Long before this current situation arose I had been playing with the idea of taking a sabbatical from work. I have been running the business now for 14 years, and have another 14 to go before retirement so it seemed like this would be a good time to pause, maybe for a few months or more before embarking on the second half of my career as a yoga teacher. I have also been a parent for nearly 26 years, and over 20 of those years I have been a lone parent. My youngest finished university last year and was keen to flee the nest, and my eldest was well established in her career and about to move in with her partner, so it seemed like all the tumblers were falling into place and my sabbatical dream might become a reality. I had no idea how I would finance such a venture, or whether I would have any students to come back to, so the plan kept being pushed onto the back burner.
Then everything changed overnight. Social distancing directives were put in place by the government. My son got a job and opted to move in with his partners family for the duration of the pandemic. My daughter and her partner found themselves in a tricky situation and opted to move in with me. I had to close down the business and found myself with no work and no income. Now this outcome is not actually a million miles away from what I had been planning, with the added bonus that when I reopen for business some of my students will still be there if for no other reason than there is nowhere else for them to go! I have not achieved the empty nest, but the more experienced parents I know always give me a knowing if somewhat wistful smile when I tell them that I am nearly at the end of my parenting career before telling me that their 37 year old has just had to move home due to ill-health/divorce/financial problems often with several children in tow. It also transpires that I have not stopped work as I am still working long hours with a hugely reduced income trying to keep our yoga community together in times of great change and uncertainty.
So have I embraced this change?
I must admit that getting to grips with all the technology that I have had to learn to use very quickly has had me at times in tears, and at times raging! And no, I am not getting the break from work exactly as I had planned. But if I am brutally honest, the main reason I have railed against the change is because I didn’t CHOOSE when or how it happened.
We human animals love to believe that we are in control and in charge and that we are the architects of our experiences. When we decide that we want something to happen and it happens, we think that we have ‘made it happen’ by the force of our will and by the use of determined effort. And when a change comes along that we were working towards or hoping for we are over the moon! There are even many surprise changes that we would be glad of: the arrival of a long awaited baby, a win on the lottery, or even a long spell of good weather.
So it seems we can roll with a change if we feel that we made happen, or if it is something that we perceive as fortuitous. But what about unwelcome and unscripted change? Surely no-one welcomes restrictions to their liberty, betrayal, loss, ill-health, or financial ruin? Well, many people claim that they do just that and immediately view such misfortunes as a gift that gives them “opportunities for growth” ( OFG)….one of my LEAST favourite expressions of all time. (I will admit that when I am encouraged to view my own life disasters as positive by very well-meaning bystanders, it takes all my self-control not to punch a hole through a door).
I believe it is a very human tendency to resist unwelcome or unscripted change. I know I can feel myself “digging my heels in” when life drags me in a direction I was not expecting, even though I understand intellectually that my resistance is futile. And I am incredibly stubborn, rather like one of those fighting dogs that can’t let go once it has sunk its teeth into something. In this instance initially I was able to go with the flow, as the outcome was SO close to what I had been ruminating on, and I was looking forward to a break from work, but when it turned out that it was not going to go exactly the way I had hoped, my resistance kicked in, with avengeance!
If I could bank all the energy I have burnt through over the years railing against unwelcome and unscripted change, I would probably have enough to power the National Grid for the rest of my days. But I do think it is a natural process. A normal human process: shock, turbulence, resistance and finally acceptance. In the fullness of time we may be able to talk about our divorce or diagnosis or redundancy as an ‘OFG’ but it is VERY unlikely that this would have been our first response. It is oh so tempting to point out ‘OFG’ to other people when they encounter misfortune, and to attempt to get them to look on the bright side. But let’s just reflect for a moment, how does that actually feel when you are on the receiving end of it? When you are in the midst of the most gut wrenching turmoil to be told that you should embrace the situation as an opportunity for growth?
I wonder whether we do this in part because it is so uncomfortable to sit with someone who is distressed, as it often triggers our own issues. I hope that you have all been fortunate enough to have people in your lives who will sit with you while you wail and thrash and look for doors to punch without judging you, or telling you to be positive or offering solutions. And when we do encounter such kindness and strength in others, for it requires great strength to just BE with someone when they are distressed, we find we are able to move through the process so much more quickly, spending less time thrashing about in the quicksand of resisting unwelcome change and arriving sooner at a place where we regain perspective and begin to assimilate the change into our lives, and yes, sometimes use it as an ‘opportunity for growth.’
I have heard from so many students that they feel like they are the only one who has not embraced the change by taking up the piano/digging a veg patch/ learning to draw /getting super fit and that they feel like they are falling short in some way as they have not been able to immediately roll with the changes and find something positive in it all.
Yoga philosophy suggests that the reason we suffer so much when faced with unwelcome and unscripted change is not because of the change itself, but because of our inability to let go of how things were and to embrace how things are. Instead we cling to the old ways, miss them and pine for them, and reject the new ways and find ourselves stuck between the rock and the hard place made by our own attachment to the old and aversion to the new. As practitioners of yoga we are learning how to go with the flow. But this is not always as straight forwards as it sounds. You might resist first and then learn to let go, or you might initially, like me, appear to accept the change then have your resistance kick in. And you might have to go through this process over and over again before you find acceptance and feel at peace again. And that’s ok. We are not perfect beings but we are doing the best that we can. When I find myself in the grip of resistance I am reminded of the story of the monkey and the nut in a jar. The story goes that if you put a monkey nut in a jar with a narrow opening, a monkey will put its hand into the jar, grab the nut but not be able to remove its hand from the jar without first letting go of the nut. Now the monkey will NOT let go of the nut, and in this state of intense resistance is easily caught as it is oblivious to everything else that is going on around it, including the stealthy approach of a predator.
I guess what we are learning is that sometimes we have to let go of things to save ourselves from harm, but that resistance is a natural part of this process.
Here is a short contemplation that you may find helpful:
Let yourself feel the sensation of resisting.
What does it feel like in your body and where?
Ask yourself, “What does this resistance want to tell me? Why is it here?”
Ask the questions and then wait to see what arises if anything. It may be a feeling, a thought, a belief, or a fear.
Then ask the resistance, “What would happen if I let you go?” Notice what arises.
Then ask yourself, “Would I be willing to let go—just for a moment?”
A change is a good as a rest, or so the saying goes, but we must first come to terms with the change and this will take as long as it takes. I hope you can be kind to yourselves as you come to terms with all the changes happening in the world at the moment, and if you can’t be kind, be forgiving. We are truly doing the best that we can in very difficult circumstances.
(with heartfelt thanks to S and J for helping me when I couldn’t “let go of the monkey nut”)