Resourcing for Life Changes and Transitions
- March 1st, 2020
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In a post I published some time last year, I spoke about transitions. Quite a number of people wrote me to share how the subject hit a nerve—which got me thinking about what could best serve individuals when they’re caught in the painful grip of change.
Because let’s face it: When we’re going through a transition, the sense of disorientation and uncertainty can make us more vulnerable to feeling the squeeze of difficult emotions. We’re more prone to anxiety, fear, frustration and irritation—and more likely to take it all out on the people around us. And while centering and grounding practices like yoga, pilates and t’ai chi make a world of difference—we can’t exactly stop and do Adho Mukha Svanasana (the Downward Dog) in the middle of a traffic jam, or, zhàn zhuāng (standing meditation) halfway through a bad meeting.
For myself, in the moments when I’ve been most in need of rescue, it’s been my formal mindfulness meditation practice that’s made a profound difference. Newcomers to mindfulness meditation have asked me directly: How exactly does sitting on my bum trying to focus on my breath actually help me in real life?? How is it going to help me work more effectively or handle my relationships more gracefully? How do the dots connect??
The first part of my answer relates mostly to how meditation impacts the body. When we stop and take a few moments to breathe and to attend to our breath, our nervous systems begin to shift from the fight-or-flight response to the rest-and-digest state. That physiological shift alone already allows us to face difficult situations with a bit more intelligence and skill.
The second part of my answer related mostly to how meditation impacts the mind and heart. Anyone who’s ever tried to meditate knows the mind-boggling variety of discomforts that come up during a session. There are the physical discomforts—aches, itches, pains and twitches—and there are the emotional discomforts—boredom, fatigue, impatience and restlessness. And through it all, we’re asked to notice the discomforts without judgment and to keep going back to the breath.
But far from being an exercise in useless masochism, this practice of non-reactive awareness is the “wax on, wax off” of meditation (you’ll only get the reference if you’re familiar with the film The Karate Kid). We’re slowly cultivating what psychology refers to as “affect tolerance”—the ability to be with emotions without giving in to the impulse of acting on them in some way. So in meditation, we develop affect tolerance by learning how to “receive” various minor physical and emotional discomforts with mindful and non-judgmental presence.
And then something happens in real life—some major change we didn’t expect that upsets all our plans and lays to waste all our efforts. This is when our meditation practice bears fruit: Rather than acting out or lashing out, we’re able to hold our anger, our anxiety, our dismay and our fear with a bit more ease. And again, this allows us to respond to the situation with more wisdom and more skill.
So this month, I invite you to begin exploring mindfulness meditation practices—or even just mindful movement disciplines like yoga, pilates or t’ai chi. If you’re already practicing any of the latter, then my invitation is for you to shift your focus to discovering how your practice can help you develop affect tolerance. In yoga, for example, there are certainly a number of physical and emotional discomforts that come up, i.e., the physical discomfort of holding a balancing pose and the emotional discomfort of embarrassment or frustration at not being able to maintain a balancing pose. See if you can notice these without judgment—and just go back to your breath.
I hope that with this invitation, you can begin to face life’s inevitable changes with more compassion, ease and wisdom.
P.S. If you’re dealing with something incredibly challenging, I recommend a practice called RAIN that’s frequently taught by one of my teachers, Dr. Tara Brach. Just click here to access one of her brief guided RAIN meditations!
Photo courtesy of Anton Repponen.