When the reality of impermanence and change in life hits you, it can feel sad, even terrifying. Seeing your children grow up before your eyes. The end of a love relationship. Losing your job, fearing you might never get "back on track." The death of someone close. Some freeze with fear when faced with how impermanent everything is, especially the things we're attached to and define us. Others can't redirect what they were aiming for, with damaging consequences.
Of course, people know in their heads that everything in life is impermanent. Yet it's difficult to incorporate that awareness, flow with change, yet retain energy and well-being. Impermanence doesn't penetrate so easily because what you fear losing when it confronts you is largely external -- beliefs, values, "needs," and all that defines who you are. The culture conditions us into defining ourselves by such external criteria. That creates a false, surface ego.
Social conditioning of self-definition is powerful, visible even, in brain activity differences between people of different cultures regarding their self-definitions. Then, when change occurs, it subverts your conditioned attachments and you can become unglued. The essential falseness of much of your world is suddenly exposed.
But consider this: Learning to embrace impermanence is the portal to discovering your true self and letting it emerge from beneath all you've learned to believe about who you are. You can learn to embrace the flow and flux of life's impermanence. That enables you to awaken and act upon your more authentic self: your capacities, unique facets of personality, your talents and birthright to fully flower as a connected, engaged, loving human being, a person who can thrive in the face of present and future unknowns.
Living With Impermanence -- And Flourishing
The key is looking for the upside in whatever situation now exists -- flexibility in the face of change, rather than dwelling in it. But also creating a vision of what to aim for now, in this moment. Research confirms the brain's capacity to modify itself and strengthen emotional attitudes that enable you to do just that, as Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley describe in The Emotional Life of Your Brain.
Several studies show that depressed people tend to remain stuck on negative thoughts, while people who focus on positive emotions within their situation experience greater wellbeing and healthier lives. Moreover, research also shows that people can learn to change their personalities with intent and practice. You can promote such shifts by disengaging from negative emotional reactions, as Eastern meditative practices have indicated. For example, according to the lead researcher in a University of Michigan study:
Reviewing our mistakes over and over, re-experiencing the same negative emotions we felt the first time around, tends to keep us stuck in negativity. It can be very helpful to take a sort of mental time-out, to sit back and try to review the situation from a distance.
In a relationship, remaining fixed on what's changed -- refusing to acknowledge it or sinking into regret about it -- undermines the potential for new growth within the relationship as it now exists. Interestingly, studies have found that women are happier in their relationships when men expose feelings of pain or disappointment. That's understandable -- it brings both partners into confronting the reality of the moment they're living in. That opens the door to dealing positively with what's changed. An example happened in a couples therapy session, when the man suddenly shouted, "No more lies! I don't like our relationship! We've got to deal with this, regardless of where it leads!"
Consider a person whose lifelong dream to become a musician ended. She experienced loss, but then retrained for a different career that provided alternative fulfillment. Contrast that with the man who became bitter, comparing himself with peers who had "gotten farther ahead" in life. He berated himself for getting a degree in the "wrong" field. He languished, entrapped himself, and couldn't envision the possibility for moving in a different direction that could become more fulfilling. People who are unable to find a career foothold in the realm they hoped for, but then seek a different path towards another kind of work, experience greater psychological health and fulfillment. In a similar vein, some baby boomers who left their careers to do work that involves helping others report feelings of growth, connection and service.
Whether in your relationship or at work, embracing impermanence and change pulls you out of the fixation with your own thwarted wants or desires. It enables you to put your energies into another form, another venue, that could lead to new kinds of fulfillment and positive energy.
Consider what the Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote in the early 1900s:
Inner life is not separate from outer life. Nor does it require leaving the world renouncing all pleasures and comforts. It is the enrichment of life with qualities that will last, with a source of energy and love which is truly your own ... What we (have been) seeking slips out of our hold sooner or later. We depend upon things outside ourselves. Let us find our real being.
Some guidelines to help you live an impermanent life and affirm your true, inner self when facing change:
- Self-examine what your "successes" and "failures" reveal about your true self: where you resonate or don't. Look at what that tells you about what you may have been trying to express through your life choices.
- Open yourself to looking for new possibilities or directions that feel more in tune with your true self. Pursue them fully, vigorously, with great intent. Look for the feedback your actions give you until you see whether it's the right path or not.
- Infuse your actions with a spirit of service and love for what you're engaging in, each moment. When you consciously display kindness, compassion, generosity, and justice in your thoughts, emotions and behavior, you keep your ego contained. You can see your true self with greater clarity.
So, let it go and let it flow...
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.
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