Showing Up for the Hard Stuff

There’s this beautiful idea in the world of meditation that we can use the difficult things we face in our lives as material for our practice. That it’s in facing these challenges, in sitting with them, that we learn how to work with them.

I’d heard this idea often - from books, meditation teachers, and other such sources of wisdom - and it resonated. I loved it! But it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with cancer last year that I experienced it firsthand.

Just a few weeks after my thirtieth birthday, I was diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer. In an instant, I found myself catapulted into a whirlwind of medical mayhem. Since then, I’ve had major abdominal surgery, completed six rounds of chemotherapy, and spent more time in doctors’ offices in six months than I had in the rest of my life combined.

If the difficult experiences in our lives are material for our practice, as I’d heard, then I was certainly rolling in it!

So I decided to do an experiment with myself: to use my diagnosis, and my time in treatment, as opportunities to deepen my fledgling meditation practice. To see what I could make from all this “material” I’d been handed.

To start out, I committed to a daily sitting practice at home, for a few minutes at a time. Although meditation had been part of my life for a while, this consistent, daily practice had evaded me. I was always too busy, too scheduled, or had too many other shiny, new activities to distract me.

Cooped up in my apartment recovering from surgery, I suddenly found myself with more time on my hands than ever. With nowhere to go, and very little physical energy to draw on, the conditions were perfect for me to turn inward and give this daily practice a shot.

Or so I thought.

Let me tell you, it was a rocky start. Despite my profound intention around this meditative experiment, my mind sounded a lot like a petulant toddler. “But I don’t wanna….” it would whine each time I settled in to sit.

Nevertheless, I kept at it. Sitting for a few minutes here, a few minutes there. And it got easier. It felt better.

Next I took the show on the road, and practiced while waiting for doctor’s appointments or sitting in the chemo chair. As it turns out, the day-to-day experience of being sick is chock full of waiting around, of being bored. But now instead of meeting this boredom with frustration, I could reframe it as an opportunity for practice. It felt a little like magic.

I got my first glimpses of what it’s like to sit with difficult things… and just stay there. The usual lineup of boredom, irritation, and impatience would show up in my mind, and I learned to say hello to them with a kinder voice. Even poke fun at them a bit, when I was feeling brave. Yes, boredom, we get it… you’d rather be somewhere else. But here we are, getting chemo, so let’s all just play nice, shall we?

I wouldn’t describe this process as easy, but I started to feel more comfortable with the fact that it was, in fact, hard.

And that’s perhaps the greatest revelation from my experiment - that this stuff is just plain hard. I’ve learned to honor that. Illness is hard, sometimes just being human is hard, and there’s really no getting around it. But we have a choice in how we meet it - in how we show up for these hard things.

For me, showing up with a little humor and a lot of kindness has worked wonders - not only in facing boredom and impatience in meditation practice, but also for facing the sadness and fear that comes with living with cancer. This ability to be present has truly been a superpower.

Everyone’s experience with illness is different, and each of us must find our own way of showing up to the challenges we face, large or small. So next time one of these difficult human experiences rolls your way, perhaps try a little experiment of your own. How would you like to show up?

In this guided meditation, world-renowned teacher Sharon Salzberg teaches you how to stay balanced when hard stuff happens, and make conscious choices in your emotional life.

Grace Livingston