Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Change and Mindful Transitions

My friend Josh Summers writes a wonderful weekly email newsletter, Minute of Mindfulness, which gives helpful hints for establishing a meditation practice . . . or sometimes just ideas and inspiration for self-improvement. (You can sign up for it via this link http://www.joshsummers.net/meditation.php)

A recent post from Josh included this quote from Voltaire. “Doubt is uncomfortable, but certainty is absurd.”

These words are really resonating for me right now.

I’ll be turning 40 this fall. Many of my friends are in the same boat. Milestone birthdays tend to make us feel reflective. We look back on what has happened in our lives so far, and look ahead to what we’d like to happen next. (I think this is especially true at forty, which these days can be considered the mid-life). So birthdays are often times for re-evaluating and re-prioritizing – perhaps letting go of things we don’t need and setting goals for what we wish to accomplish in the future.

Here’s a simplified example. I want to double the monthly contribution I make to my retirement account. In theory, this is easy – I can just go online, log into my account, and change one digit. But in practice, it’s not so easy. I have to figure out where those extra funds are going to come from. I have to reconfigure my budget and see if there’s room to move things around. I have to find ways to save money, while at the same time, generate more work so I can increase my income. So this seemingly simple change actually affects all areas of my life.

• Home – Can I spend less on groceries? Entertainment?
• Work – Can I work more? Are there additional sources of income I can tap?
• Relationships/Family – Who will watch Abel while I work? Will I feel guilty being away from him more? How will my husband handle me being even busier?
• Friends – With more work comes less social time . . .
• Health – Can I handle the increased stress associated with these changes?

Transitions can rock us to the core. Even if the change is only in one part of our lives, it tends to affect all the others. And with transition comes questioning; doubt. We may lose our bearings. What was once comfortable makes us feel restless and uneasy. We may even question the essential nature of Who We Are. What do I want from life? What’s important to me? Why is this suddenly different from How It Was Before? Perhaps – because of this restlessness -- there is nothing in which we can find true peace or solace. If we’re lucky there is at least some consistency, some little “mooring” (perhaps it’s certain people, or an activity, or a place, or even a yoga class) where we will feel like ourselves.

And then there’s the questioning . . . and the inevitable waiting that comes as we sort everything out. . . and the “feeling stuck.” Perhaps we’ve identified what we want to change, but we aren’t able to implement the changes right away. Or we just don’t know how to proceed, and we need time to figure things out. Being “in the mire” – where we can see what we want to change, but still feel unable, in one way or another, to do it – can be difficult, frustrating, even painful. Yet we must wait. . . and accept that this waiting is part of the process. Dealing with The Unknown is one of life’s biggest challenges.

Certainty is absurd? Well, yes. Change is pretty much inevitable. Have you noticed that when you finally accept or get used to The Way Things Are, they tend to change? I find this especially evident in parenting. Have you ever lamented, “When I finally felt like everything was good, (x) happened, and changed everything?” It happens all the time. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s hard. You get a surprise job offer that turns your life upside down. Or you unexpectedly have to put your pet to sleep. Or there’s a tsunami.

Transitions are essential in life. Without them, we’d be bored; complacent. Sometimes they’re relatively simple – like my savings example above. And sometimes they’re not simple at all – struggling with a difficult and complicated relationship, or profound discontent in one’s career, or a health issue for which there is no immediate cure.

Sometimes we have to walk through fire . . . I have a friend who is earning her Masters Degree while working full time and parenting two young children. That’s not easy. But she keeps focusing on where she wants to be in a year or two, and that gets her through it. I have another friend who is struggling with a major health issue – with a relatively new diagnosis, she has to reconsider everything she does in life, and makes changes that will support her fragile health. Every day is a new challenge for her as she figures this out. Perhaps the essential nature of change can bring some consolation. “I won’t be in this difficult place forever. This too shall pass.”

How does all of this apply “on the mat?” Well, in some ways, transitions in yoga class are much easier. Because most of the time, we are in control.

When I teach, I put a lot of thought into how we move from one posture to another. These transitions are just as important as the postures themselves, because it this is the make-or-break time where we can maintain – or lose – our focus. If the postures and what’s between them flow in a comfortable, logical sequence, then the yoga feels meditative, relaxing, good. If the transitions are choppy, it disrupts our sense of peace.

So how do you work with transitions in your yoga practice? When we finish a balance pose, do you thud your foot to the floor, or do you let it down gradually? When we move our arms overhead and then down again, can you find a sense of symmetry and grace? Where does your mind go when you hear me tell you to release a posture – are you focused on your breath, or are you worrying about what might come next? In class, smooth transitions require mindfulness, strength, and coordination.

Come to think of it, we need these same qualities for the transitions we encounter “off the mat” – in our everyday lives as well.

So if change is inevitable, can you learn to embrace it? To flow with it? To ride it like a wave? This is not always easy, but indeed it can be done. Can you let go of the need to feel in control all the time? If nothing is certain, and everything changes, the notion of control is more or less an illusion anyway.

Lots to think about these days . . . lots and lots.

See you at yoga class!