Given the inevitability of change, what kind of attitude towards it is most helpful to us?
Most of us have very mixed feelings about change. We both want it, sometimes desperately, and resist it, even the change we supposedly want. Change is a given. There is nothing static about life and even those aspects of our lives that appear to remain the same and which, in the appearance of consistency, either frustrate or reassure us, are ever-changing. So, given the inevitability of change, what kind of attitude towards it is most helpful to us?
Typically, we take one of two approaches to change: we try to force it or we resist it. Neither approach ultimately serves us well. Life is like a river, ever flowing, ever changing, effortlessly adapting to the forms and conditions around it. But when it comes to our personal lives, we are often afraid to relax into the flow. We don’t feel safe with this level of surrender. The mind becomes anxious because it wants to know things will be okay. So from this level of mind, we start to exert effort hoping to get rid of things we perceive as obstacles to our happiness and to bring in things we perceive will contribute to our happiness. In both cases, we have a tendency to act from a motive of resistance. “This thing, this part of my life, should not be this way. Because of it, I am unhappy.” Or, “The absence of this thing that I want is causing me unhappiness. I must go get it so that I can be happy.” Either way, the point of origin is often a lack of acceptance for the way things are and a perception that a little effort might create a more acceptable situation.
Imagine that you are a boater on a river. The river is moving quickly and you’re not sure where it’s going, so you begin to paddle backwards or sideways, or you try to bring the boat to a stop so you can get your bearings. Your efforts will give you something to do, but you will not stop the current or succeed in going anywhere other than the river’s natural direction. You will be frustrated and/or exhausted. If the river is moving more slowly than you’d like, you can try to paddle faster, but you may exhaust yourself and you will likely discover that you exerted a lot of energy getting somewhere you would have arrived at anyway and with greater ease if you had trusted the river.
The secret to effective change is a combination of awareness and acceptance. The awareness comes when we cultivate ways to step out of our habitual ways of looking at things. Awareness is perception that is detached. To be aware of something necessarily means that we are not that which we are aware of. There is the observer, the observing and the observed. Much of the time, we confuse our identity with what we are experiencing. We forget about ourselves as observer and become the observed. For example, if I am experiencing depression, I may be inclined to say ‘I am depressed’. However, there’s a danger in using such vocabulary because using the phrase ‘I am’ equates me with the depression. Naturally, I don’t want to be depression and so I may set about trying to get rid of it in order to feel better about myself. I begin to resist what is and, in that resistance, I actually strengthen what I am resisting. It’s counter-productive. The more we fight something we don’t like, such as depression, the more we experience it.
In Gaelic, prepositions are used to express relationships to feelings. There is not even a way, linguistically, to identify oneself with a feeling. So to express a feeling of depression, one might say, ‘depression is upon me’ rather than ‘I am depressed’. There is a very subtle and beautiful difference here. To say, ‘depression is upon me’ is like saying ‘rain is falling on me’. I know I am not the rain, but I am also fully aware that, in the present time, I am experiencing the qualities of the rain. There is a permanency that comes in when using language such as ‘I am depressed.’ The mind becomes anxious because it thinks this state is never going to end. Out of this anxiety comes action motivated by the desire to be or feel something different. On the other hand, saying, ‘I’m experiencing depression’ or ‘depression is upon me’ is grounded in an awareness that the one experiencing is different from the feeling being experienced. When we know that we are the one experiencing, the one who is aware, rather than the situation or feeling itself, there is no need or inclination to oppose. The threat vanishes and we are free to accept what is there before us, knowing that all experiences and situations pass.
So when you are wanting something in life to be different, it is important to consider whether or not you are in a place of acceptance with what is. Acceptance does not mean that you would not prefer to be in a different situation, but that you are willing to say ‘Yes’ to what is present. If desire for change is rooted in resistance, you can be sure that whatever you are resisting will either persist or recreate itself in another situation.
When there is awareness of and acceptance for what is, anything that is no longer serving you will naturally shift on its own. This does not mean that you will not have an active part in that shift. It does mean that you will feel a natural urge to do whatever is required of you and that your actions will come from clarity rather than from anxiety. You will not have to force yourself to do anything. If you sense a need to force action, stop and ask yourself what energy is motivating you. If you cannot act from acceptance, inspiration or enthusiasm, you are probably resisting something. Question that. Notice it. Be aware that the fact of your noticing means you are not it and you can then be curious. What is it in your life right now that you would rather not accept? Where are you saying ‘No’? That is your door to freedom.
Awareness and acceptance create space and allow for the energy of curiosity to move in. When we are in a state of resistance, the impulse is of course to get away from what we are resisting. It is too frightening to move closer to it or lean into it because we are afraid it will consume us or perpetuate our unhappiness. When we are aware of ourselves as the observer and are not identified with what we experience, we can become interested in it. We say, “Okay, there you are. What are you? What do you have to teach me?” We lean into it, knowing it is not us, and, with the light of awareness and gentle acceptance, the darkness dissolves. This is alchemy. In the simple act of observing and accepting, we transform those parts of our lives that seemed distasteful or unacceptable into our greatest assets.
There is a door to freedom in every moment. Ironically, that door is often signaled by our discomfort. Our lives are like the river in that our natural impulse is to flow in beautiful harmony with the elements around us. We do not need to exert effort to make our lives do what they have a natural impulse to do. What we can do is remove, by awareness, acceptance and curiosity, everything that impedes the flow – everything that is not truly ourselves. Many times, obstacles to our natural flow will dissolve simply by our awareness and acceptance, but some particularly ingrained patterns or beliefs may require gentle exploration before they can be released. In this case, we move forward by being willing to know the truth and to utilize the resources we have to explore the nature of those places where the flow seems impeded.
In some modern spiritual and personal growth circles, the suggestion to lean into and explore the things we don’t like might be perceived as being counter to the idea that we should focus on what’s working. However, giving attention to the places where there is discomfort, fear or resistance is only a problem when we come with an attitude of judgment towards the situation or ourselves: “There’s something wrong here. This is not good. I am not good. Things should be different than they are.” On the other hand, when we observe with a willingness to accept that the present moment is perfect as it is, we find the hidden gem and realize more fully, in the process, who we really are. Perceived problems become wonderful opportunities to become more aligned with our truth.
Stillness – whether accessed through meditation, time in nature, a physical activity that relaxes the mind, or time spent with a trusted person who can help us connect more deeply with our own inner wisdom – is the ground of awareness and the source of all inspired living. It is also what is most threatening to the ego. Ego, or the level of mind, feels best when it’s busy. In busyness, it gains a sense of control. However, we are so much deeper than our minds can ever know, than thoughts can ever express or serve. If we want true happiness, we must drop below the level of the mind and all its ideas and judgments into stillness. Initially, if the mind has been driving the show most of the time, surrendering to stillness can be a difficult thing to do. Many of us would rather effort all over the place, doing all manner of comparatively unimportant things, than become inwardly still and allow our souls the opportunity to show us a different perspective and move us into an effortless flow.
But once you venture into stillness and experience first hand the deep peace and quiet joy of that place, or realize the connection between stillness and greater ease in your life, you will begin to make time for it and to cherish it. That stillness is who we are and as the mind loosens its grip, we start to recognize this and to instinctively yearn for this connection to our true selves. We begin to trust the river more and as we do, we experience both greater ease and greater happiness. Paradoxically, as we relax into the flow and say, ‘Yes’ to what is, whether we like it or not, our attachment to needing things to be different than they are lessens and we find that the joy of life is much more in the journey… in the awakening to who we are… than in even the best of circumstances.
Copyright, Katrina Mikiah, 2007