Taming Transitions

Time is such a peculiar concept.  When you look at the universe, the stars, the planets, time doesn’t seem to matter a whole lot.  We measure all movements, distances and changes in terms of time, but it appears to be a human construct invented for the sole purpose of giving us a method for understanding and discussion.  Time matters to us as humans because of the finite span of our own lives.  We want to cram in as much as possible since, by cosmic standards, we really aren’t here for very long.  This makes us very conscious of time and, in fact, our lives seem to revolve around this theme.  We mark the passage of time with each sunrise and sunset.  Also with the seasons.  We watch things grow and know that time is passing with each change we witness.  Acknowledging the passage of time is a critical element in our understanding of changes in our world and our own bodies.

The recent movie “Arrival” is all about the weirdness of time.  In the film beings from another world land on earth.  A linguist is recruited to translate the sounds they make.  In many ways this film highlights the vagaries of chronology, but one thing that I found particularly interesting occurred during this linguist’s initial attempt to communicate with the strangers.  She wrote something on a tablet and was immediately rewarded with visual symbols presented by these creatures.  The symbols were basically circular inspiring the linguist to note that this “language” was not dependent on time as ours is.  Each symbol appeared to have no particular beginning, middle or end.  Later in the film there was evidence that there were some ways in which time mattered to these beings, but perhaps that was because as humans making this film, it is difficult for us to divorce ourselves from time and its implications.  After all the movie itself had to have a beginning, middle and end even if they were kind of intertwined.  Still it was interesting to think about the ways in which our methods of communication are time-dependent.

So here we are, marching along with the unavoidable passage of time which is really just a way of describing change and yet somehow, in so many ways, we remain completely resistant to change itself.  From the time we are born, or even conceived, our lives are marked by change. When we’re young we change really quickly.  Yet many of us can’t wait to get older.  We rail against the slowness of time and the changes it brings.  As the years (another human concept!) progress, many changes govern our lives and there never seems to be enough time.  Then as we get older, physical changes again loom large.  Now they seem to be happening too fast.  Time seems to pass more quickly.  In our middle years we are often more likely to note the changes in others around us while somehow clinging to our own status quo.  So it can be quite a jolt to suddenly realize that our own bodies are changing right along with those of our children, grandchildren and parents.

Inevitably we reach a point where we have to acknowledge that we, too, have changed.  A friend and I were discussing today how difficult that can be to accept.  Sometimes changes in our physical capabilities can also mean the loss of a familiar community.  Years ago I used to belong to a running club.  Club members would all run together regularly.  Of course, there were many different speeds among the group, but there was always someone I could run with.  As time passed it became more and more difficult for me to run with others.  I wanted to keep running, so I did. But I needed to run at my own pace.  It was hard for me to keep up with anyone else, but I also did not expect anyone to slow their stride to stay with me.  So my attachment to this group began to unravel like fabric when a single thread starts to go it’s own way. Eventually, that became OK as I got more comfortable being with myself and enjoying my own movement.  But for a while it represented a loss.  In fact, multiple losses – physical capacity and also community.

As I continue to age, more examples of these losses present themselves.  Fortunately, I have since learned that loss of ability doesn’t always have to mean loss of community.  Sometimes there are other ways to participate with a group even if you can’t do everything they do. Especially in movement classes.  One of the themes I’ve repeated throughout this blog is that there is no requirement in any movement class that everybody has to do everything exactly as anyone else does, including the instructor.  Most of us worry that we will look funny or somehow be singled out if we don’t follow along precisely as prescribed.  In general, this could not be farther from the truth.  For one thing, most participants in a class are too focused on themselves to worry about or even notice what anyone else is doing.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, classes should be a judgment-free zone.  If the one you’re attending isn’t, then find another one.  There are so many out there.  Don’t let one bad experience keep you from finding a place where you can be yourself.  Just show up and move to whatever internal drummer motivates.  Ultimately you’ll find a place where you can feel comfortable.  Online classes are great in a pinch, but community is still an important benefit of classes.

However, sometimes we have to move on.  Accept the reality of the moment and find new paths to travel and new communities to join. When I could no longer run, I found other activities like hiking and walking that I could do alone or with a group – my choice.  When certain yoga poses become too difficult, there’s no rule that says I need to keep doing them.  There are so many others available to me.   Many aspects of my life will and have changed, but what I’ve achieved in the past will always be part of me.  No amount of change or passage of time can erase those accomplishments.  And the person I am today is the sum of all of the many experiences I’ve had during the time that has passed since the day I was born. Learning to be satisfied with who I am today is just another part of my practice.  Each day requires a new reminder of that since every day brings new changes.  Change can signal fear or excitement for experiencing something new.  It’s all a matter of how you perceive it.  And that is a choice each of us can make for ourselves.

