Vicissitudes is an interesting word to roll the tongue and lips around.  It is a word I’ve been learning to use recently.  The Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as follows:

changes that happen at different times during the life or development of someone or something, especially those that result in conditions being worse

There are two recognitions in the definition – that changes happen, and that they can result in conditions being worse.

The reason I’m learning the word is it is part of my self-compassionate mindfulness practice.  I’m working towards being able to accept the inevitable difficulties of life with an open heart.

Part of self-compassion – or being kind to ourselves – is a recognition that the nature of life involves suffering.

Everyone at some point experiences suffering.  It is helpful to acknowledge this.  It means being able to move from the question: “Why me?”, to the question “Why not me?”  Acknowledging suffering as part of life enables a sense of connection with others, a moving towards, rather than a separation.

Suffering in our modern world may take many forms but can include those that are easily recognised – such as the loss of a parent or relative, a relationship, work, health – and those which may be trivial to others but nevertheless hurt.  The loss of an identity or role (for example, retirement), the loss of an item, rejection, an accident, a change.

So often when difficulties happen our reaction is to be closed to them.  This is a change that we don’t desire so we push it away or turn our back on it.  We resist it.  We may try to bury it by becoming busy in other areas of our lives. We may try to bury it with drugs, alcohol, food, socialising, work or exercise.

An alternative strategy is to resist the difficulty with action.   We reason that we can control our way out of the situation.  We try to pull all the strings at our disposal to make a difference. If the difficulty we are resisting involves other people, we may employ the subtle arts of manipulation, withdrawal and emotional abuse, and less subtle means such as anger or nagging.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that, sometimes, taking action and making a change is what is necessary both for ourselves and for society.  We have to take action to improve our lot and those of our fellow men.

However, those that are energised to make such changes are usually those who have not ignored suffering.  Rather than burying it through escape or activity, they have allowed themselves to feel the full impact of the injustice.  This is the true nature of compassion.  It is about approaching difficulty, entering into it, experiencing it - and allowing that difficulty to change us.

It can be very difficult for people to accept that acknowledging the pain of suffering is helpful.  People find it helpful to be positive and to “count blessings”.  These are helpful strategies as long as the positive thinking is not denial.

In fact, it is often when life is acknowledged in all its fullness – both for its random cruelty and for its beauty – that small blessings can be appreciated for the depth of the joy they bring.

So being self-compassionate – being kind to ourselves – means allowing ourselves to recognise when we are suffering.  It means allowing ourselves to feel our difficulty.  It means acknowledging that we are part of a community of living beings that also suffer.  However, this acknowledgement of suffering is just the first step of the journey in approaching difficulty and I’ll be talking about other steps in future blogs.

My video this week is on the subject of being kind to ourselves when we're suffering.  If you're reading this by email, you can click through to

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