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Walking Through the Valleys of Life

Updated: May 26

As I navigate the inevitable ups and downs that midlife brings, I am invited to learn more about the shadow aspect of life--those valleys where we aren’t climbing, seeking or achieving. Such times can feel like a void or vacuum, as if we are stuck and can’t see the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel." I used to fear, or even run from, these seasons. But as I have supported others (and myself!) across many of these valleys over the years, I am learning to embrace all of the seasons. I know they have much to teach us--perhaps the challenging ones even more so. I have found that by softening our stance when these valleys arrive, we can traverse them with greater ease and grace. But how, exactly, can we do that--especially when it often feels counterintuitive to soften?


Here are a few tools that I’ve found to be immensely helpful:

  1. Radical Acceptance: I learned this term from Tara Brach, and it’s changed my life. In essence, it’s about leaning in to whatever is showing up in our experience, rather than resisting, denying, or trying to change it. By fully acknowledging and honoring the difficulties and darkness that arise, we are able to move through them more easily. I liken it to a tantruming toddler--if we yell at her, insist that she stop this instant, or ignore her, she will no doubt amp up her efforts. But what if we choose a different approach? We can pause, take a breath, and meet her pain with a stance of acceptance and compassion. In doing so, we will find that the storm will pass more quickly (and with less distress for all involved). A phrase that I use is simply, “Okay, this is happening.” For me, those four words give me the pause I need to shift out of resistance and into acceptance. For more language and ideas in this realm, I highly recommend the book Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach.

  2. Compassion: Lately, I have been studying the work of Kristin Neff, the “Self-Compassion Guru.” I honestly feel that compassion has the capacity to transform many, if not most, of the difficulties we face in life. When things don’t go the way we wish (whether for ourselves or another), we are often quick to apply a lens of judgment and criticism. A part of us believes that by ‘cracking down’, being harsh, or forcing solutions, we will be able to fix the problem. But the actual effect of such an approach is to close down the heart, creating a feeling of separation and being stuck. By contrast, when we are able to see that suffering is occurring, to recognize the universal nature of such suffering, and to send compassion its way, something shifts. We feel less disconnected, our heart softens, and we begin to open a pathway for healing and solutions to enter in. Compassion is something that we all need, but most of us struggle greatly to offer it to ourselves when we are in the midst of challenge. To remedy this, Neff suggests we think of the way we would approach a dear friend who was suffering--and offer ourselves the same gentle loving kindness. A phrase that helps me connect to this intention is, “What is the most loving thing I can do for myself right now?” Time and again, I have found compassion to be truly transformative.

  3. Go to the Heart: This beautiful expression was coined by Doc Childre at the HeartMath Institute, and it’s a reminder of the heart’s capacity to help us move toward wisdom and clarity. Often when we are in the valleys of life, our instinct is to go into “thinking mode” or “problem-solving mode”. It’s as if we believe that by spinning the idea around in our minds over and over, a solution will emerge. But many of life’s challenges can’t be resolved with the tools of the mind. Instead, we need to drop into the heart and its infinite wellspring of wisdom. Heart Focused Breathing is a technique to help us remember to connect with the heart’s intelligence. Here are the steps:

~Focus your attention on the area of the heart.

~Imagine that your breath is flowing in and out of the heart.

~Breathe a little slower and deeper than usual.

~Visualize that the energy up in the head is flowing down into the heart.

~Keep your focus there, and breathe deeply and slowly, with a gentle, steady

rhythm.


I like to think of the heart as our body’s “transmutation station”, for it can help us to transform darkness into light, to find solutions that the mind simply can not access. Without a doubt, we need our logical, rational, problem solving minds and all of their intelligence. But without tapping into the wisdom of the heart, we may miss out on accessing higher ideas and seeing the bigger picture.


When faced with the inevitable valleys of life, it is my hope that we may all remember to connect with these powerful touchstones of radical acceptance, deep compassion, and leading with the heart.

~Namaste,

Dr. Abby Ampuja


Resources:

Brach, T. (2003). Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.


Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow.


The HeartMath Experience: https://experience.heartmath.com/course


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