Embracing Change

We are all temporary residents of Planet Earth and none of us knows when our visa will expire.  Despite the fact that this is the one certain fact of our existence, we spend our lives either resisting or, mostly, ignoring it. Hoping it will just go away.  Or maybe somehow we will miraculously be exempt.  Of course, no one wants to dwell on the fact of his/her own demise even though it is inevitable.  Our society has an uncomfortable relationship with this concept.  Some of us have beliefs about what happens after death that subdue negative thinking on the subject.  But mostly what we think of when we reflect on the impermanence of life is it’s loss.  And it’s not just people but every living thing on the planet that will undergo the transformation from life to not-life, whatever that entails.  Those left behind lose someone or something, creating a void where that living being once was.  Those about to move into the transition will lose everything that is familiar, the perceptions that a lifetime of consciousness has provided.  They think of all the events they will miss.  So it’s not really death that we worry about.  Of course, we may fear the potential pain that might accompany death.  But what we really fear is loss.  And change.

No one likes change.  Yet change is as inevitable as death.  Everything is changing all the time, and despite our best efforts, there is nothing we can do to stop it.  Even when we think we’ve managed to head off certain changes, other changes will still occur that may not have been anticipated.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t work to make changes that could improve our lives.  But outcomes will most likely be different from what we expected when we began this work. Unexpected things happen all the time.  This is why many thinkers on these subjects recommend focussing on the process, rather than the outcome.  There’s an old Yiddish saying, “Man plans and God laughs”.  Life is unpredictable.  Pay attention to the journey, but let the chips fall where they may.

Loss comes in many forms, not just the ultimate.  Often we fail to acknowledge the significance of other losses in our lives.  Sometimes we know they are coming, other times we don’t.  Either way, we don’t always have a choice in how things work out.  We lose jobs, homes, money, youth, independence, etc., etc.  Even when we think we’ve chosen well, there are many factors beyond our control.  Sometimes things work out the way we want, sometimes they don’t.   It’s so easy to judge the actions of others.  Or to beat up on ourselves when we think we’ve made some huge blunder.  Hindsight is 20-20.  But most of us do the best we can with what we have to work with at the time.  And time only moves in one direction.  There is no going back.  What exists right now is what we have to work with.  We can’t change other people.  Circumstances beyond our control create situations that can’t be changed.  Sometimes we can change parts and pieces or maybe work toward a change.  But for the most part the only thing we can change is our attitude and perception.

In an article in Yoga Journal author Sally Kempton talks about navigating through change.  She cites “the Buddhist Doctrine of Impermanence, annica, [which] tells us that change is inevitable, continuous, and unavoidable.”  There is also a way of viewing this as the constantly shifting nature of energy:

“the intrinsic, dynamic power at the heart of life. . . . Every moment, every enterprise, every cell, is part of this flow of creation, sustenance, and dissolution. This flow is happening on a macrocosmic level—as the flow of seasons, tides, and cultures—and on a microcosmic level, through the various shifts in your physical states, the ups and downs of your life, and the flow of thoughts and emotions in your mind.”

When seen this way, even the most determined control freak must acknowledge that these changes are happening right before our eyes in every moment of every day.  Like it or not.

Perhaps instead of thinking of “endings” and “beginnings”, we can think of change as heralding transformation.  Part of our fear of loss is fear of the unknown.  What will be on the other side of this loss?  We know what life was like before the change.  How will we deal with what comes next? Even if the current state of affairs is not optimal, at least it’s familiar – the “devil you know “.  In the article cited above, Ms. Kempton also talks about ritual.  She writes, “In traditional societies, every phase of life was regarded as an initiation into a new way of being and was marked with a ceremony. . . Nowadays, we don’t always do a ceremony, but we still undergo initiations.”  All life changes require us to “step outside your habits, test your skills, and, for a time, inhabit the unknown. . . Each of these changes will subtly or even dramatically redefine you. You won’t be quite the same person after you step out of the old situation and into the new.”  Furthermore, “the change itself . . is the doorway into the next stage of growth—one that propels you into a deeper relationship with yourself and the world.”

