Fingers freeze. Toes numb. Breath steams. Teeth chatter. Winter is drawing in and, like the trees around us, we might begin to feel our energy drawing in as the days shorten. The temperature is beginning to drop and we need some warmth to ease our bodies and our souls. In these darkening days of winter, our ancestors would build fires to keep themselves warm, carefully gathering the tinder, sticks, and logs that had been chopped and dried in preparation. Huddled around the fire pit, they would sing songs to nurture the fire from a fragile spark-lit ember to a steady, life-bringing flame:
Fire burn within,
Fire burn without
A shadow of a doubt;
Let the fire burn!
To witness a fire being born in this way is still somewhat of a miracle for those of us who are lucky enough to see it done in the traditional way, without the help of matches or firelighters. It’s hard to believe that such radiant warmth and light can come from solid, cold lumps of wood. And yet with attention, care, and careful nurturing, the cold, apparently dead logs can be transformed into brilliant, dancing, life-giving flames.
Whether or not we feel the cold outside, it can sometimes feel like winter in our hearts. There is a chill, an ache, a dark cloud which seems to follow us. It might have been following us for hours, days, or years. These sources of difficulty that we carry – a difficult relationship with a family member or friend, the regrets about something we have said or done this year, the harshness that we inflict on ourselves – can feel just as visceral as the biting cold of the winter.
As we learn the vital skill of being able to put these difficulties aside, gently, when we need to, we are less overwhelmed and can attend to what we need to in our daily lives. But it feels hard every time they appear again, asking for our attention. We feel that life would be so easy if they didn’t disturb our peace. Sometimes we struggle and we resist and we deny to ourselves and our friends that we are even having difficulties at all. Some part of our heart remains like cold, deadwood.
When we struggle with our difficulties, they can seem like our greatest enemies. They refuse to stop hounding us. We can’t put them to rest, no matter how many times we try to “pull ourselves together” or “put a brave face on it”. We begin to feel tense and cold even just thinking about them.
How can we learn the art of embracing difficulty—one of the Four Keys to the Heart? Turning towards what is difficult can feel very counterintuitive, like believing that blazing warmth and light can be brought forth from cold, deadwood! As with starting a fire, we need the right conditions. We need to nurture a space in our heart that feels sheltered and safe, which we can breathe and relax out into. Alone, with the support of friends, or on one of our Heart-based Living Intensives, we can gift ourselves the time to bring all of our most heartfelt attention, care, and nurturing to what seems dead.
We bring some warmth to the difficulty we feel, treating this part of ourselves as an honoured guest instead of an enemy. We can gain inspiration and support by listening to one of our guided meditations on mindfulness of feelings or on bringing loving-kindness to our heart. Holding our heartache in this way is like cradling the fragile ember, feeding it with the warmth and spaciousness of our loving attention. We know that nurturing the ember into a flame is a delicate process that needs all of our care and attention. We just hold our feeling of heartache tenderly and give ourselves the space and permission to feel it fully in our body. Honouring our pain deeply, we allow ourselves to experience and express this difficulty wholeheartedly. We bring love, listening, and dignity to our painful wound.
As we enter deeply this space which seems so dead and cold, we may begin to experience the miracle of a beautiful flame being born within us. This flame might flow as our tears or burst forth as a warmth and joy in our heart. It might emerge in the writing of a poem, the unmistakable taste of freedom and aliveness, or the resolution of a long-perplexing riddle in our heart.
We may touch a newfound sense of clarity about how we can take care of ourselves and others better in future. Our practice of embracing difficulty helps us to find fresh and creative ways to access the other three Keys to the Heart—connection, cultivating happiness and stopping and resting—in our daily lives. Embracing difficulty becomes a precious doorway to a fuller understanding of ourselves, our relationships, and our place in the world around us, one that we can begin to treasure in a bittersweet way.
With the temperatures dropping and the night drawing in, we all naturally seek a place of warmth to return to. As we gather with friends and family across the festive season, we can appreciate our good fortune as we find moments to celebrate, connect with each other, and, as best we can take a well-earned rest! And we can also remember the preciousness of creating listening spaces for ourselves and loved ones to speak about what is difficult, what feels unresolvable, or what has been hidden in the shadows waiting to be seen. We gather like our ancestors, to hold an intimate space together, touching light and life in the dead of winter.