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Change or Transformation?

Change comes, welcome or unbidden. Change comes, slow or fast. Ready or not, here comes change.

The facts of change can seem obvious. All of us are aging, no matter how old we are. We’re subject to technological advancements that dictate the ever-shifting minutia of shared life. And we’ve all watched a pandemic rip apart and reknit global patterns of exchange.

Behind the change, we might seek a constant. Yet ultimately, we are all vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the unknown.

Humans are adaptable. We’ve developed many clever ways to deal with what confounds us. Storytelling is one of the human species’ most ancient survival strategies. As protagonists of our own life’s story, we learn that character development happens most vividly when we’re challenged by the unexpected. Change is confusing and uncomfortable when it conflicts with the narrative we’ve created for our lives. As narrators of our life story, anything that resists our chosen storyline tends to get the cut. The ability to act as protagonist and narrator gives us a sense of coherence as we move through life, helping us gain identity and function in relationship with others.

The hard part: We may know change is inevitable, but we can rarely predict how it will show up or what impact it will have on us. It seems natural to protect ourselves from uncertainty by clinging to what feels familiar, or even fighting the changes underway within and around us. This makes sense, insofar as the experience of change can overwhelm our sense of control.

Caught in the cross-wakes of change, reaction based on habit can be a likely outcome. Habits of thought and action emerge because they seem to serve us on some level, and most of our habits have likely benefited us at some point in our lives. But what if the patterns we cling to as “familiar” don’t have to continually define us? What if the unknown actually holds the hope, joy, or fulfillment that we long to experience?

This is a challenging proposition. I can attest that my own mind excels at trying to predict the unpredictable, by projecting my present assumptions into a future that is neither blank nor preprogrammed. I recognize my own patterns of trying to avoid things like failure and rejection, thereby short-circuiting real opportunities to experience things like fulfillment and belonging.

Consider this: If change is inevitable and even desirable, why do I (or you) spend so much energy fighting it?

Fear is the most basic, instinctive reason I can identify for fighting change. Maybe you have a different reason. My reasons for fearing the unknown are personal, as are yours. When change comes, it can feel like our very way of being is under attack. The conflict that occurs alongside change can highlight our internal inconsistencies and undermine what we’ve come to believe about ourselves and the nature of our reality.

It’s helpful to remember that our bodies are the living poetry of change. We incrementally replenish ourselves, shedding and regenerating cells over the course of a lifetime. Many of our physiological changes are so gradual that we barely notice them happening. This is the subtle and subterranean version of change, which rejuvenates us and allows us to persist as embodied beings. Our human bodies show us that change is maturation and evolution. Let this be a reminder that a basic function of change is to support us, and enable us to grow into the fullest expression of ourselves.

As embodied beings, we understand the cyclical aspect of change. Our own physical forms follow the pattern of birth, growth, death, and decay. The seasonality of change can help us anticipate, plan, prepare. Seasonal change can have a comforting rhythm, but still contains an element of the unknown. For instance, we can know winter is coming. This might mean chopping wood or patching a heavy coat. Foreknowledge doesn’t make the reality of winter less challenging. Knowing that winter will at turns besiege and delight us means that it’s our responsibility to adapt to circumstances as best we can. This is the nature of seasonal change.

It’s also true that change appears abruptly, even violently. This version of change may cause a severe dislocation between past and present, and the future may suddenly feel like a forlorn and foreboding place. In such times, change swallows us like a mythical whale. We are utterly consumed, momentarily lost to ourselves and the people we love. Our own personhood may no longer be a safe and familiar place in such moments of upheaval.

The process of change therefore invokes the vital practice of trust. If fear of the unknown and loss of self are more commonly challenging aspects of change, what can I trust to keep me steady as I face the unknown? Who is the “I” experiencing the change? What founds this “I” – the protagonist of my own life story?

The question sounds overwhelming. Ancient human wisdom says we can turn to something simple (and miraculous) as breath to search for clues about the “I” who must experience change and who is capable of choosing transformation.

