Life is filled with many difficulties. You get sick, your car runs out of gas on the way to work, you don’t get the promotion you had been hoping for. Or a big one — you grow older and can no longer do the same things you could when you were young.

Many difficulties in life are unavoidable, especially aging. But they don’t have to cause you to get stuck. You can move forward even if the difficulties are still there, or new ones show up in your life.

The solution to navigating these difficulties without letting them become barriers — or anchors — can be found in the Yogasūtras.

In this classic Yoga text, Patañjali explains that difficulties in life are only obstacles for a person whose mind is agitated (cittavikṣepa). So, what is an agitated mind? One symptom is being unable to focus on anything. The Buddhists call it “monkey mind” because attention jumps from place to place randomly.

In sūtra I.30, Patañjali lists nine difficulties. Many of these will be familiar, even hundreds of years after Patañjali compiled the sūtras. They are:

  • Illness. (vyādhi)
  • Mental fatigue, such as what you feel while grieving or during stressful times. (styāna)
  • Doubt, like when you are split between two options — Should I relocate for a new job or stay near my family? Should I talk to my partner about our relationship difficulties or hope it gets better? (saṃśaya)
  • Haste or lack of foresight, which causes you to act even when you aren’t clear about how to proceed. (pramāda)
  • Physical fatigue or laziness. (ālaysa)
  • Overindulgence. (avirati)
  • Misunderstanding yourself, your role, or state  When you don’t realize you are growing older until you see that first gray hair, or think you have recovered from a relationship breakup, but the emotions are still bubbling underneath. (bhrāntidarśana)
  • Lack of perseverance, failing to reach a goal. You may give up your efforts and take an easier path, or convince yourself that you didn’t really want to achieve your goal. (alabdhabhūmikatva)
  • Regression, or losing progress that you’ve gained — either internally driven, as when you become complacent with your practices; or externally driven, like when aging or an event sets you back. (anavasthitatva)

Difficulties like these are unavoidable, but they are not the problem.

The problem arises if you cannot direct your attention because your mind is agitated. Then, these difficulties are likely to become obstacles. 

When you are out of balance, there is no stability of attention. It means that when you are faced with a difficult situation, it will be difficult to see the situation for what it is. Instead, as your attention flits back and forth, you see what your mind projects onto the situation. These projections will be based on your patterns, and stem from your past experiences. When you respond based on your patterns, the tendency will be to repeat your behavior from previous experiences. In other words, you’ll get stuck — redoing and re-experiencing similar situations again and again.

But when you are balanced, your attention will be more stable and that will allow you to see the situation more clearly. It’s like when you are trying to take a picture with your smartphone. If your hand is shaking, what you are viewing through the camera will be all over the place. If your camera is still, it lets you see what’s there. By looking at a situation from stable attention, your ability to discern between a response that is based on your habitual patterns and one that is based on your authentic self increases dramatically. 

This is the difference between a response and a reaction!

Shawn Radcliffe

Shawn Radcliffe

Shawn Radcliffe is a writer and yoga teacher in Ontario, Canada. His writing has appeared in print and digital publications such as Healthline, Science & Nonduality, Men’s Health, and others. He began his yoga teacher training in Portland, Oregon, including viniyoga and other styles. When he’s not at the computer or on a yoga mat, Shawn is often backpacking, bicycling, or wandering the streets of a new city. Connect with him on his website or Twitter.