Shifting focus to overcome challenges

June 23, 2009
Life Challenges

With the Thriving Through Tough Times tip,  “Give to your community so you can fully recover,” I have been trying to justify it a bit backwards. With the other techniques, I noticed their appearance in many different traditions and thought, “Ah ha, a theme!” For example, surrounding yourself with a caring community is a widespread practice when tough times appear. However, with “give back to recover,” I noticed this by watching clients, effective leaders and how I was able to bounce back after difficult circumstances. As I wrote in my last post, to make my case I have been looking for standard multi-cultural practices to back up what I believe to be true…and had come up short!

 But, I’m now wondering if I had been approaching the research wrong.  Perhaps I am not finding “giving back” as a required cultural practice because helping others has to be a very personal choice. Showing back up in your community after a major loss is an individual test of courage and optimism. Jerry White of Survivors Corps and I were talking a few years ago about how perplexing it is that some people against all odds are able to recover and survive terrible circumstances while others who have all sorts of resources get knocked down and never get back up. Neither of us could point to one factor, other than a firm personal decision that the person wants to get up and involve herself in her community. It seems like a foundational spot where we all have free will.  I can’t make you get back on your feet again; you have to choose to do so.

Tibetan Buddhism has an interesting take on how we can choose to return and how this relates to giving.  Buddhism believes that our soul comes into being and then is reincarnated potentially multiple times. During each lifetime, we are born, we learn stuff and then we physically die. Yet, after death and before rebirth, we always have a choice. If we need to learn more, we can choose when and to which family we want to be born into the next time. Also, we have reached a level of wisdom, we can elect to instead head off into nirvana or we can choose to return to earth to help others reach enlightenment.

If we don’t understand how the reincarnation process works, according to Buddhism, we aren’t aware that we have choices. Depending on our development, we may instead fearfully jump into the first body available and can land myself in a worse situation than before. However, if I understand the death/rebirth process, I can select a better existence. If I have taken theBodhisattva vow to help others, I can then decide to be reborn in a place where I will be of most help.

 When things fall apart –we lose a great job, marriage, loved one or our health for example — we experience what Buddhists call “little deaths.” While processing the loss there is a time where I am grieving and not in the world. Tibetan Buddhist call the place between death and rebirth the bardo state (bar –“in between” and “do” – island or mark). Like in the bardo state, during tough times we often land on an “ in between island” after loss and before recovery.

 “In Between Island” living isn’t easy. Bardo states are described as potentially terrifying since there we face what most scare us. Our inner demons appear as visions or nightmares. Similarly, on our between islands we come face to face with our greatest fears. Phrases like,  “I’ll never find another job and will be out on the street,” “My husband will leave me” or “I will never heal and will die,” creep into our heads.  We feel pain while mourning and our worries create additional suffering.

 As with the Buddhist death/rebirth process, if I don’t understand that every difficult circumstance is also an opportunity to reincarnate into a better me, I might jump at the first solution I can find to try to avoid the pain.   I might choose a life where I drink heavily to run away from my suffering. Or I quickly marry so I am not alone yet land myself with an abusive spouse. 

 However, if I am aware that with difficult circumstance, I can back up for a bit and consciously choose my next step, I’m ahead of the game. In transition lays possibility and opportunity to become more authentic and expand. All major religious traditions advise in these junctures if we base our decision on how we can help others as well as ourselves, we will learn to be unafraid of death/rebirth and better play the game of life. Sounds flowery and sweet, but it actually practical when you see it applied.

 Buckminster Fuller, after losing his business and daughter to illness, found himself on the brink of suicide. In that moment, he made a choice to stay and to serve humankind. As a result, in his biography he wrote of deep joy throughout the rest of his life as he developed inventions like the geodesic dome, agricultural strategies and  the dymaxion car. In looking for solutions to serve the greater good, he was undaunted by failure and tragedy.

 I was lucky enough to interview Nadwa Sarandah and Robi Damelin when writing Worst Enemy, Best Teacher. Each had faced horrid opponents. As an Israeli Robi’s son was killed by a Palestinian sniper while in required military service and Nadwa’s Palestinian sister was stabbed to death on the West Bank while walking down a street. Both had been knocked down, but through the Parent’s Circle, an organization committed to create peace in their region by refusing to seek revenge for the loss of loved ones, they returned to life. Through their focus on helping their community, they both had found purpose and a degree of peace. Robi explained, “I can speak in front of 60,000 people without fear.”

 If we can shift our focus from our personal pain to how we can be of use, we paradoxically we will relieve our suffering.  Pick a tradition and I find this concept hidden. Hmmm, perhaps this is the daily practice for which I have been searching. 

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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