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Stumbling Blocks, Stepping Stones

by J. L. Johnson

When Edmund Hillary set foot on the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, it was his greatest feat: a first ascent that would forever link his name, along with that of his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, to the world’s highest peak. But it wasn’t his greatest challenge. That would come in 1975, when Hillary’s wife and 16-year-old daughter were killed in a plane crash. “It changed everything,” he told Time magazine. “My life disappeared.”

Hillary did eventually remarry, and carried on with vital environmental and humanitarian work in his beloved Nepal. When he died in 2008, it was as a climbing legend who had conquered the unconquerable—but also as a husband and father who’d spent years tackling a much more personal obstacle.

Whether it’s loss of a job or loss of a loved one, accident or illness, sooner or later we all find something daunting that is standing in our life’s path: An obstacle. A roadblock. Or, as suggested by the stories of Kripalu faculty and invited presenters who have faced personal crisis, a mountain: something that can seem insurmountable but can help us learn to value the climbing process itself and give us greater perspective as we rise.

Accumulating Wisdom

Kripalu Healthy Living faculty member Maria Sirois, PsyD, has spent years helping others navigate life’s obstacles. As a clinical psychologist, she’s counseled numerous children and families facing terminal illness; as a Kripalu teacher, she’s worked with guests grappling with cancer recovery, midlife crises, and more. And while guiding people through rocky paths, she’s had her own stumbling blocks to contend with. “A few years ago, my family and I went through one of those times when you feel like the universe is against you,” Maria recalls. “I lost two friends to sudden death, a business venture went sour at the exact time that our family’s income was temporarily discontinued—and out of the blue came a random IRS audit. In a very short amount of time, there was a lot of grief for me, and a lot of fear and stress.”

As many of us do when a dark moment hits, Maria felt an initial sense of being overwhelmed, “a kind of anxiety-panic, thinking: How are we going to get through this? … This is not something I ever wanted … I don’t know if I’m up for this.” To regain her balance, she called on the same cornerstone techniques she teaches others: quieting the mind in order to make wise choices about how to proceed, and taking very, very small steps in that direction.

But Maria also took a deliberate and thoughtful look back. “There had been another set of stressful events more than a decade earlier, when my infant daughter was very ill with asthma, my husband was diagnosed with lymphoma, and then he couldn’t return to work as a neuroradiologist after being treated,” she says. “Going through that time, I learned some things about what worked and what didn’t work, in terms of handling crisis. So during the more recent events, I actually sat down and did a historical review with myself: Okay, that didn’t go well, and I remember what happened there, and this really helped.”

For instance, Maria says, she knows what she needs to have on her bedstand during stressful times. “It may be meditation CDs or tapes, or a journal to write in when I wake up, to release whatever I’m terribly worried about and be able to go back to sleep. Having my mind spinning at 3:30 doesn’t help anyone—not me, not my family—and it doesn’t change anything in a positive direction.

“In many ways, the first set of circumstances prepared me for knowing how to deal with the second,” she continues. “One of the things that’s true about life challenges is that the more you face them, the wiser you become by working through them.”

Sparking a Change Within

Statistically speaking, there are certain obstacles in life that almost everyone can expect to confront, like difficulties in a marriage or a job, or the death of a parent. Then there are the jolts of fate—accidents, natural disasters, illness—that turn our world upside down in an instant.

Kripalu invited presenter Joe Dispenza never saw the car coming before it hit him. He was in his mid-20s, competing in a triathlon in Palm Springs, California, and well into his strongest suit, the biking leg, when he was struck by a woman in an SUV. “She didn’t stop right away, so I had to kind of hold on to the bumper as I was dragged down the road,” he remembers. “I was conscious and aware of the whole incident as it happened, and when I was catapulted off my bike and landed on the ground, I knew right away something was wrong.”

As it turned out, the young chiropractic physician had suffered such trauma to his spine that top surgeons said he’d never walk again without an operation to fuse some of the vertebrae. Knowing it would leave him in pain and with limited mobility, he refused the surgery. Instead, he decided to try tapping into the healing powers of his mind.

“At the time, I understood the concepts philosophically, on the surface—but it’s very different when you’re going to apply them and personalize them and practice them,” he says. “So I just made myself a deal that if I were ever able to walk again, I’d spend the rest of my life studying the phenomenon.”

