Choose your challenges, for challenge has certainly already chosen you.
By "choosing our challenges" I mean two things: 1) deliberately designing mental, physical, emotional and spiritual "ropes courses" for ourselves in order to develop strength in these areas and 2) deciding to accept the unplanned challenges that come our way with humble gratitude.
Choosing our challenges by design helps us build literal or metaphorical muscle, develop a sense of self-esteem in our achievements, and extend ourselves into previously-unknown realms of our own power. You have heard of Charles Darwin's concept of "survival of the fittest" as the mechanism of evolution, yes? Choosing self-generated personal challenges helps to ensure our personal evolution.
Making the decision to choose our unforseen challenges when they show up unannounced can give us a sense of personal agency within the life events that are out of our control, opening the way for conscious engagement instead of creating resistance.
Committing to choosing our challenges can mean the difference between a lifetime of gratefully turning adversity into wisdom, or a lifetime of feeling victimized, put-upon, dragged under, and singled out for suffering.
Let me walk you through three personal examples of choosing my challenges. These examples may or may not topically resonate with your own experience, but please take from it whatever is of benefit to you.
Challenge 1: self-designed
Recently, I took it upon myself to submit to the challenge of creating a regular yoga practice. I have been sort of "yoga lite" for the past decade, loving it when I went to class, but typically falling away from classes and allowing months and even years to go by without practicing. Several months ago, along with my good friend and neighbor Rowan, I decided to start going to yoga once per week. We researched and selected a gentle yoga class at a local studio on a day/time that worked for us both, and we committed to going every week. This meant that we needed to face three difficulties:
- our own interia. Let's be honest, it would just be far easier to stay home in our pj's, drink tea, and hang out.
- finances: taking a regular yoga class means coming up with an extra $60 per month. In this economy, hardly anyone has "extra money" they aren't using, so we had to carve out and prioritize our funds. We stopped going for coffee and saved up that money, allotted some of the pin money we might spend on other things for yoga, and decided to make do with sweatpants and using the studio mats instead of buying costly supplies. That made the decision more sustainable.
- pain: accepting a bit of pain is within the natural scope of yoga practice. This was the hardest for me, because sometimes when I am in a particular stretch or pose, the discomfort invokes a body memory that I have struggled with, and I feel powerless in light of the pain. By reminding myself that this is a self-chosen pain, rather than pain that was forced on me, I am able to continue to choose it, to hold or deepen the posture. And, not surprisingly, within a few weeks of practicing this way, the pain subsided considerably.
Choosing to engage all three of these obstacles, and finding solutions for them, has helped me to build a greater sense of physical, financial, and emotional discipline. Of the three, however, conditioning myself to accept and even sometimes to seek out physical pain as the natural course of my practice has been the most powerful. The decision to accept pain in a self-designed personal challenge is a great preparation for accepting the second type of challenge: the unchosen challenge.
Challenge 2: the unchosen challenge
This past year, as part of a highly-charged, emotional, and aggressive public debate about issues related to gender in paganism, I found myself and my community the target of hate mail, death threats, and slander because of our work with women's blood mysteries. I did not see this situation coming, and it really blindsided me. I felt angry and sad, and I did not understand why my community and I were a focus of this debate when we have always supported gender diversity and everyone's right to define themselves as they wish.
I could have stayed in those feelings. It is so seductive to dwell in the "why me?" moment. I could have lashed out and ranted. I could have rushed to defend myself, hastily tripping all over everything as I attempted to appease my detractors. I could have allowed myself to become bitter, and on a few occasions, I was sorely tempted to just throw in the towel and allow the angry, crotchety, ranting brain to take over.
Instead, I chose to stay with the pain. I stopped, watched, waited, listened. I opened up and allowed myself to be covered in the filth of others' anger, hate, and hurt. I decided to engage the challenge rather than trying to disengage from it or turn away. And once I had decided that, I was able to hear the higher calling of the lesson at hand: that there are many people for whom gender is a painful issue, and that their pain needs to be recognized and addressed, and that this debate is important. From that place, I began to participate in the debate authentically, as my whole self. I did not resort to violent language, even when it was directed at me. I did not succumb to hatred, even though it was directed at me. I stayed polite, I held my boundaries when necessary in order to ensure my safety, and I allowed myself suppleness to respond slowly, carefully, and from my heart.
By choosing the challenge, I was able to begin to see something that is really important: to be a woman is often to choose pain, whether you were born with a yoni or not. For a woman born with a yoni who wants to become a mother, she must willingly decide to choose the pain of birth. For a woman not born with a yoni who wants to embrace life fully as a woman, she must willingly risk the pain of social stigma, do tons of inner searching, and even endure surgery if she wants to go that route. By finding it within myself to stay with my own pain, I was given a window onto the pain of others, and I felt less alone. I felt less defensive. Instead, I felt waves of compassion for everyone in all sectors of the debate, all of whom were in their own sort of pain. When a topic pushes as many buttons as gender does, it means there is a well of pain there. The people who were name-calling and threatening me were just other human beings with feelings. Their pain was so significant that it overflowed their lives and poured into mine. When someone is bleeding all over you, do you just watch or do you try to stop the bleeding? I did my best to stop the bleeding by seeking education, taking mindful action, and engaging in loving communication.
