The title of this column exemplifies what we have all been experiencing over the past couple years. We have all been subjected to a pervasive COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed over 960,000 American lives (Ritchie et al., 2022), together with extreme political turmoil during the previous administration that has raised an unprecedented level of distrust in government officials and an extreme divisiveness among our population that continues to foster a growing sense of paranoia and distrust of others we perceive as being different from ourselves.
Lately I have been reading a lot of articles by Pema Chödrön, an extremely knowledgeable and compassionate teacher who elucidates for Westerners the applications of basic principles and precepts of Buddhism in our daily lives. One of Pema’s basic themes is that life is filled with uncertainty, incessantly confronting us with change when we least expect it. That being the case, she advises us to always be prepared for the unexpected while doing our best to maintain a sense of composure and equanimity when those unwelcome changes catch us off guard. In other words, we are constantly challenged to stay in flow when everything around us appears to be falling apart (Chödrön, 1996). Needless to say, that requires both enormous flexibility and a learned ability to roll with the punches whenever major events do not turn out to our liking.
To cite a personal example, some time ago my wife and I were heaving a sigh of relief as we had managed to clear up a lot of clutter in both our lives and our home, and were looking forward to kicking back a bit and smelling the roses. As luck would have it, I woke up a few days later to discover major wet spots in my office carpet. Stepping into the garage I was greeted by a torrent of water rushing down the cement floor and pouring down our driveway. We called an emergency plumber, who informed us that our hot water heater had blown a major leak. We subsequently learned the damage had spread throughout over half our house. While we are fortunate in having good insurance and linked up with a reputable restoration firm, our lives have been in constant upheaval ever since that event. Our nerves are totally frayed as we are constantly challenged to adjust to unexpected crises and accept the unacceptable!
I believe that Pema Chödrön’s admonition to constantly be prepared for the unexpected is particularly applicable to clients in the precarious early stages of recovery, when they are particularly vulnerable to relapse to alcohol and drug abuse as well as other self-destructive additive behaviors. How can we prepare ourselves to effectively response to life’s constant deluge of challenges?
I would suggest that at the beginning of each day we ground ourselves in a firm belief that we are capably in charge of our responses to whatever life throws our way. At the same time, we should remind ourselves of the reality of life’s constant uncertainty and the need to be prepared for unexpected crises. We also need to reinforce our ability to effectively respond to these changes with flexibility, while making appropriate course corrections as indicated.
From my own experience I have developed a deeper appreciation regarding the wisdom of a number of beliefs and courses of actions in coping with the pervasive presence of unexpected change. Foremost among these is an ingrained belief in a beneficent power greater than ourselves. Fully exercising that belief entails a willingness to turn to that power for solace and guidance whenever we are carrying a burden that appears too difficult to bear. While verbal types such as myself may be tempted to chatter incessantly during our prayer time, the most important aspect of directly communicating with our higher power is quieting our minds and listening deeply. Over the years I have learned that whenever I wholeheartedly pray to my higher power for guidance my requests are answered, though not always immediately or in the form I had expected.
The Serenity Prayer (Neibuhr, 1986) is also a powerful mantra for responding effectively to unexpected change. Throughout the episode of repairing our home from excessive water damage I have often felt like pasting that prayer on the inside of my glasses to serve as a constant reminder!
We also need to constantly reinforce our sense of empowerment in order to uncover and strengthen belief in our own innate qualities of power and integrity. During particularly troubling times I like to repeat the following affirmation: “I am firmly grounded in my center of power and integrity.”
It is also important to draw upon others we trust to extend their support and understanding during times of crisis. For those in recovery such persons may include our sponsor and others sharing our pathway to recovery, together with trusted friends and family members. It is equally important to extend a loving heart and hand to others in need. As Pema Chödrön writes, “whenever we let go of holding onto ourselves and look at the world around us, whenever we connect with sorrow, whenever we connect with joy, whenever we drop our resentment and complaint,” in those moments loving kindness is with us (1996).
Mindfully seeking to maintain balance and equanimity in the midst of devastating challenges, we should consciously take “gratitude breaks” throughout the day and lighten up by taking time to do what we truly enjoy. Living in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, I indeed feel blessed being able to begin each day taking a hike in nature, accompanied by my wife and our canine buddy Jack. It is also important to maintain a positive spirit in the midst of crisis by exercising our sense of humor. When I am feeling particularly down, I always get a good laugh from listening to Monty Python’s satiric song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (1979).
While Pema Chödrön’s admonition that life is always filled with uncertainty and unexpected challenges may initially come across as a downer, I am learning day by day to respond to these challenges or crises with a sense of adventure. Particularly in these extremely challenging times, life can often seem to be a precarious roller coaster. That being the case, it makes sense that we all buckle up and attempt to enjoy the careening roller ride as best we can. Until next time–to your health!
For further information on Pema Chödrön and her nonprofit organization The Pema Chödrön Foundation, visit the foundation’s website at https://pemachodronfoundation.org.