to be happy.

Whenever we see pain and fear in ourselves, we can recognize it, and wish ourselves happiness. Wish an end to the suffering. Be kind to ourselves.

And then, having given ourselves this kindness, we can turn to the person next to us, and recognize they are also suffering and just want to be happy. If they lash out at us in anger, recognize that they are just suffering like us. And wish them happiness, wish an end to their suffering.

In doing so, we can melt our own hardened hearts, open ourselves to others, embrace them with love. And the journey, as hard as it may be, becomes better.


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