I Felt Stuck in My Life and I Didn’t Know What to Do
Nothing seemed to be working out the way I wanted it to. I made changes … in fact, I’d made a lot of changes, but none were taking me to a place of joy, peace, and fulfillment. I felt totally stuck and completely disheartened. How did I get here? And, more importantly, how do I get unstuck?
When things fall apart and we can’t get the pieces back together, when we lose something dear to us, when the whole thing is just not working and we don’t know what to do, this is the time when the natural warmth of tenderness, the warmth of empathy and kindness, are just waiting to be uncovered. ~Pema Chödrön
What I Discovered About How to Get Unstuck While Walking with Pema Chödrön
In the spring of 2013, I started walking, usually at a park near a river that is close to my home. At first, I walked just a mile or two, but it wasn’t long before those walks stretched for three, four, even eight miles or more.
I walked slowly. I didn’t fully comprehend why I was walking, though I reasoned that it was good exercise and heaven knows I needed that.
It was a difficult time in my life. I was confused. I was depressed. I was feeling stuck and I was at a loss for what to do about it.
Being outside felt better than being indoors. Feeling the wind kiss my face and hearing the birds chirp and witnessing the trees make their seasonal transitions was somehow important. Walking felt better than anything else in my life and I desperately longed for something that felt good because the rest of my life had me feeling like I was knee-deep in sewer muck.
A Time of Much Needed, But Much Feared Change
Difficult things provoke all your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface. And that becomes the moment of truth. You have the choice to launch into your lousy habitual patterns, or to stay with the rawness and discomfort of the situation and let it transform you. ~Pema Chödrön
This was a time of great change for me, change that was accompanied by fear and second-guessing my every thought. I was spending a fair amount of time chugging bottles of Pepto-Bismol to settle my ever-churning stomach. I spent countless nights wide awake, unable to calm my racing mind. I felt like a crazy hot mess.
Just the year before I had a career and steady paycheck and an executive’s title and now I had none of that. My life direction was uncertain. The safety net was gone. I was on my own and needed to make my way and was terrified. Fear soon morphed into its various expressions of distress … shame, guilt, confusion, frustration, self-loathing, and ultimately deep depression. I was stuck in the lowest place I’d ever been.
Walking offered much-needed solace, but alone it wasn’t enough. My mind was so accustomed to rolling through one negative thought after the next, that I was desperate to make a change and I couldn’t do it alone.
I longed for another voice to bring inside my head that would offer an alternative to my bitter internal dialogue. I decided I needed to start listening to others’ thoughts because mine stunk. So I headed over to Sounds True and decided to invite Pema Chödrön to start walking along with me via her audiobooks.
I Didn’t Know Much About Pema, But What She Knew About Getting Unstuck Changed My Life
When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure. ~Pema Chödrön
If you don’t know who Pema Chödrön is, I must confess I barely knew who she was when I first started walking with her either, but I was drawn to her work from the descriptions that were offered on her audiobooks. By the way, I could have read her works, but listening to her voice ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made. There’s a soothing calmness about a kind person talking to you that I would not have experienced from reading words off a page.
Pema was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in New York City in 1936. In the 60s, Deirdre was your typical American schoolteacher, wife, and mother until one day her second husband came home and said he’d been having an affair and wanted a divorce. Her life fell apart that day and she admits that it took her years to come out of the tailspin that ensued. Yet, that painful episode in her life brought about a metamorphosis that forever changed the direction of Deirdre’s life, a life that would go on to touch the lives of millions.
Today, Deirdre goes by the name Pema Chödrön. She is a Tibetan Buddhist nun, a prolific author, teacher, and director of the Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, Canada.
She was the wise voice in my head that offered advice and a fresh perspective that helped me change the way I see my life … and the way I see the world, too.
I believe that if you’re open to receiving them, the messages you need will show up when you need to hear them. I now know that was happening to me.
To Get Unstuck, You Must Become Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again … The healing comes from letting there be room for all this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy. ~ Pema Chödrön
For years, I felt grounded and financially stable but I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of my life. I grew comfortable in the uncomfortable. The routine was the same: go to work, spend lots and lots of hours working, get a paycheck, go home, pay bills, go to sleep. Repeat. Day after day after day.
There’s nothing wrong with that scenario as long as you’re adding in the other things that make life wonderful: having meaningful connections with others, using your talents to their fullest, contributing something meaningful to the world, connecting with your spiritual core, and so on. The problem was that I’d been so busy making a living that I failed to create a happy life.
