One of the perks of being a certified Martha Beck Life Coach is the invitation to participate in quarterly calls with Martha herself. If I’ve never mentioned this before, Martha Beck is an amazing woman: not only incredibly smart, but with an encyclopedic command of literature, science, and psychology, as well as having the gift of articulating difficult concepts in terms normal mortals can understand and apply in their own lives. I once had the privilege of being in class with her in person. I was totally blown away by her humility. It’s rare that a person so gifted is also so humble and genuinely compassionate.
Anyway, last week I participated in one of those quarterly calls, and the topic that emerged was “struggle”, which is an all too familiar topic for just about everyone I know…and closely related to my most recent post on guilt, because guilt causes us to struggle.
Martha came right to the point: Perhaps things are hard because we make them hard, because we believe suffering is necessary to get things done.
Chew on that one for a moment!
She went on to establish context, stating that the Western (Judeo-Christian) paradigm rests on the concept of original sin and the need to struggle to overcome it, contrasting that to the Eastern (Buddhist et al) philosophies that come from the viewpoint of basic goodness and the need to stay in the present. (Which is not to imply that “basic goodness” does not go astray, or get buried in complications and mortal inability to stay focused on that higher plane.)
Chew some more! What does this have to say to you about how you view yourself and the demands you make on yourself?
It sure has a lot to say to me, and it opens another door to letting go, as well. Struggle, it seems, can be another form of self-violence, another way of imposing impossible standards on myself that I’ve absorbed through cultural inculcation, followed by self-castigation when I fall short.
On the flip side, I recognize that how this plays out depends on just how one defines “struggle”. The dictionary refers to it both as “to make a forceful or violent effort to get free of restraint or resist attack” and “to contend resolutely with a task, problem, etc.; to strive”. My hunch is that we often let the latter – the day-to-day efforts necessitated by the exigencies of life – become the former: forceful attempts to work against the unfolding flow of life.
In other words, we make things harder than they need to be.
Writing this, I can imagine how you might bristle at these words as you face a to-do list that is longer than your day is long; as you view your complicated family life, the challenge of “blending agendas”, of just getting through what seems to need to get done. I don’t belittle those necessities. But if we face them from the viewpoint of “doing battle”, we are coming at them from a struggling point of view rather than an effortful one. There is a difference.
“Struggle” (to me) has the sense of unrest; of impossibility, almost. “Effort” is hard work, for sure, but it can come from a place of peace and clarity. When we are connected with our true core of peace, struggle deescalates into a more flexible form of endeavor. We can deliberately focus on lightening up. We can resolve to stay engaged, but to be more open to possibility as well as to the other forces at work, not just our own attempts to control things. We spend so much of our time fighting our way upstream, when all the while the river of life invites us to abundance and easy (yes, easy) joy. We just have to believe it, and have the eyes to see the joys that are offered to us instead of focusing on the things that aren’t as we’d wish them to be. It’s a “glass half full” vision. A cliché, perhaps, but so apt, so dead-on. It’s all about our attitude.
What am I making hard right this minute? How does all this apply concretely to my life this very day? After all, that should be the point…
A stalled relationship comes to mind. What to do about that? “Struggle” asks me to buck up, be brave, be “philosophical”, think of solutions, try things, or at least engage in something to distract my sadness. “Be positive! Work harder!” (It is interesting to note that these are the same messages that guilt sends.) “Peace”, on the other hand, has a very different message. First and foremost, peace asks me to start by being honest, to admit how sad this situation makes me.
What I notice is what a relief it is to admit my sadness. It doesn’t make it go away, but it softens it, somehow. Truth is much easier to bear than pretending, than falsehood, even when it is unpleasant, unwelcome. When I pretend, I have twice the work to do: first, to keep fooling myself, and second, to struggle to change the truth. (Good luck with that, because truth simply is.) However, when I ground myself in truth, I allow angst to dissolve into acceptance. Acceptance unleashes the possibility for alternative thinking, allowing me to be curious instead of defensive. This, in turn, leads to deeper acceptance, gentle self-affirmation, and frees up energy to pursue the best option, even if that is “do nothing”. The message to “work harder” becomes a message to “work less”. “You don’t have to make anything happen.” says Alan Cohen. “Just align yourself with what wants to happen and let it.”
(Interesting how often we summon all our energies to buck the tide, paddling with all our might, instead of floating, and working with it. You have to wonder what makes us do that – it’s so hard, so painful, to struggle so.)
Acceptance takes me off the hook for needing to come up with solutions. It helps me let go of expectations. This is really, really important and significant in my present relationship conundrum because I am only half of that relationship. I can’t – no matter how much I am willing to “struggle” – make my desired outcome come to pass by myself. Sheer will and struggle can’t reset the dynamics. Accepting that helps me change my focus. I reset my intention to go within and to let my inner truth, my core of peace direct my thoughts and responses. I seek the long view, the 30,000 ft. above perspective. On one hand, that sounds simplistic, but as I try it, I find that to a large degree, it really is possible to choose peace, release, and ease.
It goes right back to where we started, to Martha Beck’s point that perhaps things are hard because we make them hard, because we believe suffering is necessary to get things done. It’s a question of choice, and of faith. If I refuse to believe that struggle is the answer, I am free to let go, free to feel peace even as I experience sadness.
Bottom line? I resolve to notice any time the word “struggle” comes to mind. I will examine the underlying beliefs that tempt me to a stance of “violent effort”, and choose instead to focus on faith in order to displace angst. I’ll nurture the attitude of letting go (or at least “letting be”) in place of dogged struggling. I’ll start by acknowledging my inner integrity. I’ll seek to “live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” (John O’Donohue)