People often come to therapy because they would like something in their lives to change. It might be a relationship (or lack thereof), a creative rut, a detrimental habit or a general sense of imbalance. People tend to seek outside support when an inner voice becomes too loud to ignore.
I just can’t go on like this. Something’s got to change.
The good news is that, whether we like it or not, change comes.
Our feelings about change can run the gamut. Sometimes we’re itching for it, impatient and at our wit’s end for something to give. Other times, we’re running from change, resisting it in every way we know. Unwanted change or loss brings people to therapy too after all: the death of a loved one, a break up or affair, children growing up, a job change, retirement, aging, loss of health, ability, sex drive…. Whatever the circumstance may be, on some level, change is the experience of a shift in reality as we once knew it.
I remember one snowy afternoon the day after Christmas on a visit back home to Wisconsin. I was walking down the street where I lived until the age of eight. You probably know the feeling: walking down an old, familiar street… vivid memories suddenly emerging from the sights, sounds, smells around you. This was the neighborhood in which my brothers and I roamed freely. We ran through the yards and wandered through the rich-smelling woods behind the row of aluminum-siding duplexes where my family lived. I long to stroll up the driveway and knock on the door of the house, to exclaim – “This was my house. This is where we lived.” Instead, I take pictures from the sidewalk. Peering behind the house to the back yard and beyond, I see no trace of the woods – that forbidden and mysterious world I once ran through and in whose brush, I made forts just my size. It is an unexpected blow that takes my breath away.
How could this be? How could this be gone? It is still there in my mind’s eye, in my dreams, in my stories?
On that wintery day, standing on the sidewalk, I feel personally betrayed.
The truth of the matter is that change happens – seasons change, technology advances, people evolve… Cultivating radical acceptance is moving from a stance of victimhood (“This is happening to me. I am a powerless victim.”) to a stance of witness participant (“This is happening. How can I work with it?”).
Upon learning of my recent relocation to the Atlanta area, a colleague said to me, The only constant in life is… change. The older I get, the truer this rings. The illusion of permanence that comes with youth increasingly slips away. Though for some, it gets torn away quite violently, sometimes at a startlingly young age.
How could this be happening?
What’s probably most universal in people’s experiences of change is the presence of an array of different emotions
I am so excited / freaked out / thrilled / sad / relieved / nervous/ curious / terrified.
We often feel pressure to pin it down to one feeling. One of the golden nuggets we learn in therapy, or anytime we get quiet and really listen, is that being human can mean having a variety of seemingly contradictory feelings about the same situation. It is when we try to reduce our experience to one feeling or meaning, to solidify it into one story, that we create added suffering and confusion for ourselves.
Amidst all the swirling emotions and thoughts that we may have about a given change, how can we skillfully work with this inevitable aspect of life? An allegory that I have heard in my study of Buddhism comes to mind. I like to refer to this as the teaching on not too tight, not too loose.
As (I recall) the story goes, a determined meditation student comes to his teacher and urgently asks, “Master, I have been meditating for hours, days and months on end. Please, revered one, teach me the secret of how to become enlightened?
The guru replies quietly, “You are a musician. Tell me, how do you tune the instrument you play?”
Confused by this response, the student utters, “Why teacher, not too tight, not too loose.”
“And so must you approach your practice.”
So what does this have to do with change? How does meditation practice or a musical instrument relate to the sometimes mundane, sometimes radical changes we face in our daily lives? One way to think of meditation is a practice of watching the endless fluctuations of the mind. We practice holding our seat – staying present and friendly with ourselves, suspending judgment – regardless of the speed and content of our moving minds. We practice holding a posture, upright and strong, but also relaxed and open. We practice bringing our awareness back again and again to the object of meditation – perhaps the sensation of the breath moving through the body – with both persistence and gentleness.
Ideally, this practice extends beyond the formal meditation period to the moments our daily lives.
Change can make us feel seasick, disoriented, and spacey. It can make us want to get under a blanket (or behind a screen) and never come out. It can make us want to go to battle, plead our case, find someone to blame, hate ourselves or get revenge. Change can take the ground from under our feet and leave us with unsettling thoughts about the meaning of existence. So how we can we surrender to the inevitable forces of changes without completely losing our footing and falling into a state of collapse? How do we hold our seat just as we practice doing during meditation practice?
We begin by simply acknowledging our experience, directly, just as it is, without the usual tricks of minimizing or embellishing. When we simply notice what is happening, or has already happened, we have the possibility of moving toward acceptance and choice in how we respond. With mindfulness, we practice noticing in a friendly, non-judging way our very human emotional, mental and physical reactions. The use of mindfulness here means noticing and then practicing dropping the mental story that we so quickly tell ourselves about what’s happening. As best we can, we turn toward our felt experience. For even just a few moments, we can allow ourselves to be just as we find ourselves, without trying to fix or change, without analyzing, justifying, problem-solving or numbing out.
It is deeply human to experience fear, sadness, hope and anger when things change. We can take time to acknowledge these feelings, to find comfort and grounding so that we can give them space to move through us. This process, as messy and chaotic as it sometimes feels, eventually brings us back to our senses, back to new ground to stand on and new clarity from which to move forward.
We can move through times of change with both an attitude of surrender and as active participants/creators in our lives. We are neither passive victims nor the sole determiners of what happens next. Not too tight, not too loose.
Today is the second week anniversary of my relocation to Atlanta. Every moment, every day, I learn something new about this new life I’m creating. Sometimes it’s with trepidation, sometimes with curiosity and excitement, sometimes with the heavy heart of letting go of the familiar. I keep telling myself, there’s room for it all. There must be room for it all.
Chodron, Pema (1997). When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Boston, Mass: Shambhala Publishing, Inc.
Brach, Tara (2003). Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. New York, NY: Random House.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon (1994). Wherever You Go, There You Are. New York, NY: Hyyperion.