Difficulty - Man pushing a rock uphill - Blog post 20-Aug-2014

Leaning into your difficulties is not something you may readily think of when you experience them, whether they are large or small, long standing or fleeting. Sometimes you experience multiple difficulties all at once or in quick succession, like waves that just keep rolling in one after another and smashing against you.

To feel better, you may ignore the difficulty, pretending it doesn’t exist in the hopes it will go away. Or you may be so surprised or upset by it, you freeze and do nothing. Or you find ways to fix the situation or fight it to push it away. You use all your knowledge and skills to do this. You may even ask others for help, and/or read an article or book. Despite the best of these intentions, the difficulty remains. You feel exasperation, wondering whether this difficulty will ever budge. That is all completely normal.

What is often missing is leaning into your difficulties

Kayaking reminded me of that the other week. I was on holiday and had the opportunity to sea kayak. I’ve been kayaking this summer on the non-tidal part of the Thames and overall it’s not overly difficult to paddle. You exercise in a calm and relaxing manner.

But kayaking off the western coast of Ireland, which is getting the full brunt of the weather system currently coming off the Atlantic, that is a much more challenging paddle. You have currents, the tide going in and out, the wind, the waves, the swell, other boats and outcropping of rocks. Being mindful of all this and repeatedly adjust how you are paddling to get to your destination safely is key.

On top of that I have a very healthy respect for the water, especially the sea. This respect used to be a very limiting fear earlier in my life and that fear can still make an appearance.

The difficulty of waves

Sea waves

We were kayaking one day and made it out from the harbour into the bay where you start to really feel the swell. There were the waves plus the waves created by passing boats. One of the instructors pointed out that every time a wave or swell swept under me, I would freeze bolt upright.

The old fear was making an appearance. I was afraid that every wave and swell would turn over my kayak. (I am still in the process of making peace with the possibility of capsizing.) She advised me to relax my hips, make sure my legs were braced against the sides of the kayak, and lean forward. She said I will be so stable I won’t capsize.

I was viewing these waves as difficulties. Every time a wave came, I was subtly freezing. And as waves keep rolling in as they do, I was doing a lot of freezing.

Lean into the wave

I took the instructor’s advice. Every time a wave or swell came, I leaned forward. I thought of it as leaning into the wave. I often had to remind myself to relax my hips, let them sit against the kayak so I could feel the wave.

The instructor was right. I felt much more stable. I noticed I started to feel more relaxed and I could work with the waves and swell to get where I wanted to go. My paddling adjustments were more mindful. I noticed I was also paddling less hard and still moving forward. I relaxed further. My paddling skills improved. I felt happy. And the reminder hit me.

Leaning into your difficulties is the answer

I have to lean into my difficulty, acknowledge it and stay with it. By doing that, I became more mindful of what was going on around me and what I was doing. That helped me to find ways to adjust my approach and ride the waves with greater relaxation rather than sitting stiffly bolt upright being buffeted about by the waves. Support from the instructor who gave me the feedback and advice and rode the waves with me also helped.

The paradox

Leaning into your difficulties seems paradoxical. Western culture teaches us not to cry, chin up, stiff upper lip, be grateful for what we do have, etc. In effect, we are taught to avoid upsetting painful emotions and difficult situations by taking some sort of immediate action whether that be freezing, denying, fighting, or something else. It is as if they should not exist. Yet, for every positive there is a negative and vice-versa. They both have a purpose. Look at a battery.

Battery - Blog post 20-Aug-2014

They have a positive and negative and both are needed to create the energy we need. It is like that with our emotions. We experience positive emotions which make us feel great. And we experience negative emotions where we feel bad. They all have a purpose. Feeling the full range of emotions is all about being human.

Paradoxically, leaning into your difficulty, acknowledging how you are feeling and the situation you find yourself in, staying with those emotions for a bit rather than rushing to action, and getting appropriate support from another, can help you determine the appropriate action to take, to take that action mindfully and ultimately to find our way through the waves.

Over to you

What difficulties are you currently facing? What is your typical response to difficulties? Do you freeze, deny, fight, do something else? Have you ever stayed with the negative emotions involved with dealing with a difficulty? If so, what happened? Feel free to leave a comment.


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I would like to acknowledge the kayaking instructor who noticed how I was freezing, her feedback, advice and support. It all helped me to keep my fear in check, improve my skills and gain confidence. Thank you.

© Copyright Barbara Babcock 2014

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