Are You Finding Peace or Avoiding Life?

Virginia Woolf once said, “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.” And of course, she is right. Peace as we generally think of it can be elusive at best, changing with circumstances and mood. But true peace, lasting peace, is earned through the hard work that comes with facing and walking through life’s challenges.

The trouble is “finding peace” can look an awful lot like avoiding life.

We “keep the peace” by avoiding difficult decisions, delicate discussions, and painful circumstances. We “make peace” with something that if we were honest about it, we would admit makes us uncomfortable, angry, or discouraged. We search for “inner peace” by creating a facade of outer peace rather than risking a painful encounter or conflict. We content ourselves with being “at peace” with something, though this “peace at any price” comes at the expense of what our gut is telling us — until finally we “rest in peace” after possibly never really living at all.

Honestly, I am as guilty as anyone of avoiding the messiness of life under the guise of “finding peace”. In fact, I have probably raised avoidance to an art form. But “peace of mind” (and heart and soul and spirit) cannot be found through avoidance. Life has a way of leaking into our facades no matter how carefully we try to contain it.

So what are the choices?

  • Let go entirely. Drop the issue, the relationship, the job, the friendship — just walk away. But this strategy can feel like giving up, and worse, giving up on something or someone worth keeping. It doesn’t result in peace, but in a constant state of wondering, “what if”.
  • Lie to yourself. Hide behind being busy. Tell yourself that really everything is OK, there’s nothing wrong, it’s all good and you are doing all that you can do. A very wise friend tells me often that it is impossible to lie to yourself, but I am not so sure we don’t try. Either way, though, this strategy is nothing more than a band-aid and there will be no peace.
  • Have a plan for dealing with the issue — but at some nebulous time in the future. Think “if this happens, then I’ll do that” or “I’ll give it until (fill in any date or circumstance) and then I’ll decide what to do.” While this strategy can allow you to feel a temporary moment of peace, it doesn’t work in the long-term. The plan will need to be constantly revised, the timeframe pushed back, and the terms re-negotiated with yourself — not a peaceful process, to be sure.
  • Acknowledge the issue and its context before taking steps toward the outcome you want. Recognizing the issue and defining its context is half the battle. Maybe you want a new job, but you are afraid to leave the security of the one you have. Acknowledging the issue of wanting new employment and the context of fear allows for a manageable approach. You can address the fears as they arise and watch them dissipate as you begin to achieve your goal.

Obviously, the last choice is the best choice.

Virginia Woolf was correct that real peace does not come from avoiding the trials of life. It comes from meeting those challenges and growing through them!

Learning How to Let Go

We read so much about letting go, and how what is meant for you will be there, and what isn’t meant for you will go, and it sounds so peaceful, this letting go. No one really ever explains how to let go. If you can manage to “let go”, this well-meaning advice makes it sound as if the experiences or the people you have come to love and want most in your life will just float by as if part of a grand river and what is meant for you will come to rest beside you, effortlessly, while the rest flows on.

But letting go is hard, and often feels incomplete. Conversely, so is staying, just as a reed that is caught on a rock will still be buffeted by the flow of the river even as it stays put.

So bottom line? Life is hard, always, for all of us. It is a struggle to stay with certain life situations and it can be a struggle to let them go. Sheng-Yen, a highly-revered Chinese Buddhist monk who died in 2009, offered this advice:

“When faced with any difficulty of life, resolve it by following these four steps: face it, accept it, deal with it, and then let it go.”

Face it. How often we don’t face the truth of the messes we’re in, the steps we’ve taken to put ourselves there, the decisions which seemed right when they were made but that have now added up to a difficult situation. To face our choices is to acknowledge why those decisions were made in the first place, to remember what led you to this place, to admit where you could have made a different choice but didn’t, and then to remember how each step in this journey has led you here. This is not always a comfortable act, but it is honest and necessary.

Accept it. Once you face the mess you are in and call it what it is, the problem, whatever it is, becomes a little more manageable. They always say what can be measured can be managed. Well, by looking at a situation and calling it what it is, you accept it and this can help strip it of its power. If you see it clearly, it can be addressed. It is in the hiding that problem situations gain their power and seem insurmountable.

Deal with it. Not much more to say here. Once you have faced a problem and accepted it, in your heart, you know what needs to be done. A critical conversation, a commitment to yourself and your truth, a decisive action. It may take time, it may take lots of steps, but you cannot fully let go of something until you complete this step, and deep inside, you already know this.

Let it go. And now you can breathe again. You have dealt with your difficult situation in honesty, with yourself and others, and now you can breathe deeply and let go. Letting go doesn’t mean that you’ll never think of it again, that you won’t miss someone or something now and again, or that you won’t have similar problems in the future. But it does mean that you’ve done your best with this problem, this situation, and knowing that, you can let it flow by you now, keeping the good, and letting the rest go downstream.