Stumbling Blocks, Stepping Stones

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 Kripalu faculty member Maria Sirois, PsyD, 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

Maria has spent years helping others navigate life’s obstacles. As a clinical psychologist, she’s counseled countless 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 literally 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 in the morning 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 the more you face them, the wiser you become by working through them.”

Sources of Strength

How do we regain equilibrium when a crisis throws our lives out of balance? Maria shares some suggestions.

1. Quiet your mind. This can be meditation, prayer, silent walking, yoga or anything else that helps us reduce our stress, hear what we’re wrestling with internally and make wise choices, literally minute by minute or hour by hour.

2. Care for your body. Stress in the mind and heart often shows up quickly in the body as disrupted sleep, stomach or back aches, chronic pain and so on. It’s important for us to take time to tend to our physical well-being, since feeling well rested and healthy is vital to making good decisions.

3. Connect with others. There’s no need to go through things by ourselves. In fact, we tend not to do well when we try to go it alone. Resilience is built on being wise enough to turn to other people, like-minded and like-hearted people, for help.

4. Practice self-compassion. The ability to say I love and honor myself and I forgive myself for not being perfect is incredibly helpful when stress occurs. We need to remember our strengths, and feel we have the capacity to confront any challenge.

5. Nurture the spark of faith. For some, faith means a connection to the divine, but it can also mean a belief in our own capacity and a belief that others will be there to guide us along the path—that the world will show up for us if we show just a little bit of faith.

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