The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves. ~ Pema Chödrön
I was lonely, frustrated, aggravated, confused, and depressed. I was dissatisfied with my life and turning to the wrong things to bring me joy, taking on unhealthy habits some of which I still struggle to release today.
My life was a mess and I knew that it couldn’t go on this way. Something had to give and yet as much as I wanted my life to change, I was afraid to let go of what I had. I feared that if I let go, it would only get worse.
When the job fell apart for me (I won’t go into those details … though I confess it was mostly self-initiated), I was at a loss for who I was and what my place in the world was.
My head was urging me to just get a new job, start it all over again, but my heart was begging me to allow this pain to express itself and work through me so that I might create something better for my life and my future.
Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. ~ Pema Chödrön
Pema taught me that things fall apart and fall together and then the process repeats on and on. This is life. Rushing to try to put it back together was pointless. Listening for the messages that were arriving was priceless.
From Discontentment to an Awakened Heart and a Happier Life
Interrupting our destructive habits and awakening our heart is the work of a lifetime. ~ Pema Chödrön
Looking back on my entire life, I don’t recall ever being truly content. Oh sure, there were times when I stopped to take in the joy of the moment, but that was rare.
I’m one of those people who came out of the womb with a future focus. I was too scared not to be thoroughly prepared for whatever was to come. Deep down, I believed that life was a challenge to survive rather than a journey to be appreciated. I believed I always had to be on guard … attentive … ready for the other shoe to drop, so to speak.
Much of this comes from an unstable childhood. I had wonderful, well-intentioned parents, but it was a rocky road dealing with mental illnesses and financial stresses that kept us on the brink of certain disaster. You know, my family had big problems like many families face (I didn’t know that back then).
My way of dealing with life’s uncertainty was to be ever on guard for what lousy thing might happen next, you know, so I’d be “ready” for it. I chuckle at that now. What was a twelve-year-old girl supposed to do to be “ready” for the next parental mental breakdown or financial calamity?
I got into the habit of being a constant over-thinker. In many ways, it served me: it turned me into a strategic and analytic thinker, which would later serve me well in the business world. Yet, it also left me with a mind that simply would never shut down. On and on it toiled, creating new problems as if real problems weren’t enough to handle.
Once you create a self-justifying storyline, your emotional entrapment within it quadruples. ~ Pema Chödrön
Pema taught me that it was time to let go of my old stories and to get out of my head and into my heart. She showed me how to recognize that my over-thinking habit was destructive … and that my view of the world as being one colossal threat after the next rather than a wonderful place was robbing me of the deep joy that I deserved to have in life.
Pema taught me how to pay attention to the triggers that sparked anxious and fear-laden reactions within me so that I could recognize when I was returning to the misguided reactional strategies of a defensive, scared little girl who was trying to stave off dragons, most of which were only real in my imagination.
The more we witness our emotional reactions and understand how they work, the easier it is to refrain. ~ Pema Chödrön
What You Are Meant to Learn Will Chase You Down Until You Learn It
Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know ~ Pema Chödrön
Have you ever found yourself in the same confounding situations time and again in your life?
You have a difficult boss and so you leave that job, only to find yourself facing the same type of difficult boss in the next job.
You overspend and feel the pain that causes, so you rein in your spending. Then, one day you slip back into the old patterns and soon you find you are buried in debt again.
You enter into a relationship with someone you believe you love, only to find that you’ve attracted the same type of uncaring, unfeeling partner you left years ago.
On and on the cycle goes … that was me anyway. I thought I learned a lesson, only to find that the lesson didn’t stick after all.
I lose and gain the same 30 lbs again and again … though you know that really means losing 30 and gaining back 35 each time.
I have difficulty with establishing solid relationships with my bosses because I came across too strong and I used to recreate that pain with every job change I made.
I shut people down before they have the chance to reject me, and then I feel lonely and reach out again. Only to shut down again when someone reaches out to me and I fear being hurt.
As Pema says, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”
In my walks, Pema was teaching me that I would have ample opportunity to learn the lessons that I must learn for my personal and spiritual growth. I was also learning that those lessons would begin as a whisper and then move to a shout and then advance to a full-throated screaming calamity if I did not heed the lesson’s full message.
It became clear that I was at a time of my life of deep distress because I had not paid attention to the lessons that were in front of me all along. Yet, the beautiful message that I heard was that I still had the opportunity to change.
It turns out this point in my life was a time of deep and profound transformation. Tough times can lead to exquisite transitions.
Give Up Your Addiction to Certainty
Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. ~ Pema Chödrön
The circumstances in my life did not immediately change, but I was transforming.
