People often come to therapy because they would like something in their lives to change. It might be a relationship, a feeling of disconnection, a creative rut, a harmful habit or a general sense of imbalance. Whatever the driving force is, 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: the death of a loved one, a break up or affair, children growing up, a job change, retirement, aging, loss of health or ability…. Whatever the circumstance may be, on some level, change involves a shift in our felt experience of reality.
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. This was the neighborhood in which my brothers and I roamed freely. We ran through the yards and wandered through the woods behind the row of aluminum-siding duplexes where my family lived. I longed to stroll up the driveway on this winter afternoon and knock on the door. “This was my house. This is where we lived.”
Instead, I took pictures from the sidewalk. Peering behind the house to the backyard and beyond, I saw no trace of the woods – that forbidden and mysterious world in which I once ran and built forts.
How could this be? How could it all be gone?
On that wintery day, standing on the sidewalk, I felt somehow betrayed.
The truth of the matter is that change happens – seasons change, technology advances, people evolve… Cultivating what is sometimes referred to as “radical acceptance” is moving from a place of victimhood (This is happening to me. I am a powerless victim.) to a place of witness participant (Okay, this is happening. How do 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.
What’s probably most universal in people’s experiences of change is the presence of an array of different emotions
I am so excited or nervous or sad or relieved or curious or pissed off…
We often feel pressure to pin it down to one feeling. One of the surprising things we discover through personal therapy, or anytime we get quiet and really listen, is that we often have more than one feeling and sometimes even contradictory feelings about the same thing. It is when we try to reduce our experience to one feeling or meaning, to solidify it into one narrative, 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. This is sometimes referred to 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 asks, “Master, I have been meditating for hours, days and months on end. Please, revered teacher, teach me the secret of how to become enlightened.
The teacher replies quietly, “You are a musician. Tell me, how do you tune the instrument you play?”
Confused by this response, the student stammers, “Why teacher… not too tight… not too loose.”
And the teacher replies, “And so must you approach your mind. Not too tight. Not too loose.”
So what does this have to do with change? How does meditation practice or a musical instrument relate to the changes we face in our daily lives? One way to think of meditation is a practice of watching the ongoing 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 stable, 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.
Change can make us feel seasick, disoriented, and spacey. It can make us want to get under a blanket or behind a device and never come out. It can make us want to go to battle, plead our case, find someone to blame, berate 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 flow with the movement of change without completely losing our footing ? 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 it or embellishing it. 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 formulate 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 and 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.