The article goes on to provide some ideas for moving through change gracefully.  These, of course, require practice. Practice implies that success is not guaranteed, but there will always be another opportunity to try.  There are many articles and numerous suggestions from all kinds of authors on what to include in such a practice.  Everyone needs to find what works for them.  Still when change is sudden and catastrophic, it can be difficult to remember how to practice, let alone recognize that you are embarking on a new way of life.  Mourning is also a ritual.  Recognizing loss and the need to mourn is just as important as accepting change.  But all suggestions seem to boil down to the same concept:  leave the past behind, let the future take care of itself and simply be here now.  In this moment.  Hear your breath.  Count your blessings.  If you’re still a resident on the planet with an unexpired visa there will always be something to be grateful for.  Loss hurts.  It’s OK to hurt.  It’s part of being human.  Allow it.  Be kind to yourself.

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More Reasons for Self-Compassion

Does kindness matter?  This simple question is central to a recent article in Diabetes Spectrum highlighting research revealing the health benefits of self-compassion.  According to the article “Self-compassion is defined as the practice of treating oneself with kindness, care, and concern in the face of negative events.”  The article goes on to state that “self-criticism, a common consequence of self-care failure . . . can be seen as the opposite of self-compassion”.  Although this article focuses on the effects of self-compassion and its absence on diabetes patients in particular, it is clear that these health concerns can be more broadly generalized.  The article cites “A series of experimental studies suggest[ing] that quantifiable physiological and neurological processes underlie the experience of self-compassion.”  Furthermore, “consistent evidence suggests that self-compassion is related to physical and psychological health”.  As an example, “in a study [see citation below]* in patients with obesity and pain problems, self-compassion predicted lower negative affect, higher positive affect, more adaptive pain coping, higher pain self-efficacy, and lower pain catastrophizing.”

Not surprisingly, the opposite has also been shown to be true.  For example, ” the opposites of self-compassion, including self criticism, self-hate, self-judgment, and negative perfectionism, have been linked to greater psychological distress, including depression.”  The article is full of additional confirmations, citations and examples of the positive health effects, both physical and psychological, of self-compassion and the related negative consequences of its deficiency.

An article in the Washington Post that refers to this research also cites a book by Kristin Neff titled “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself”.  In it, the author speaks of the three elements of self-compassion:

  • Self-kindness – the ability to be understanding with yourself rather than judgmental or harshly critical;
  • Common humanity – the recognition that none of us is perfect and all of us make mistakes, thus viewing ourselves as part of the human experience;
  • Mindfulness – the ability to pay attention to the present moment, neither dwelling on the past nor excessively worrying about the future.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may recognize these themes.  In fact, a very recent post discusses the benefits of self-care which are obviously closely related to self-compassion.  The articles referred to here also talk about the ways in which we sabotage ourselves.  For example, some of us may believe that being kind to ourselves needs to be secondary to taking care of others.  Think about that:  how can you give others something you are unwilling to give to yourself?  Furthermore, the consequences of denying ourselves the compassion that we wish to share with others can be pretty dire.   From the Washington Post article: “The opposite of self-compassion is emotional reactivity, isolation, self-judgment and unhealthy perfectionism, all of which have been linked to depression, stress and reduced quality of life.”

These ideas are echoed in an article in Health Psychology Open.  It states that “Substantial evidence supports the idea that self-compassion
can reduce perceived stress”.   Research findings show that  “people who have higher levels of self-compassion tend to handle stress better — they have less of a physical stress response when they are stuck in traffic, have an argument with their spouse or don’t get that job offer — and they spend less time reactivating stressful events by dwelling on them.”  Since chronic stress has direct effects on all aspects of our health, this is no small thing.  Additional research is also cited in this article indicating that people with higher levels of self-compassion are more likely to start and adhere to healthy behaviors which further enhances the benefits.  In other words, self-compassion promotes better health which contributes to better feelings about oneself which enables more self-compassion.  Conversely, negative self-care leads to poorer health which takes one’s self-image in a downhill spiral in the opposite direction.

So next time you’re tempted to run yourself down for any reason, it might be worth remembering that berating yourself may be more than just a temporary mood darkener.  It just might have more serious negative health ramifications that could be avoided with a little kindness.  Isn’t that simple step worth the effort?  Try noticing those negative thoughts.  Maybe you can remind yourself that “to err is human, to forgive, divine”.  Our world would be a safer and healthier place if we all practiced a little more kindness.  You can start that practice with yourself.  If you want to treat other people well and you want other people to treat you well, you can set an example by treating yourself well, too.  Your health care practitioners will applaud!

 

* Wren A, Somers T, Wright M, Goetz M, Leary M, Fras A. Self-compassion in patients with persistent musculoskeletal pain: relationship of self-compassion to adjustment to persistent pain. J Pain Symptom Manage 2012;43:759–770