It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said that we can’t step into the same river twice. Constantly in flux, the river is never the same from one second to the next, and neither are we. Our skin and hair renew themselves, our breath flows in and out, we age imperceptibly moment by moment. Our inner selves change too, as we learn, reflect, face challenges, ask questions and experience life in all its drama and everyday wonder. In life, as any parent of a young child knows, change is the only constant.
Illusions of constancy and control
The funny thing about change, given that it is such an essential and unavoidable part of the human experience, is that most of us are absolutely terrified of it. We cling to the illusion of constancy and strenuously resist any hint that it might be just that – an illusion.
We cling to the illusion of control, though all it takes is one unexpected phone call, one doctor’s diagnosis, or one misstep in traffic, to show us that our control is very arbitrary indeed. As we have all seen over the past few weeks, change can strike at any time, and there’s very little we can do about it.
Fear of change
The problem with our fear of change is that fear throws us out of our conscious thinking selves into our instinctive responses. We can see these in ourselves as we look at our responses to the spread of Covid-19. Some of us went into denial, insisting that it was only a flu. Others went into panic-buying mode, stockpiling toilet paper and tinned food beyond all reasonable measure, while others went into emotional paralysis, freezing like a rabbit caught in the headlights, waiting helplessly for something terrible to happen.
For many of us, this lockdown is the biggest societal upheaval we have ever lived through. Our fears may relate to potential loss of income, health, life and loved ones, as well as the unknown – what will our world look like on the other side of this?
Our challenge is to fully embrace the things we hold dear, while recognising that they and we are vulnerable to forces greater than ourselves.
Time to reflect
For many of us, these days of solitude and enforced quietude provide an opportunity to reflect on our lives. Before the boundaries of our external lives so dramatically narrowed, were we living to the full extent of our freedom? Our had we trapped ourselves in lives half lived, of passion damped down and bold steps never taken?
Sometimes we are afraid to fully commit to what we have in case we lose it. Sometimes we are afraid to commit to what we have in case we get stuck with it, and sometimes we are afraid to let go of what no longer fits us in case we are left with nothing.
What we forget or fail to see is that committing fully need not mean committing forever. However, committing fully to ourselves and the growth of our own hearts will provide us with a guide to the next right step, which is sometimes as far ahead as we can see.
We see a beautiful example of change in our seasonal cycle – each season flows into the next, constantly moving, constantly flowing, always changing. Our appreciation or lack of it does not affect the weather, but only our own moods. And we can never stop its inevitable flow.
In our lives, we often try to stop the cycle of change when we’ve got to a point that feels like summer. We have to be dragged kicking and screaming into autumn, and winter is unthinkable. Yet all seasons are necessary for the totality of the experience, and winter is essential preparation for a new spring.
Sometimes change requires that a part of us die in order to let a new self emerge. If we don’t die as a child, we’ll never become an adult. If we don’t die to being single, we’ll never be able to embrace partnership. And if we are not willing to change, we never will, and there are few thoughts more frightening.
At the moment, our society is undergoing a figurative death – quite apart from the literal death toll, life is changing in ways that may never return to our so-called normal. And maybe, the new world that emerges will be better than that which came before.
We resist change because we are afraid to let go of what we have. We have emotional attachments to those things that are familiar to us, whether they are beneficial or not. What would it mean to give up those attachments? To enjoy those things we have, while accepting that they might not ours to keep?
There is a Buddhist story of a teacher who gave his student a beautiful cup. “See it as if it were already broken”, he said, “eventually, everything is broken”. Nothing lasts forever, and realising this enables us to enjoy our treasures fully each moment we have them, without denying their transience.
Lessons from death
People who have come close to death often report that afterwards, they begin to experience life more intensely. They love more, laugh more, appreciate more, and devote themselves to the things that are really important to them. They become greedy for life because they know that sooner or later, it will pass. How many of us now are gaining a new perspective on the wonder of things we may never have appreciated, like family gatherings, coffee with friends, theatre or cinema outings, a wander around town, a trip abroad?
What if, when we die, we must account for all the blessings and pleasures of life that we failed to enjoy? Many of us would regret the time spent worrying and all the changes we resisted for fear of what might happen.
Facing our fears
In a situation like the current one, it can be very difficult to face our fears. Sometimes it can help to say them out loud, either alone or with a trusted other. ‘I am afraid that X might happen’. Feel it, sit with it, and lean into it, even just for a few seconds. Feel the emotions and body sensations that come up. Don’t retreat into your thoughts. Then, when you need to, let those feelings go. Just bring that fear to consciousness, feel into it, and let it go. Do it often – think of it as training for the soul.
Sometimes when change has hit hard, there’s a temptation to grab onto whatever rock presents itself – even if it’s not the right one. I suggest instead floating with the uncertainty for a while, and waiting to see what comes up.
Learning to be with uncertainty, learning to be with emptiness, and silence, and pain, makes us strong. It enables us to choose how we respond to life, rather than reacting from a place of fear and pain.
Sitting with uncertainty is also a good way to get to know yourself. Let the things that are not essential to you pass away, and you will find that which is truly you. Don’t rush the process. Sit in the emptiness until something new begins to grow.
Trust the process
Mystics of every tradition know this: the only way to get beyond the individual self is to let go of certainty, assumptions and judgements. The mystic can let go of her prejudices, of her fears, of everything she has learned, because she trusts implicitly that she will be taken care of, and that the universe sees a bigger picture than she does. She feels the pain and fear of change on a human level, but on a deeper level she trusts, and eventually her trust carries her through.
This too will pass
The only thought remaining is that while we are at this moment in a time of unprecedented upheaval and change, this too will pass. The tides will turn again and life will calm itself and we will emerge different into a world that has itself changed.
Now is the time to dream those changes, to consider what of the old world we wish to keep, and what we need to let go of.
Now is the time to consider those parts of our existence – both individual and collective – that weren’t nurturing us, that weren’t bringing us to life.
Finally, now is the time to let thoughtful, soulful change incubate in us, to let life dream in us and through us and to let new possibilities for a better life and a better world emerge.
I am reminded of the beautiful prayer of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” May we dream, and trust as we dream, that all manner of thing shall eventually be well.
If you’d like to talk about change, about the current pandemic, or about anything else on your mind, contact me to set up an appointment. Currently, I can take appointments by phone or video. I look forward to hearing from you.