Nikki Rollo, PhD
National Director of Program Development
When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into it’s dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment. or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness. Another word for this is freedom—freedom from struggling against the fundamental ambiguity of being human. -Pema Chodron
Sometimes we try really hard to control things. We become attached to how things are right now, or how we think some situation in life should turn out or how someone should act or be in the world. We become set on things happening in a certain way. Our routines and habits become comfortable, even if they are painful or harmful, and the idea of change (even change for the better) can actually start to feel like a threat to us.
Think about this:
How many times have you known change is coming and braced yourself for it with trepidation, rather than opening to it with excitement? And how many times have you felt the need to make a change, yet just couldn’t get yourself motivated to do it and wondered what that is all about?
Change is all around us. It is an inevitable part of life, yet for many of us it can be so anxiety producing and unsettling.
In fact, instead of embracing it and being curious about it, we so often become guarded against it. We lean into our attachment to the ways things are or move deeper into our fantasy of the way things should be, resisting the flow of life and closing off our ability to be open to new experiences.
This resistance can lead us to great suffering. We can get a fixed idea of who we are, who those with whom we are in relationship are, and what our world should look like.
As humans, it is our tendency to live under an illusion that we are who we are now for the rest of our lives. We might say “this is me”. I know what I like, what I believe, and I will always like or believe those things. We may even mistakenly have the idea that we can’t change, even if we have a desire to be different. We might even feel hopeless about the possibility of change in our lives.
It is a normal human experience to have difficulty with accepting change and initiating change. However, to allow, accept, and even initiate change is to free ourselves of self-imposed limitations and open ourselves up to the freedom of being fully human.
So, what are some reasons we resist accepting or initiating change? Here are some possibilities- you may have your own ideas as well:
- Fear of losing control: what if what I want to happen doesn’t happen?
- Fear of the unknown and uncertainty about the outcome: what if I don’t like what happens?
- Fear of failing: what if I try something new and it doesn’t go well?
You might notice a theme with why we resist change….
It looks a lot like anxiety, right?
So, because we are fearful, we focus on the “what ifs” and our minds start coming up with all kinds of scenarios in which something terrible may happen in our lives. Some of these thoughts may be real- we may have had some really painful experiences and fear more will come; however many times these fears are perceived threats not actually based in reality. This doesn’t mean that all change is comfortable and that we will love it if we can just calm our minds down.
The fact is, it is not always easy or fun to change something about ourselves, experience unexpected change in our world, or even watch a loved one changing. It can simply be more comfortable for things to stay the same- even when “the same” is not a place of peace or happiness.
Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun, tells us that when we resist change it is called suffering. Learning to relax into change as a natural part of the human experience is real freedom. Let’s explore ways we can relax into change.
3 Ways to Relax into Change:
Another way to think about change is through the concept of impermanence. We don’t stay the same throughout our lives and certainly don’t have control over getting older, falling ill, and eventually passing away. You might have heard people say, “the only constant is change” which means…change is always happening, every day. We don’t wake up the same as we went to sleep. Just as our physical body is regenerating cells, our emotional body is also dynamic. We simply are not static creatures and we most certainly do not live in a static world. Recognizing and embracing the concept of impermanence allows us to begin to think that things will be different and can be different. This means there is hope for things to change if we want them to and if we don’t, this gives us a way to begin to think about the world in a way that is more accepting of change as part of the natural order of life.
Try Something New
Keeping things the same can certainly help with a sense of safety; however trying new things on a more regular basis can also help us develop a sense of safety in “newness”. We can make friends with new things and actually begin to experience them as safe. This can be something small like walking a new way to school or work or something more challenging such as trying a feared food. The idea here is to intentionally introduce new things into your life, making change something you choose and welcome. You may not know what will happen as a result; however it initially gives you a bit more control by consciously choosing to open the door to change, to a new thing, a new way of doing something.
Respond to Yourself with Compassion
When you find yourself resisting change or finding it hard to believe change is possible, it is so important to pay attention to how you respond to yourself. If you listen to the voice inside, you might find it is quite judgmental and critical of your response to change.
Thich Nhat Hanh says that we have wrong perceptions concerning ourselves. It is important to pay attention to these perceptions and begin to challenge them with compassion. Perhaps we could say to ourselves something like, “I know you are suffering right now and it makes sense because of what you have gone through”. “I would like you to know I see you are trying new things and embracing change”. This practice can be done through journaling or writing a compassionate letter toward yourself. It is not about what you should be doing or should feel, but more an expression of acceptance for your distress about change and start to challenge the inner critic. You offer yourself your true presence and compassion.
Chodron, Pema. (2013). Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change.
Gilbert, Paul (2010). The Compassionate Mind.