Free Therapy #101: Dealing with Change

“When I go away from this life, I want you to remember my love for you.
That’s all.”

Teresa Wynn*

Change

We’ve all had those moments when everything suddenly changed. One moment life is one thing and then it becomes something else.

It was 1961. I was five years old. We were playing in Uncle Mel’s barn near Jamestown, New York. We were up high in the hay stacks, me, my brother, sister and several cousins. And then I fell. I stepped out where I should not have been, in open space where nothing held me safe. Gravity took me then, swiftly and rudely introducing my soft head to the wooden floorboards of the dusty barn.

As my oldest cousin, Hal, carried me to the house where my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were sharing iced tea and old stories, I looked dead they said. I was draped like a limp noodle in my tall cousin’s outstretched arms; my legs, arms and head hung lifelessly as I was brought like an offering to my mother who shrieked and sobbed while my dad ran to start the car. Where do we go when we’re unconscious? I wonder. Where was “I” when my brain went dark?

The next day in the hospital I woke up with a cast on my arm, puzzled and alarmed. Where was I? How did I get here? Who were these strangers in white uniforms? Who was I exactly? Change. One moment it’s one thing and then it’s something else.

I remember 1968. I was 12. Dulles Airport. We were saying goodbye to my 43-year-old dad; my mother, sister, brother and I. I could smell his aftershave when I hugged him. His smooth cheek felt warm. I didn’t want to let go. I squeezed him as hard as I could. He was in his blue uniform. There were ribbons on his chest. He wore his service cap. The Air Force Major had volunteered to go to Viet Nam for a year, leaving my mom to deal with three teenagers alone. We were all crying as I clicked my Brownie camera one last time as the mobile lounge doors closed. The grainy black and white photos are all that’s left of the moment of our death; frozen portraits of captured time before a tsunami of change obliterated our lives.

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When he returned a year later, a lifetime had passed. We were all old then it seemed. No pictures exist to document the division and distance in my heart. None of us were the same. None of us knew how to be together again. We faked it for a few years before dad found Jerry, his second wife, and everything ripped apart for good. Change. One moment it’s one thing and then it’s something else.

I was sitting in the backseat. Staring out the window when mom told me. The tears welled but didn’t spill. We were driving home. “Tonnie’s gone,” she said nervously, eyeing me in the rear view mirror. She had taken our cat to the vets to be put down. It was 1971. I had been on vacation and she took advantage of my absence to erase Tonnie from our lives.

He was only a kitten when someone slipped him into the backseat of our unlocked car right after dad left. We named him after Tan Son Nhut, the Air Base where “Major Tom” was stationed, just outside Saigon. She never liked pets. I’m sure it made sense to her. I was crushed. I said nothing. Just looked out the window at the featureless sky. I had fantasies of rescuing Tonnie. Later, in the privacy of my room, I discovered that even at 15, I could still cry out my pain as I vowed to never forgive her. Change. One moment it’s one thing and then it’s something else.

Nothing stays the same. Pets come and go. People come and go. Love comes and goes. We watch the generations before us grow old and gray and drift away. We remember the funerals and the sorrow. We change jobs, homes and relationships. We have children and seconds later they are grown and gone. Life zooms. We barely have time to cherish what we have before we no longer have it. Change. One moment it’s one thing and then it’s something else.

Growing up in a military family meant constant change. By the time I was 13, I had lived in Wiesbaden, Germany two different times; Inglewood, California; Vienna, Virginia and Dayton, Ohio and attended six different schools. I have lived in nearly twenty different homes in my life, a little bit above the average of 11.7 for the typical American. Change. One moment it’s one thing and then it’s something else.

To understand change, we must remember what doesn’t change. In the movie, 50 First Dates with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, there is a character named Ten Second Tom who, due to a hunting accident, can only maintain conscious awareness in ten second increments. Every ten seconds, he starts over without any memory of what previously occurred. Ten Second Tom is constantly changing and so is unaware of change. For him it is always now. Nothing lasts for him and yet he remains blissfully unaware of the fact. He just exists, without any conscious awareness of time or change.

In order to appreciate change, there needs to be something that doesn’t change, something constant, something about each of us that is deeply and ultimately real; who we really are. I can appreciate movement if I stand still. I can appreciate light in reference to darkness. I get to know what warm means by experiencing cold. And I can understand, appreciate and react to change because something in me is changeless.

So what doesn’t change? Three things actually. Identity, eternity and awareness. Or to put it more simply, you are always you; you are always now and you are always here. Regardless of our changes, we remain us. Regardless of the passage of time, it is always now. And no matter where we go, we are always here. (And to me, you are always “there.”)

