Monday, March 25, 2013

What To Do About Change

Change is a very tricky thing. When I first began practicing psychology in the 1970's and was considerably more active on the 'low end' talk circuit (that would be the noon-hour library lecturer and professional development day talking head), it became immediately clear that I needed to develop some 'canned content'. I settled on one of the more durable topics of the time: stress.  The collection of 'overheads' grew to the point where I could just pull them off the shelf; and talking about stress didn't actually add to my own levels. Assembling one of the resilient packages, Stress: Symptoms, Sources, Solutions, led me to a few resources that continue to illuminate.

Hans Selye, the Hungarian endocrinologist who coined the term 'stress', theorized that it is the adjustment to change in our lives that sets us up for the physiological changes that we experience as 'stress'. One of his major contributions, the General Adaptation Syndrome, documents the disturbing impact that change has on us and our various organs -- particularly if it's unrelenting or experienced in large doses. One of his most surprising findings was that change of any kind (that would be the good, sought after things as well as the less desirable variety!) has the same impact.  We get stressed. 

Which led me to another, now decades-old bit of intelligence: the Life Change Scale. There are lots of variations around (here's a pretty typical version:; but the message is the same in all cases: each time we endure a shift in circumstances -- desired or not, planned or not -- we increase our 'stress score'. The contention is, quite correctly, that if we accumulate too many 'stress points' in too short a time period, we get sick.  If you take a minute and follow the above link, you'll see that getting divorced, being fired, or losing someone close to you, predictably, take a significant toll. But then so does getting married, being hired, and celebrating Christmas! Hmm? No wonder so many of us are 'change phobic'.

Fast forward to the current millennium. Stress is no longer treat of the week (guess I'll have to recycle all those overheads). Mindfulness is the new big thing (fortunately, I have a Power Point ready to go at the drop of a Shriner's Club fez). We're encouraged to walk, sit, drive, exercise, eat, speak, . .  all mindfully, with complete and present awareness.  And one of the essential underpinnings that this 'way of being' addresses is, guess what? Change. In fact, one of the three 'characteristics of existence' is -- impermanence. Change, by any other name. So now what do we do? On the one hand we have the good Dr. Selye telling us that each time we endure a change in our circumstance, we add a couple of ticks to our stress score. And, on the other hand, Buddha is saying 'suck it up buttercup -- change happens, get used to it'!

The awareness that prompted this week's offering came out of a conversation -- well, actually a single exchange in that conversation -- that my wife and I were having with our lawyer recently. Redoing our wills -- funny how those institutions that seemed so deserving a decade ago, have lost their sheen -- the query came: 'and if she predeceases you, what's your vision?' Definitely the chronological 'senior partner' in this marriage, I hadn't really considered this possibility very seriously before.  My response, without a lot of need to reflect: 'well, I'd sell the house, buy a condo and bicycle till I drop'. The pebble tossed into the still, make that static pond! It instantly occurred to both my wife and me, that we needn't wait until one of us dies to consider all sorts of possibilities. And as the ripples spread out from that epicenter, change or its potential had begun to happen. Or more properly, to be allowed to happen (as it inevitably will) and to be embraced. 

And with that awareness, the reconciliation of Selye and Buddha. What these two gentleman share (at the very least) is a dispassionate view of change: one the scientist, the other the metaphysician. Change is neither good, nor evil -- it just is. What provides its 'valence', it's weightiness and accordingly, it's potential for ill, is our response, reaction, or resistance to it. Bhante Gunaratana, in Mindfulness in Plain English sums up the Buddhist position succinctly:

we human beings live in a very peculiar fashion. We view impermanent things as permanent, though everything is changing all around us. The process of change is constant and eternal. . . You set up a collection of mental constructions ('me', 'a book', 'a building') and you assume that they are solid, real entities. . . that they would endure forever. Tun[ing] into the constant change, . . you can learn to perceive your life an an ever-flowing movement. (p. 34-35)

The difficulty with change, then, is not that it exists or happens. The problem derives from our attachment to things, people, states that we would have endure, unchanging; and equally, to our avoidance of, our fight against things that we would have out of our lives, that we find distressing, unpleasant, irritating. My wife's 'implicit' expectation was that, whomever of us survived the other, they would continue to occupy a home into which we had put significant energy and resources, having 'gotten it just like we wanted it'.  And I, until the pivotal query, had shared that view -- without awareness, evidently. The freeing thought it seems was a 'thinking outside the static box' moment. When we cultivate a readiness to 'consider the alternative', we begin to 'de-stress' change. When we fully accept the impermanence of things, we reduce our resistance, we become more flexible . . . and a whole lot less stressed.

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