The first personal development book I ever read was M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled, published in 1978. Remember the opening line? Life is difficult.
Similarly, the first of the Four Noble Truths Buddha taught in the fifth century BC was "Life is suffering."
Today, this truth is not particularly popular. We believe life should be easy and fun, and almost every media and marketing message reinforces this belief.
No wonder that, when faced with problems, we tend to resist them: we complain, blame, or argue why this or that shouldn't be happening to us. Another natural reaction is to distract ourselves from the uncomfortable feelings problems evoke.
There is nothing wrong with escaping from suffering—temporarily. Like first aid, it can be an effective short-term measure. But ultimately we have to face it; life's problems don't just go away.
This summer issue of Networking Times features network marketing leaders who have overcome extreme challenges, including a young man who was homeless when he launched his business, a distributor who had to rebuild everything after hurricane Katrina, a father who grew his organization from prison, and a single mom who battled multiple sclerosis all through her journey to the top of her company.
What propelled these people forward in pursuit of their dreams despite what others might consider insurmountable obstacles?
All of them faced their challenges head on, fully aware that the only way out was through. They reframed their "problems" simply as situations to be dealt with, and chose to experience rather than evade the pain involved.
"Life is a series of problems," says Dr. Peck. "Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life's problems. Without discipline, we can solve nothing. With only some discipline, we can solve only some problems. With total discipline, we can solve all problems."
He further defines discipline as the "techniques of suffering by which we experience the pain of problems in such a way as to work them through and solve them successfully, learning and growing in the process."
As I'm writing it is graduation season, reminding me of some of the famous commencement addresses of years past, such as those from J.K. Rowling, Anna Quindlen, Oprah Winfrey, and Steve Jobs. The one element all of their speeches cited in common is suffering. According to these pros, suffering is the rubble upon which success is built. Once we know and accept this, our whole approach to obstacles changes.
"Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom," says Dr. Peck. "It is for this reason that wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and to welcome the pain of problems."
What if we could drop all resistance and distractions, and instead embrace every problem and setback in our lives as a call for creativity and development?
Victory over obstacles, then, comes down to this question: which are you more dedicated to, avoiding pain, or growing yourself?
As with every profound truth, the nature of suffering is a paradox.
"Once we know and accept that life is difficult," says M. Scott Peck, "life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters."
Zen Buddhist teachings sometimes call this paradox the gateless gate: once you step through it, you realize there was no barrier to begin with.
Success over obstacles comes from diving into life without resisting what is, simply responding to what a given situation requires, to the best of our abilities and with an attitude of unconditional gratitude.
The following old parable or koan captures this lesson poignantly:
The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.
A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.
This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.
In great anger the parents went to the master. "Is that so?" was all he would say.
After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else he needed.
A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth: the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market.
The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back.
Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: "Is that so?"
The obstacles we encounter in life are diverse, yet, in essence, all challenges are equal: they show up when the agenda of me collides with the mystery of a greater order. Instead of clinging to the little mind of me, we can save ourselves a lot of hardship by learning to be available and surrender to that bigger plan.
Life is full of joy and pain. Just like joy, pain is fleeting and changes like the weather. Funny thing is, if you lean into the suffering instead of bracing yourself against it, the pain does not last. Feelings, fully experienced, dissolve rather quickly.
Another proven way to alleviate our discomfort is through an act of service. Transforming our pain into something good for others can give us a profound sense of purpose and peace.
Winning implies sometimes fighting, sometimes yielding, but always embracing pain as part of the process.
Building a business is difficult. Once we accept this, it's no longer a problem.
In fact, building a business is being a professional problem-solver. If you are facing difficulty, then you most likely are on your way to success.
JOSEPHINE GROSS, PH.D. is cofounder
and editor-in-chief of Networking Times.