Sunday morning at about 3:20 I opened my eyes and looked over at my husband. The bed was shaking, we were shaking, the house was rattling. We were feeling an earthquake with its epicenter about 30 miles away from us. I remember thinking to myself that I was glad I’d installed some extra supports under our shelving last week.
After the shaking stopped, we hopped out of bed to survey the damage. Thankfully, apart from some rattled nerves everything else was just as we’d left it before going to bed. However, I know that for the thousands of residents living closer to the epicenter, life was turned upside down in those thirty seconds of shaking.
Everything is constantly changing. The sun sets, the moon rises. Leaves change colors and fall to the ground. Children grow up. Sometimes the inevitability of change can numb us to its effects and we forget that today’s experience will be different tomorrow. Other times the change happens in an instant, like Sunday’s earthquake, and we’re reminded quite suddenly of the impermanent nature of our existence.
The fact that things are always changing can be a reason for suffering, disappointment or aversion. I remember when I was a 12 year-old at summer camp and my favorite counselor from the year before had not returned for my session. The other counselors kept reassuring me that “change is good,” but my tweenage self replied, “but cash is better.” Unwilling to accept the fact that things change and grasping at my past experience, I spent a good chunk of my time at camp bummed out about personnel issues instead of enjoying my experience.
At other times change can be a cause to rejoice. (I’m glad that my 12 year-old attitude changed and matured through the years!) When I get the flu often my first fear is that the body aches, fever, and malaise will last forever. But once I remember impermanence, I begin looking forward to healthier days and wishing away my present experience. I'm not really sure how sick I feel because so much of my energy is spent bracing myself against the pain and wishing that it would go away.
I’ve learned through mindfulness practice that neither of these extreme reactions to change feels very good. Each reaction—grasping for the past or longing for the future—is a denial of what is actually happening. There is a happy middle way to approaching change that does not involve either of these extremes: just experiencing life as it comes. Something magical happens to aversion, grasping and impatience when I give my attention to my present experience. They don’t quite disappear, but they do become somewhat less gripping. I can be more comfortable in my discomfort.
So how can we learn to be with what is without wishing it away or trying to hold onto it forever? Mindfulness can help! (After all, this is a mindfulness blog!) Here are three things to try out today that will help prepare you to face your next change with grace and joy:
- We can get familiar with change by following the breath for a minute or two. Close your eyes, let your body get still, and let all of your attention rest on the sensation of the breath as it comes in and out. See if you can notice the subtle shifts that take place. Does the temperature stay the same? What about the pace or depth? Can you inhale or exhale forever? What is it like to experience the breath as it changes?
- We can take some time to feel gratitude during each day so that we honor what is and are sure to enjoy the present while it happens. For a week, keep a gratitude journal as you go to bed, writing three things you’re grateful for from the day. Notice how your heart and mind feel as you go to bed feeling grateful for the day you just experienced. How does this impact your experience of the present moment? Can you practice feeling grateful throughout the day?
- Lastly, we can practice getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. Find a comfortable position, and sit perfectly still for 5 minutes. Don’t scratch, don’t adjust your legs or hands, don't clear your throat. Watching how our minds work and react to discomfort (like a leg falling asleep) will prepare us when change comes and we feel uncomfortable. What is it like to simply be with that discomfort? Bring some curiosity and scientific investigation to the process. What does it feel like to react to discomfort? What exactly does the discomfort feel like? Tingling? Burning? Itching? Tickling?
When it comes down to it, we can only respond to what is in front of us when it arises. Hopefully the next time you're faced with an uncomfortable change, you can fall back on one of these exercises—taking some time to breathe, finding one or two small things to be grateful for, and spending some time getting to know the uncomfortable—so that you can remain in the present moment, riding the waves of change instead of getting pummeled by them.