For many of us, the way we meet change is a source of stress in our lives. We find ourselves anxious about beginnings, sad about endings, apprehensive about decisions, and even fretful when we achieve our dreams. We try to freeze-‐frame life: to find that point of arriving “at the top” – of our game or our career ladder or our relational life by finding the perfect partner. And then things shift – we get injured and find ourselves on the bench, we are laid off, or our partner becomes ill. And maybe we find ourselves fighting these new circumstances that “were not supposed to happen to me.” Life is not unfolding according to our script and we find ourselves resisting what is, yearning for what was, or fantasizing about what else could be. And to paraphrase Byron Katie, when you are at war with reality, you lose 100% of the time.
There is perhaps in us an inherent deep knowing that nothing stays the same. This recognition is part of what fuels the anxiety, sadness, apprehension and fretting. We want to lean on life, on our experiences, as if they were dependable and unchanging. But some part of us realizes that life is more like a waterfall than a solid wall. Life is a flow, a changing stream of conditions, some pleasant, some unpleasant, others neutral. We tend to prefer the pleasant and want enjoyable experiences to last forever. We want to push away that which we perceive to be unpleasant. And we tune out, or go numb, to that which is neutral. But the truth is, no matter who you are – the Dalai Lama, a famous actress, your neighbor or yourself – every human life contains a mix of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.
So how might we transform our relationship with change? The key to happiness is not achieving a continuous stream of pleasant events, but rather cultivating the capacity to be with pleasant, unpleasant and neutral and not hanging your well-‐ being on a particular flavoring of experience. Mindfulness – the practice of paying attention on purpose to the present moment without judgment – offers an invitation to connect with life just as it is unfolding, moment by changing moment. So how can this help us more skillfully navigate change? By inviting our attention into the present, we step into our experience as it is, not as we wish it would be. Part of the stress generated by leaning into the past and looking into the future is that we have no ability to take skillful action in these realms. The past is a ghost and the future is an imagining. We are only ever able to take action in the present. So, even when the present moment is difficult, it is the one place we are empowered to impact our experience. Even if we wish to transform how something plays out in the future, we can only plant the seeds of this possibility in the present.
Additionally, as we build our capacity to be present we can open more fully to the spectrum of life experiences. Often when we are trying to hold onto life’s pleasant experiences, we are so caught up in our fear of losing them that we don’t get the benefit of living them. Or we are so mired in resisting the unpleasant that we magnify our suffering so greatly that it overshadows moments of neutral or even pleasant nested within the unpleasant. Being with what is allows us to begin to deeply experience life’s juicy moments, letting them nourish and sustain us, and to recognize the truth that the difficult moments are also only passing through, destined to shift. We can learn to “kiss the joy as it flies” as William Blake says, and to trust that the tears will dry. Rather than trying to lean on the illusion of life as something solid, we can lean into our capacity “to know” the flow of life experience, thus meeting change with a sense of friendliness and curiosity.
A practice to try at home:
Often we tag experiences as “good/bad” or “positive/negative”. These labels bring in a flavoring of judgment or evaluation; they speak more to how we are meeting the moment – with welcoming/enthusiasm or aversion /rejection. On the other hand, the categories of “pleasant,” “unpleasant,” and “neutral” are more descriptive, speaking more to the moment itself. Utilizing these categories opens the window of possibility that we could meet the moment – even the unpleasant moment – differently.
To explore this, allow yourself to begin to notice pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral in daily life. You can acknowledge experiences with a silent label noting their flavoring as “pleasant,” “unpleasant,” or “neutral.” Use just a small portion of your awareness to focus on the label, keeping the majority of your attention on the actual experience that is unfolding. And try not to get caught up in getting the labeling “right”; rather only apply a label if the flavoring of the experience appears obvious. Notice how tracking in this way impacts how you relate with your experience. Let us know what you notice.
Jean Leonard, Ph.D, RYT is a licensed psychologist and registered yoga teacher with 19 years clinical experience. Dr. Leonard is the Coordinator of Health and Wellness Services in the Pursuits Coaching and Wellness Network. She is inspired by the resiliency of the human spirit and is honored to accompany clients on their healing journeys through individual therapy, yoga, and mindfulness coaching and classes. Areas of expertise include Mindfulness-‐based Stress Reduction (MBSR), brainspotting, work-‐life balance, burnout recovery, transitions, grief and loss, women’s issues, trauma, health challenges, yoga for cancer survivors.