Monday, January 24, 2011

The Trouble with Change

As a recent psychology graduate and newly minted employee of our local hospital, I was called upon frequently to present to all manner of groups; often asked to expound upon stress, it symptoms, sources, and to offer some presumed solutions and management strategies. The tack I came to adopt most often was to define stress as our natural response to change. I would dutifully outline Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome as the process through which organisms, human and animal alike, struggle to restore order, to return to what ‘was’ in their lives, once this familiar comfort zone had been upset in some fashion. His language, while biologically precise, inadvertently pathologized ‘change’, incorporating it as the villain setting in motion a ‘syndrome’, variously defined as a disease, disorder, or set of symptoms. His labels, too, of stages of coping within this syndrome, as one gradually decompensates over time, convey the pejorative, perfidious nature of change: respectively, the Alarm, the Resistant, and finally, the Exhausted stage.

A second favourite inclusion of mine was a table sometimes referred to as the ‘Life Change Scale’, presuming to attach a value to each of 30 or so ‘life events’ ranging, depending on the version of the scale, from ‘death of a spouse’ (98 points) through ‘getting married’ (26) to ‘going on vacation’(5). The ‘values’ of events one had experienced within the past year are totaled and purport to provide an estimate of how ‘stress vulnerable’ one might be – less than 150 = OK; 150-300 – better watch your change meter; greater than 300 – you’re euchred! The message is similar – change, regardless of its presumed ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’, will get you. And the ‘solution’, to the extent one is able to make such choices, it to limit change; thereby minimizing one’s stress levels.

Lovely! As I reflect on this now thirty-plus year old ‘wisdom’, I marvel at how many ways the assessment and attendant prescription got it wrong. No question that Dr. Selye’s mice, swimming helplessly and hopelessly (if we can anthropomorphize rodents for the moment) in their inescapable pond, gradually succumbed to their ‘stress’. And equally, no doubt, events like moving house, getting downsized from one’s long-term employment, or having a close friend become pregnant (although it mystifies me as to why this event shares equal stress value with starting to date again in adulthood – I suppose it depends upon how close a friend that now fecund acquaintance might be!) are indeed likely to amp up one’s stress-o-meter. Where the impassioned plea to ‘control your stress by controlling change’ leaves the tracks is in its identification of change as the root of this evil. Rather like blaming a highway for causing auto accidents. Not to mention the fool’s errand and arrogance of presuming to ‘solve’ this state by controlling anything as unpredictable as change!

Three decades later and in a decidedly less certain and more contemplative headspace, I am prepared to let change off the hook. Like the 401’s of our lives, it appears much more likely that it’s how we approach and utilize this ‘highway’ than it is something inherent in the ‘tarmac’ of change itself that requires our attention. Two pillars (essential truths) of Buddhist teaching are often translated as ‘impermanence’ and ‘unsatisfactoriness’. For better or worse (often the latter), we continue to struggle with and deny these ‘truths’, generally being quite unhappy ‘when things fall apart’ (to borrow Pema Chodron’s book title) – when enjoyable, desirable states metamorphose into something less so, underscoring both the inherent transitory (read, changeable) nature of all things and (to quote the controversial Richard Dawkins) the dominant tendency for such mutated states to less functional (appealing and desirable) than their immediate predecessor. We neither want the good times to stop rolling (attachment); nor their less attractive replacements to hang around (avoidance). We become frustrated, disappointed, resentful, even cynical over our ‘loss’, (obsessively) clambering (like those little ‘Selyean’ mice) to return to what was (dry land) and fearing the alternative – what is (a deep, dark puddle).

How mindfulness practice prepares us for a much more adaptive (and less neurotic, blame-casting, and fearful) way of dealing with the inevitability of change is contained in the practice itself. (Sadly, reading about it isn’t enough!) A prime directive (if you will) in formal, meditative practice instructs us, as we are inevitably drawn away, distracted from our focus (the rhythm of our breathing, our mantra, etc.), to notice this departure; then letting go of whatever has distracted us, to return to our focus once again. This simple cycle holds the very seeds of dealing adaptively and acceptingly with the ‘impermanence’ of, in this case, our focus – no one expects to hold that concentrated anchor for more than a few moments at a time. Despite our best resolve, we will ‘change’, evolve away from; this is what is. It’s neither bad, nor undisciplined, nor avoidable; it just is. Far from ‘controlling’ ourselves, we accept, even embrace change; far from regretting, judging, being disturbed or frustrated by the place to which we’ve ‘mutated’, we simply note it – and return to the breath.

So change happens – as the (slightly sanitized) saying goes. To villainize and resent it; to (superstitiously) prepare ourselves for it by becoming so constricted in our hopes (lest we be saddened and disappointed when they too vaporize, as they must) that we dampen our enthusiasms and celebration of what’s (happily) happening right now, is to revert to what I might have prescribed in those early years: control what you can, then duck. Sitting with, observant and non-judgmental as the river flows on, seems a more sustainable, reality-based script.

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