Change is constant, yes, but it isn’t real. It’s an illusion. It is passing show. Meals come and go but the table remains. There is a ground, floor or stage to our being on which the changes of our lives move, dance and breathe. We are that which remains, that which always is.

In Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson, we are presented with a metaphor where cheese represents what we value; what we have and wish to keep or what we don’t have but want to get.

And there is a maze in which four different characters run to find cheese. The maze represents our world or our lives. It is the space in which our existence moves. It could represent our interests, an organization we belong to, our employer, our community, a marriage or our family. We find our cheese, the things we value most, in the maze (or mazes) of our lives.

There are four characters in the book: a mouse named Sniff who “sniffs out change early,” another mouse named Scurry, who “scurries into action” and two “Littlepeople” named Hem and Haw, who have “complex brains” but do not always use their intelligence wisely or effectively.

Hem, for example, reacts to change (the disappearance of cheese) with fear, denial and resistance. He is afraid of change. He is convinced that change is bad. He foolishly believes that by resisting change, he can avoid it. Otherwise, he fears, he will lose what he values. His fear of failure and unwillingness to embrace change seal his doom.

Finally there is Haw, who at first goes along with Hem but eventually decides to adapt to change instead of resisting. He comes to believe that change is not always bad and that working with, not against it, might actually lead to a better life.

In our mazes, we like our cheese. We like getting, having and enjoying what we want and need. We like winning. For some of us this means love, marriage, family, health, friendship and spirituality. For others it might mean food, pleasure, success, power, wealth and material possessions.

But what do we do when we no longer have our cheese? How do we deal with the loss of a loved one, losing our health, or losing a job? How do we cope when we don’t get what we want or we don’t want what we get?

Some of us, like Sniff and Scurry, immediately adapt. They don’t waste time resisting, complaining or blaming. They get moving. They put on their running shoes and head out into the maze to find a fresh supply of cheese.

Others, like Hem and Haw, struggle to adapt to change. They get stuck. As humans, most of us will naturally need to grieve our losses and changes. We might resort to denial at first, refusing to face reality or accept change. We might then become angry and engage in what Matthew McKay calls fairness or blaming fallacies. By complaining that “It’s not fair!” or finding someone to blame, we temporarily avoid dealing with reality in an effective manner. Instead of focusing on what we can do about our dilemma, we see ourselves as a victim and blame someone else for our pain. We feel entitled. We rigidly cling to our preferred idea of reality instead of flexibly adapting to what actually exists for us at this moment.

We might then engage in a period of bargaining or negotiating in our minds, with a higher power or with someone else. We feel vulnerable and helpless which leads us to seek control where we no longer have it. When this fails, many of us will sink into despair, depression and defeat. We give up. We shut down. This is where the therapist comes in. My job is to help the client get to the final stage of the grief process – acceptance – so they can get on with the purpose of their lives.

The key is to get out of our minds. We can notice our thoughts of resistance and see how they don’t help or work. Too many of us believe our own thoughts, even when they are not true, when we need to step back mindfully and ask how it helps or hurts to think the way we do.

Adyashanti tells us that all human suffering comes from arguing with reality. Reality is neutral. It isn’t good or bad or right or wrong. It just is. Steve Hayes calls this “clean discomfort” or “clean pain.” It becomes “dirty” when we start thinking unhelpful or unworkable thoughts about it.

Adyashanti also states, “From the heart of divine being (that which does not change)…we realize…that everything that causes us pain and sorrow is ultimately born from misunderstanding. It’s a type of illusion.”

What we fail to understand, we blame and what we blame, we fail to understand. Our pain points us to our values and because we possess values, life hurts. We can use our pain to rediscover what is important to us and use our creative resources to adapt to change and thrive, not just survive.

We are here to learn and it may seem cruel, but we learn best when we suffer. And we will suffer until we learn the lessons we came here to learn. When we are attached to things that change (and everything in the physical or material universe is subject to change), we will experience pain.

Right now stop and notice your breathing, the gentle flow of air in and out of your physical form that has been your nearest and dearest friend from the moment you emerged from your mother’s womb. Now notice your heartbeat, another constant friend. Now notice your pure, non-judgmental awareness. There it is where it’s always been, looking out your eyes. Look around you. Refuse to judge. Just be. See the beauty in all things. In all people. Now notice the present moment. Here it is, never changing, always here and now. And finally notice yourself as love, undying and permanently true and real. Remain there as long as you can. Be that which you are, not who you think you are.

Beyond all change we find our stability in that which we deeply and essentially are. Know that. Be that. Express that. In a world of whirling madness and constant change, may you always know the blessing of your changeless essence.

*Teresa Wynn’s quote comes from NPR’s StoryCorps 500: Tough Mother.

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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