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  • Lenore Lambert

Embrace difficulty...no, really!




I was starting to wonder if I was a bit odd.


At my meditation group recently, a friend reflected on how reluctant she is to truly accept and expect difficulty as part of her life despite this being a key part of the Buddha's wisdom. Frustrations, setbacks, conflicts, losses....you know, all the shades of unpleasantness that arise because....we're human.


As I reflected, I realised my own habits on this have shifted significantly over the years. It's almost my natural reflex now, to greet difficulty as part of the family - sadness, disappointment, hurt. I quickly accept those feelings, get curious about them, imbibe any learning they are offering, and let them move on whenever they're ready to.


It's normal to struggle with this - I know the resistance to it well, and so do my meditation mates, which is why I was pondering my current oddness.


I wondered aloud whether being an athlete for so many years has helped me with it. My training for sprints and hurdles (including the long hurdles) involves a smorgasbord of unpleasantness. In fact I'm fluent in the language of pain - muscle pain, nerve pain, tendon pain, aerobic pain, lactic pain - they all feel different. And I know at what point on each of these, it's ok to keep pushing, and at what point I should stop because it's crossing a threshold that spells damage.


I know so much about these various pains because I've voluntarily spent so much time experiencing them during training and recovery from injuries.


This 'distress tolerance' as psychologists call it, seems to have also built up for emotional pain. This is absolutely pivotal to personal growth. I was touched recently when my husband told me that he felt really impressed with how equanimous I've been in the face of some serious setbacks and frustrations. I wasn't always.


Often the people closest to us are the last to change their perceptions of us, so when your spouse notices, you know something's really changed!


I told my meditation friends about my observation that the courage to face difficulties grows the more I do it. It's like a muscle - use it or lose it. The more I use it, the more I use it!


Just two days later I stumbled across some science showing exactly what I'd noticed! It was an Andrew Huberman podcast about neuroplasticity - our brain's ability to change in response to new learning. It turns out that learning to do new things, whether they're physical, mental, or emotional things, happens BECAUSE we push through these barriers of difficulty.


There's a structure in the brain called the anterior mid cingulate cortex which lights up when we do this - persist in the face of difficulty or challenge. It releases certain neurochemicals which literally allow the brain to re-wire itself. People who are well practiced at this have larger anterior mid cingulate cortexes!!!! And it shrinks in those who don't persist in difficulty.


So this explains what I had noticed - because I frequently lean in to discomfort, I'm more likely to do that again. If you bail out when it gets hard or uncomfortable, and never persist, this structure in your brain literally shrinks. It's like a muscle.... use it or lose it!!!!


For those of us over the age of 25, our capacity for neuroplasticity is on the wane. However that doesn't mean our brains can't change to help us learn new things. What research has found is that we just have to do it in smaller increments. Our brains can change, but in smaller doses.


I wonder - what does this mean for the way we raise children? Perhaps we need to let them experience struggle, not rescue them from it so that their brains can cope with challenge. And what does it mean for relationships including friendships in this age of loneliness? Perhaps we need to work through difficulties together rather than just distancing ourselves if things get uncomfortable.


There's a damned good pay-off for staying in the saddle through unpleasant experience, of leaning into discomfort - healthier brains (learning new things is also one of the key tactics for avoiding dementia), better ability to learn, and a better ability to navigate difficulty in future.


Perhaps knowing this might help us embrace difficulty as opportunity. It's part of the package of being human - we may as well learn how to extract the gold.


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