In 10 weeks, he was back on his feet. And those first steps put him not only on the road to full recovery, but also on the path to a true calling. Today Joe is a researcher, writer, and lecturer on the power of the brain to help individuals reach their true potential and overcome difficulties of all sorts, both external and internal. “The tendency of most people is to address the obstacle out of a place of fear, sadness, victimization, or trying to control it,” he says. “When we can change and transcend those limited states, it becomes a new experience. And when we embrace that new experience emotionally, we realize that right on the other side of our pain is joy. Right on the other side of our fear is courage. Right on the other side of our weakness is strength.”

Receiving the Message

Last summer, after a decade of nonstop travel and appearances as an energy healer, teacher, and author of two best-selling books, Deborah King was ready for a vacation. The first day didn’t go as planned, however, as a water-sport mishap caused her to tear two ligaments in her knee and break three bones. As she floated in the water, too injured to stand, Deborah thought, The spirits must have something new for me, that’s why they’ve knocked me down. I wonder what the silver lining will be?

Deborah’s equanimity in the face of her accident isn’t surprising, as she’s long known the value of seeking the meaning in life’s obstacles. She traces it back to her mid-20s, when, as an apparently “healthy, happy, and thriving” young woman and a fast-rising corporate lawyer, she learned she had cervical cancer.

As powerfully as a lightning strike, the diagnosis threw every aspect of Deborah’s life into stark relief. Beneath the successful façade, she saw there was anxiety. Depression. Alcohol and prescription drug abuse. “I thought, Maybe I need to take a look at myself here. Maybe I’m kidding myself with the way I’m living,” she says. “Well, I was, of course. I was Band-Aiding deeper problems with alcohol, Valium, extreme dieting, extreme sports—anything to keep from going within, God forbid.”

The realization didn’t go unheeded. Deborah joined a Twelve-Step program, and began meditating and journaling to get more clarity into her mind, body, and spirit. At the same time, she asked her physician for a little time to look at alternative cancer therapies, and got involved in energy healing.

“I had an amazing remission after a few sessions ,” she says. “As I got more training, I would always say to one seer after another, ‘I’m studying this because I’m so curious.’ And they would always laugh and say, ‘No, you’re going to do this work.’”

There was little doubt of that after what happened a few years later: Deborah’s husband suffered a fall while they were mountain climbing, resulting in serious brain injury. “At first the doctors said he wouldn’t live, and then they said he would but we wouldn’t want him to,” she remembers. “So that set me even more on my mission for alternative medicine, and in the process I became a healer.”

King says that in all her years and various crises, she’s never stopped to ask, “Why me?”—because that would be missing the point. “When the plan you had for yourself for that job or that partner is no more, just stop for a moment. Listen. See what happens. Because, clearly, the spirits have another plan in mind.”

Embracing the Process

In today’s culture, it can be hard to get away from the allure of the quick fix, the magic pill, the ability to get to somewhere faster than ever before. It’s an especially attractive notion when we confront something painful and difficult—I just want to put this behind me, we might think.

But by focusing on an endpoint, we risk missing the journey, according to Kripalu invited presenter Kevin Griffin. A longtime Buddhist practitioner and Twelve-Step participant, Griffin leads programs around the world that aim to help people in recovery connect with meditation and a progressive understanding of the Twelve Steps. “For me, at least, my practice is much more about maintaining sanity than it is about achieving something,” he says. “The idea of overcoming things … well, I view it much more as living with challenges. Certainly things change and evolve, and the nature of our challenges change and evolve. Twenty-seven years ago, my challenge was to stop drinking and using drugs; now I have other challenges.”

As a teacher, he’s honest about those challenges—whether they’re arguments with his wife or physical ailments or depression—because “that’s what’s true and real, and I think it’s helpful for people to see that when they have problems, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t spiritual, or they aren’t as spiritual as someone else.”

Also helpful, says Kevin: realizing there is no single best approach to dealing with life’s obstacles. “The Kripalu catalog is a great example of this whole range of potential modalities, spiritual paths and psychological healings, physical healings, that all have their value. People have to find what works for them,” he says.

Yet in some ways, he adds, it’s not really about the method—it’s about the engagement we can bring to it.

“A significant part of any practice is developing a connection with our own hearts, a sense of intuition about what we need and what we need to do next,” Kevin says. “That discernment is something that grows along with our practice and helps us to figure out what path to be on and how we should be engaging in that path, moment by moment, day by day, year by year.”

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