Vedic tradition points to breath control, or pranayama, as a primary way to begin exploring how the layers of self are intertwined. In the throes of change, it’s easy to confuse our actual selves with fear or any other emotion that arises strongly in the course of our experience.

Learning how to physically hold emotions like fear or confusion in our bodies, without becoming utterly consumed by the experience, is one way to realize the “I” capable of welcoming change as a natural part of life, regardless of when or how it shows up.

It’s possible for us to breathe our entire lives without becoming conscious of a single breath. But when we choose to breathe consciously, we take time and create space to pay attention to what we’re doing. What difference does this make? You can find out for yourself.

Try this: Imagine the “I” as your hand. Inhale slowly, while your hand becomes a fist. Exhale even more slowly, as you open your palm to the sky. Take time to acquaint yourself with this motion. Consciously pair each inhale with closing your fist, and each exhale with releasing your hand into an open position. Eventually, see if you can imagine that your hand is a flower, opening to sunlight, and closing as night comes. Notice if you can feel the natural rhythm and pulse of being alive and responsive to your environment.

As we meet the demands of daily life, the process of respiration likely remains unconscious. When we take time and create space to pay attention, we can realize that we’re taking in a piece of the world (oxygen), being actively nourished, then releasing what we don’t need (carbon dioxide), which would harm us if we refused to let it go.

Consider this: emotions like fear and experiences like change are the same as our breath, passing through us in a nourishing way, so long as we remain willing to let go. Our ability to release the closed fist, means that the “I” is capable of becoming fully available to an experience without being overwhelmed by its details. Learning to stay with the breath can help you witness how your sensations, thoughts, and emotions are separate from the “I” who experiences all of these aspects of life with such vigor.

Returning to the notion of Sacred Witness, the ability to choose transformation means that we can become compassionate observers of our experiences, soften to whatever lesson is available for us to learn as the result of change, and welcome a shift in our perspective that will ideally bring more peace and clarity into our lives.

Just as with the process of respiration, there are elements of receiving and giving involved in the process of transformation. The ancient practice of pranayama (breath control) emphasizes that only with a complete exhale can I take a fully renewing inhale. Only by letting go of what’s familiar can I welcome the gift of transformation, realizing that there’s an aspect of my own personhood vast and complete enough to withstand any change that comes my way. Some spiritual traditions call this aspect of self the “Soul” or “Higher Self.” I encourage you to play with language that feels true to your experience as you endeavor to allow transformation to happen when it can, rather than fighting change when it comes.

I reiterate here that sometimes change enters our lives as the result of traumatic experiences. My own belief is that while our truest selves remain intact in any situation, some experiences will naturally overwhelm us. This does not mean we have in any way failed in our process of spiritual growth. How we choose to face the fallout of traumatic experiences is where we can continue to practice our capacity to release whatever binds us and actively seek healing. Engaging something as basic as our breath, we begin to cultivate an internal steadiness and spaciousness that can help us face the unknown and grow beyond old wounds.

You are the best judge of when and how the breath practice described in this post can potentially benefit you. Any spiritual philosophy must speak to our real experiences of pain and suffering, and teach us something about our capacity to heal and grow. This post touches on the concept of Aparigraha (non-possessiveness) espoused by Vedic philosophy, and upon my study of Christian contemplative and Zen Buddhist practices. Each of these traditions teaches us the power of meditation to serve as a tool for cultivating connection with self and the source of life. My hope is that this meditation on the nature of change and transformation can serve the aim of healing and honor our innate wholeness.

Consciously welcoming change is a transformative act. Therein lies our opportunity to let life flow unimpeded through our bodies, and to align ourselves with whatever set of intentions or values we choose to guide our actions. I believe the “I” who chooses transformation learns to move through the world rooted in a stance of trust and expansiveness.

In sum: We know that change is a complex phenomenon. Change is loss and growth. Change is frightening and exciting. Change is inevitable and necessary. Choosing transformation means that we come to trust and accept the fact that life’s continual changes can help us mature into the fullest expression of ourselves and our gifts.

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