I still think that as long as the patriarchal mindset is the ground of most peoples' worldview, we are all doomed to bleed to death slowly. But by choosing to engage my personal part of that pain, I stopped feeling powerless/alone. I stopped being or having an enemy. I started seeing a bigger view of things that helped me relinquish ego and come from patience.
When we start down the road of "But it's not fair!" there is no coming back to reason. We just flail helplessly, like a turtle on its back. The only answer to "It's not fair" really is "Life isn't fair." Because life really isn't fair. It just isn't. And nobody's whining is going to fix that. In fact, nothing will fix it. The only thing any of us can fix is ourselves, our own views. By choosing to fix my own view and accept the challenge placed before me as the guiding wisdom of the Divine, I embraced it and transformed myself.
When I speak of acceptance, I'm not talking about "giving in to fate" or "let go, let God." Those approaches can heighten a sense of disempowerment and impending doom. I am talking about actively choosing to say, "If I just stop focusing on my own resistance right now and choose this challenge instead, I will be more ready to open to the growth opportunity provided by this moment, and I will allow my Divine Self to be my guide."
The keys to this approach, for me, are agility of mind, discipline of emotional response, and self-trust. If I can open my mind and bend my own thoughts away from "this shouldn't be happening," I give myself permission to find a previously-unconsidered brilliant solution. If I can cease my heart's anguish by applying the cooling balm of acceptance, I give myself the possibility of being less controlled by my emotions and instead I allow them to be companions on my journey. Then, though fear might walk with me, it will not have the power to sabotage my courage. If I trust myself to be able to do these two previous things, I am able to stand in greater confidence with my next steps. Trusting myself means that I ask myself difficult questions, think things through to the best of my ability, then act responsibly from a desire to manifest the best possible outcome for all, including myself.
The agility, emotional discipline, and self-trust I gain from choosing my unexpected challenges comes back into play in the third type of challenge I want to describe here.
Challenge 3: the unexpected choice in the moment
Back at the yoga class, after about 6 weeks the teacher suddenly announced one day that we would be learning headstands. 5 women of various ages, sizes, and experience levels all eyed her warily. With perfect form, she planted her forearms on the floor and lifted her legs up, up and away with utter grace. I was very impressed and very dubious, but I decided, in that moment, to give it a try. Either I would make it, or I would not. But without trying, how would I know?
I started by choosing the challenge. I once saw a special about David Blaine where someone asked him how he could bring himself to do his fabulous stunts. His response, "I don't give myself any other option." I planted my forearms and began to pedal my legs up the wall at first. It took a few minutes because I have a big booty and had a hard time finding my balance! Rather than giving in to my resistance and blaming my lack of physical agility, I engaged my mental agility. "I am safe. The teacher is right here. Nothing bad will happen. I can afford to try a bit harder," I reasoned with myself. Fear arose, "What if I hurt myself, fall, look like an idiot?" I engaged emotional discipline within, "Fear is irrelevant here. I am not in danger of anything more than a bruised ego or sore shoulders at this point. If it gets too much, I will sensibly stop. My fear will not dominate this situation." I wondered if my arms were strong enough, if I was too fat to do it, if I would have the balance it took. I engaged my self-trust and kicked my legs up, up, up and away! It worked! I STOOD ON MY HEAD! Are you kidding?! I couldn't even do this as a child! 37 years of inner story about my physical abilities melted away in one shining moment of having taken on the challenge. It was great. Rowan and I crowed about how proud we were of ourselves all weekend long :)
This third type of challenge is really a hybrid of the first two: I did not see headstands in my immediate future when I woke up that morning. The idea never dawned on me when I was getting dressed, when we were driving to class, not right up until the teacher announced it. In an instant, by choosing the challenge, I got over the need for a prolonged period of wavering, vacillation, and self-doubt. I used the tools I have been cultivating within in order to choose to accept the unforseen challenge at hand with a measure of curiosity, humbleness, and excitement rather than resistance, upset, or paralyzing fear. And then I did it.
Now, I'm no expert headstander. I am not great at it. I will definitely need a lot more practice. But I now know, for sure, that I CAN do it, and that is enough to keep me going back for more and deeper self-designed challenges. Achievements like these also help me build the confidence, inner poise, and determination to be more graceful in the face of unforseen challenges.
By training with our self-designed challenges, and by choosing even the challenges that feel foisted upon us, we condition ourselves to be prepared for anything that might come our way with agile mind, a ready emotional set-point of empowerment, and a sense of self-reliance and trust. With these three things, we can rise to any occasion and be the Great Ones we were born to be. With these three things, there is very little we cannot do. Nothing is actually beyond our capacity. We can change ourselves, our lives, and our world if we want to. We just have to choose to do so.
Sometimes it's tricky to find the sustainable mark of success in facing our challenges- we may not be able to resolve a health issue completely. We may not be able to find a job as quickly as we want to. But we can nevertheless create a trajectory of courage and determination in how we handle those things, and still count ourselves among the Great Ones. When we cannot change our circumstances, we can change our own minds, which requires a powerful application of personal Will.
How will you be Great today? How about just by being yourself, but stretching a little further into what that might mean?