I was still uncertain of where my life was taking me, but I became open to the possibilities that beauty and joy and deep connection were available to me both in the now and in my future.
I’m still a person who likes to have control when that’s possible, but the reality is that we don’t always have control over what happens to us. Certainty and stability
Certainty and stability are illusions. Life by its very nature is packed with uncertainties. Financial woes arrive when least expected. Jobs come and go. Friends betray us. People we love die.
Uncertainty is not all bad though, something my mind seldom considered back then. Amazing people arrive unexpectedly who become dear friends for life. Dream jobs show up when you aren’t even looking for a job. And everyone once in a while you come across something so beautiful that you’re immediately transported to a state of pure awe.
When I allow there to be room for uncertainty, for “not knowing” … when I patiently occupy the space between what was and what will be with a positive outlook … I’m a much happier person.
Pain Is Inescapable. Ongoing Suffering is Optional
It isn’t the things that happen to us in our lives that cause us to suffer, it’s how we relate to the things that happen to us that causes us to suffer. ~ Pema Chödrön
Life comes with pain, but we get to choose whether we honor that pain in reasonable ways or allow ourselves to wallow in unnecessary suffering.
Before my walks with Pema, I used to spend a fair amount of time reliving the pain of my parents’ deaths, feeling miserable about how I was mistreated in the workplace, and constantly going over what went wrong in my failed relationships. I wallowed in pain.
Today, I take a more positive approach. The thoughts of bitterness and regret sometimes still pop into my head, but I now choose to replace them with other, more uplifting thoughts … thoughts of appreciation for what I’ve learned and the love I have. Of gratitude that there’s still a roof over my head and fulfilling work to perform and dear friends in my life. I’m not a prisoner of the past anymore because I CHOOSE to keep the past in perspective.
Don’t let life harden your heart. ~ Pema Chödrön
Life can be hard, but we each get to choose whether we’ll let those hard circumstances harden our hearts or expand our compassion.
Don’t Take Life So Seriously
Maybe the most important teaching is to lighten up and relax. ~ Pema Chödrön
I think one of the best lessons I’ve learned is that I tend to take things far too seriously, and that will never help me manifest the fulfilling, happy life that I want.
I’ve learned to laugh at myself.
I’ve learned to see the humor in situations that I used to think were deadly serious.
I choose to see the lighter side of life. We all get to make this choice in life. It’s a pity that more people don’t opt for the bright side of the road. (By the way, I am humming the Van Morrison song The Bright Side of the Road right now.)
Pema Helped Me Get “Unstuck”
Welcome the present moment as if you had invited it. It is all we ever have so we might as well work with it rather than struggle against it. We might as well make it our friend and teacher rather than our enemy. ~ Pema Chödrön
If you’re at a point in your life where you’re feeling stuck, I highly recommend spending time with Pema Chödrön. Her audios can be your companions on walks, on drives, as you go about preparing your dinner, and even as you drift off to sleep at night. She also has plenty of work available via her books and has an amazing program on Vulnerability that I highly, highly recommend.
It’s Time to Wake Up to Your Life
Life’s work is to wake up, to let the things that enter into your life wake you up rather than put you to sleep. The only way to do this is to be open, be curious, and develop some sense of sympathy for everything that comes along, to get to know its nature and let it teach you what it will. ~ Pema Chödrön
Before Pema, I thought I wanted to be awake and present to my life, but the truth was I was in pain avoidance mode. I’d run from my problems whenever I could. I’d avoid the pain by indulging in bad habits that offered short-term relief while in the long-run only added to my agony.
I don’t have my future figured out, but I’m not as future-focused as I used to be. My goal is to be awake to what today holds for me and to be ever-present to the ways I’m blessed and observant for opportunities to bless others.
Today I let life teach me what it will through whatever means it uses to bring its lessons. I still don’t like the hard stuff life brings with it, but I accept that life can be hard. Every birth eventually leads to a death. This is the truth of life and there’s nothing to be gained in denying this reality.
I listen for the whispers now. Life is always calling to us with messages we need to hear. I don’t know about you, but I intend to pay attention. And remember, don’t take it all too seriously! A lighter heart makes the journey all the more joyful.
-Sending you all my love and prayers for a beautiful awakening in your life, J. Marie Novak, Founder of Believe and Create
Many people have asked me which Pema Chödrön programs are my favorites. I included a few recommendations already in this post, but I’d have to say Pema’s Living with Vulnerability online course is my absolute favorite (which is an incredible value right now!). Learn more about it.