What to do with our struggles

We grow and develop behaviours that are important to our survival in our environment, be it at home, at work, or at play. We become very good at some things, but equally we can be terrible at other things. We might be able to get away with never seeing our flaws if we never had to deal with another person. However, whoever we are, whatever we do, whatever our age, we all need other people.

When we enter into a close relationship with someone then we begin to see some things in the other person and not necessarily their strong points. All too often what stands out are their flaws. And it can feel as though other people exist just to point out our own weaknesses.

What can help us live with different kinds of people from different backgrounds? My background is in Buddhist psychology and what I have learned are teachings that have been developed for more than two thousand years. The experience of a man, called the Buddha, has led to the development of training the mind, cultivating mindfulness and compassion, however, at the root of it all, is his teaching to wake up. 

We start by waking up to the suffering that we see around us, and also within us. We learn how to bear witness, and to see our struggles as opportunities. My own struggles led me to want to learn more and to shine the light on my life more. But to start this journey, I had to become friends with the good, with the unconditional, with love itself. Anyone who has a relationship with the good can delve into the messiness of human lives and study them in detail. 

In looking at the particulars, we might understand how one thing leads to another. We might be open to seeing how our experience of something will lead to emotions, which will lead to thoughts, which will lead to words, which will lead to actions, which will lead to a reaction, which will lead to more feelings and so on.

Our thoughts and feelings may be impermanent and unreliable, but they are compelling. They can be overpowering and may lead us to do things that feel real and true in the moment, no matter how hurtful or mean. This is our karma. And sometimes our words, actions and behaviours can be the source of shame, guilt and sorrow, especially when we find out later, how wrong we were, so much so that we keep them hidden from others. But that is not the only reason we have secrets as we will see later in the explanation of the different squares in the Johari window. 

A Johari window is useful to see the complexity of life in a simple way. It might be easy to categorise our qualities into strengths and weaknesses and to work on balancing them but things are more complex than that. There are things we know and other things we don’t know but not everyone knows the same things.

The first square includes all the behaviours and patterns that are seen by oneself and the other. We feel most comfortable in the first square called ‘open’. Fellow feeling and patience are easy to practice when we can see the motives behind a wrong deed.

Joy for another person's success is easy when we know the pain and suffering involved. In this square, we can see behaviours and patterns and we may even know other information that can help us understand more about that person. For example, we all know that the Buddha’s mother died giving birth to him. And we all know that he attained enlightenment.

We feel less comfortable with the second square called 'blindspots', and yet this square is where others can help us a lot. In the case of the Buddha, his father might have seen the impact of losing his mother on him, but baby Siddhartha was too young to know. He would have grown up, as we all do with behaviours that are hidden from ourselves, otherwise known as our blindspots.

We may know in theory that we have blindspots, or perhaps we think we haven't got any because we can't see them, but when they are revealed to us we can feel challenged and humiliated, especially when others seem to see them as clear as day. Courage and equanimity are important qualities to cultivate in order to hear, accept and listen to feedback from others. Our encounters with an other can force us to wake up to the fact that we can’t hide from our fears and pretend that we are okay forever.

We might feel a degree more uncomfortable with the third square called 'secrets' or 'facade'. This is not the same as our blindspots because these behaviours are known to us but not known to others. As Siddhartha grew into a young man, he might have had feelings about losing his mother that he did not share with anyone, including his father.

We may also hide certain aspects of ourselves from others out of fear or ridicule. Or we may have thoughts, dreams, fantasies, secrets, past experience and feelings that are too difficult to disclose that are only known to us and maybe a few others who also know to keep them secret. 

Last but not least is the mystery square. It is an acknowledgement that there exists other information that is hidden from ourselves and others. In the case of Siddhartha, his father knew that a seer had prophesied that Siddhartha would become either a great ruler or a great holy man, but he did not know which one. Neither he nor Siddhartha had any idea of the invisible forces that influenced and shaped him.  

There were other processes that affected him that were invisible to both him and his father that led to his enlightenment. These processes and mysterious forces can have a power over our lives without us knowing what they are. Other information and experience that belong to our early years, or our parents and ancestors' generation, that resides in our unconscious, is unknown and invisible to everybody. From physical and chemical processes such as pheromones, to spiritual processes like the Dharma and a creative muse are included in the last square.

Understanding that we know some things and don't know other things can help us appreciate that there are reasons why we act and behave the way that we do even if we do not know what the reasons are. It’s wonderful when both parties can see why, but when we can’t, then we can think of the johari window. Perhaps, over time, with practice or in an atmosphere of loving kindness and acceptance, we may be open to criticism and change our ways, or maybe we will open up and the secrets that are hidden may be revealed.

If it is our struggles that bring us into therapy, then it is through facing our fears and persisting with our struggles that may, perhaps with time, teach us that our greatest struggles can become our greatest gifts.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Watford, Hertfordshire, WD18

Written by Susthama Kim

Watford, Hertfordshire, WD18

Susthama Kim is a Buddhist therapist and supervisor with an interest in spirituality. She has worked in the field of mental health for 15 years as a chaplain in psychiatric hospitals and as a therapist in private practice. She enjoys teaching and giving workshops in Buddhist psychology and is the Head of the Order of Amida Buddha.

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