 

The Way Forward

In last week’s blog post I talked about acknowledging changes in our lives and finding the resilience necessary to accept the changes and adapt to the new reality whatever it might be.  Acceptance is the first step toward moving forward.  But what comes after that?  Depending on the type of setback, it’s length, your age and a host of other variables, the next steps will be different for each of us.

For some of us, the idea of returning to any kind of routine might seem impossible.  The change feels so great we may feel like the darkness is permanent and unyielding.  We can easily sabotage ourselves and become our own worst enemies.  For example, if you’ve fallen and suffered an injury you might develop a debilitating fear of a recurrence.  This might keep you from making even simple moves toward regaining your strength.  We’ve all heard the expression “get back on the horse that threw you”.  This can be a totally daunting prospect.  And, in fact, might not be appropriate in all cases.  Still, inertia can become a wall and finding a way through or around that wall can be overwhelming.  In previous blog posts I’ve often talked about the difficulty of resuming activity, especially exercise, after being away for a while for whatever reason.  Of course, it is important to take steps to avoid the circumstances caused the fall, but that shouldn’t become an excuse to stop you from all activities.

On the flip side of that coin, there are those of us who throw caution to the wind and get back on that horse way before we should.  Perhaps we have not fully recovered from the injury, illness or whatever precipitated a change in our lives.  Some of us might even have the hubris to believe that our case is special and the usual rules don’t apply.  This type of thinking might lead one into that “danger zone” referred to in an earlier post when your energy begins to feel restored and you start to feel like your former self again.  This is a place I know all too well.  The desire to return to the way things were overshadows the reality of the way things are.  Returning too quickly can lead to discouraging setbacks.  At best, the process of recovery will take that much longer or, at worst, may be jeopardized altogether.

Actually both cases call for the same prescription – courage, patience and above all the decision to go on with your life taking whatever baby steps are necessary to follow through on that choice.  Interestingly, in my opinion the same leap of faith is required wherever you’re at.  If you are the fearful type described above, the decision means taking that first dangerous step back into your life no matter how scary that might be.  If you want to start moving again, the first step is the hardest.

After my back surgery a physical therapist gave me some exercises to do right away.  They were pretty simple movements, but they were difficult at first.  Among them was the suggestion to walk for 5 minutes several times a day.  For a person who used to run ultramarathons that might sound easy, but just getting up and overcoming the initial stress of moving was itself a formidable task.  My doctor had given me the simple instruction, “If it hurts, stop; if you think it’s going to hurt, don’t do it.”  Sounds reasonable enough, right?  For the fearful person, that initial hurt might be enough to encourage stopping altogether.  In fact, I even found myself thinking I would never overcome that initial discomfort.  But what I discovered was that if I just got started, I would eventually start to feel better.  If I began to feel pain I stopped for a few minutes.  The pain would usually stop and I could resume the walk.  Or I could simply try again later.  I would set a timer for 5 minutes, stop it when I needed to wait for pain to subside and start it again when I started walking again.  It might take me half an hour to do 5 minutes worth of walking but I quickly learned that the more I walked, the easier it got.  I noticed too that once I got going and my body adjusted to the movement, the initial soreness would usually subside.

Our bodies are made for movement.  Fortunately, the medical profession has recognized that movement following a trauma like surgery is actually beneficial.  Anyone who has had surgery recently knows that patients are required to get up and move as soon as possible.  Although rest and sleep are important to the healing process, retraining your body to move as much as it can is also essential.  Still it’s not easy to overcome the many excuses that loom in front of the starting line.  That’s where the decision-making process comes in.  Making that decision to try to move even for a few minutes takes courage.  Beyond that is the resolve to follow through even if it the first few efforts are unsuccessful.  I knew the physical therapist would not have told me to walk if it wasn’t the right thing to do.  But I also knew I had to abide by my doc’s advice and stop if it hurt.  Even that was hard for me having been a person schooled in the old notion of “no pain, no gain.”  So both starting and stopping required decisions.  I had to consciously remind myself that extremes in either direction would not help my recovery.  That meant believing that I would, in fact, recover and that the directions given provided the road map to get there.

Bottom line – moving forward is not rocket science.  Have patience and be kind to yourself.  Do what is recommended and stick to it until you’ve healed.  After that be mindful in all your activities and avoid being careless, head strong or just plain stupid.  If it hurts, stop; if you think it’s going to hurt don’t do it.  That’s not an invitation to do nothing.  It just means pay attention.  Simple, right?  But not easy.

Making the decision and taking that first step is the hardest part.  Especially if you’re not used to moving in the first place.  If you keep at it, no matter what you are doing will get easier.  Although we often think of stress as a negative, your body needs a certain amount of stress to adapt to a change.  The trick is to know when to back off.  As acknowledged in last week’s post, life may be different after a set-back.  Those differences need to be honored.  But that shouldn’t be a license to drop out.  No matter what has changed, there will still be things you can do.  Give those positives a chance to shine and they will lead you forward.