Transitioning through the Unwanted with Mindfulness

October 19, 2020 by

By Cawood B. Fitzhugh

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “In action is his power; not in his goals but in his transitions, man is great.”

Transitions are a normal part of life.  Some are voluntary, like a longed-for job opportunity that’s finally come around or the birth of a new baby. Some transitions are involuntary, like an unexpected job termination, unknown illness or sudden death of a parent or loved one.  Transitions, even when we choose them, can cause disruption and disequilibrium, be painful and uncomfortable, with many unexpected challenges.  The pain and disruption can be even greater when we are forced to transition, when we don’t want to or weren’t anticipating an unforeseen change.

Right now, we are facing a major transition with the coronavirus.  For many of us, there is a new awakening with the realization that the pandemic is not a temporary affliction any longer but a long and lasting one. This is creating significant change on every level affecting our personal and professional lives.  The reality is, we will probably never go back to what we viewed as our “normal” lives, even with a vaccine. So, we are all in an unwanted, involuntary transition from our past ways of living to this new uncertainty right now. This can be quite discouraging if we remain stuck holding on to the past.  Transitions, however, are a normal part of life, with this pandemic being just one of many. So how do we show up to this immense disruption, while maintaining some sense of balance, equanimity and a good quality of health and sound mind?

Understanding and acknowledging that transitions are a normal part of life is a good place to start.  As difficult as the pandemic is, this may not be the worst transition experienced in some peoples’ lives.  Divorce, living with a family member with Alzheimer’s, or losing a loved one may cause more suffering for some.  Even wanted transitions, such as the arrival of a new baby or anticipated retirement, can cause unanticipated discomfort and disequilibrium.

Moving toward the “unwanted” is one of the practices learned in our Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses.  How do we move toward the unwanted in our lives? Whether it is suffering due to a pandemic, a divorce, a forced job change, the late nights of being with a new baby, or any of the “unexpected” forced transitions that show up daily in our lives on smaller levels, the tendency is to move away from these unwanted events as fast as we can.

We know transitions are natural and they occur regularly as our lives shift and change daily. Unexpected change can cause suffering, but even welcomed ones can also cause suffering. Understanding that transitions are normal in our lives helps to curb our natural tendency to fight against them. Resisting the coronavirus by trying to overpower it through ignoring its existence or not wearing a face mask doesn’t stop its treacherous effects.  Our tendency to want to fight against the changes it is necessitating is a futile battle.  However, with a shift in mindset, we can make this transition into a source of positive change and new discoveries.  Acknowledging what is here in this moment can curb the natural tendency to resist and fight against this transition through acceptance and non-striving.

Knowing how to move towards the “unwanted” in our lives allows more room to accept these difficult, painful transitions, revealing a greater understanding of the purpose in our lives. We learn greater resiliency by not holding on to the past or worrying about the unknowns of the future but by being present with what is here right now, in this moment, the only moment we are really sure of.  Being present in this moment allows the opportunity to meet with this “unwanted” with a kind and investigative curiosity, providing the opportunity for new possibilities.  In Roy F. Baumeister’s book, The Meaning of Life, he argues that a sense of meaning gained through changes makes the rest of life seem more stable.  Stability can be the result of difficult transitions. Undergoing change successfully gives us greater confidence and increases our ability to face hardship. If we understand transitions properly, we are better able to embrace them and move with them, instead of fighting against them. With a shift in our mindset, we are better able to make any transition into a source of meaning and transcendence and create more resiliency so we can bounce back more quickly.

By acknowledging, accepting, and noticing the tendency to judge harshly or resist fiercely, the unwanted provides a catalyst for us all to pause, take a breath, and notice what arises with the new opportunities that occur as we go through these transitions.   Here is a helpful Mindfulness tool called STOP that can be tried out as we move through our own personal transitions individually and collectively with this pandemic.

S: Stop what you’re doing by putting things down for a moment.
T: Take a breath, maybe 3 long ones, observing what’s here, right now in this moment. This can help calm the sympathetic nervous system and make you feel better.
O: Observe your experience just as it is, noticing your thoughts, emotions, and what’s happening in the body, without trying to change or fix anything, bringing a friendly investigation to what shows up with curiosity. You may discover something new, an “AHA” moment and gain deeper compassion for yourself and others.  Instead of automatically reacting you may now…
P: Proceed with something that will support you in a healthy way in this moment.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings