How to Meet Difficulty with More Ease and Presence

Jennifer O'Sullivan
4 min readJul 8, 2020


Photo by Jennifer O’Sullivan

The body speaks through the language of sensation.

The most obvious example is pain. We know that if we touch something and it hurts, we should pull the hand away.

When people talk about embodiment, they’re referring to our capacity to experience and relate to the body’s language in real-time. Developing a greater sense of embodiment is one of the many benefits of mindfulness practice. Through mindfulness, we can better monitor sensation and receive the body’s messages.

These messages tell us a lot about how various circumstances are affecting us. But sometimes this “data” is co-mingled with our past conditioning. If a situation has the flavor of a previously challenging or traumatic experience, the body responds as if it’s the same situation all over again.

This can impede our ability to respond appropriately and effectively to the new moment.

More often than not, when someone triggers us, we fall back on unconscious conditioned behaviors. Sometimes we might recoil, and then later get ourselves in trouble for not taking a stand. At other times, we might react with an unnecessary intensity that compounds the situation.

So, we need a way to check ourselves.

This 3-step technique is designed to create some space between a challenging stimulus and the response to it. I like to think of it in terms of switching into slow motion.

When we slow down, we become available to our actual, lived experience, while at the same time, we get the opportunity to relax our habitual way of responding.


Pausing is just what it sounds like. Before you respond to a difficult moment, pause.

Our brains are wired to respond quickly to stress, but unless we are in real physical danger, most situations don’t require an instantaneous response. Often we can stretch out the moment, create space around it.

You don’t need a super long pause. In many cases, the length of a deep breath will be enough to end-run mindless reactions. This buys your conscious mind more time to reclaim the moment and respond more skillfully.

The next time you find yourself spinning up, breathe in deeply and fully. When you are full of breath, pause for a couple of beats. Then slowly release the breath.

Pausing is about meeting each moment free from whatever came before. In the pause, we can descend into our direct, embodied experience.

Ask yourself: What’s happening right now in my body, heart, and mind? Does it match with what’s really going on around me?


In this case, softening is more attitudinal than trying to physically relax the body.

Instead, softening is about relaxing impulsivity and any heightened energy in the heart-mind. We soften what we think we believe about the moment. We soften what we think the intentions are of other people around us. We ease off of what we believe is true and create some space for reality to be known.

As you soften, look around you and take in the fullness of the moment, including small details like noticing a vase filled with flowers on the other side of the room. Try not to add in or subtract anything, but do try to allow a more spacious presence.


Softening is about creating attitudinal space. Connecting is about looking deeply at the immediacy of the experience rather than wishing things were another way. Of course, you would rather not be dealing with this! But this is how it is now.

Let the truth of the moment be known and experienced fully. When you arrive at connection after pausing and softening, the circumstance will not be as awful as you think. It may not be a picnic, but our mind tends to imagine much worse than what’s really going on.

Ask yourself: What else is happening here? What am I bringing forward from the past that may not apply to this situation? What is the underlying belief or motivation at work in this circumstance? What do I need right now to feel safe, seen, and understood?

Once you arrive at this stage, you’ll find that your overall inner landscape is calmer even if the challenge around you persists. You’ll be able to think through different, more skillful, options for how you want to proceed.

Guided Practice

Try it out for yourself. In this guided meditation on the Skillful Means Podcast, I take you through the all three steps while in the Sphinx pose, a gentle Yin Yoga backbend.

Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, Internal Family Systems, functional anatomy, and a bit of this and that about living a wakeful life. Based in the Washington, DC area, I share gentle yoga, Buddhist mindfulness, and facilitated IFS Parts work in person and online. Find me at I also co-host Skillful Means Podcast, which covers spirituality and yoga.



Jennifer O'Sullivan

Shame-free embodied practices, rooted in timeless wisdom. Yoga, Buddhist Mindfulness, Internal Family Systems (IFS)