Sunday, February 12, 2017

Change Is The Only Constant

My mom refers to it as impermanence, but I call it change. And both words are are accurate. Nothing is permanent—everything changes. Sometimes the changes are small and sometimes they are big.

Last week my daughter got her driver's license. For the past 8 months, there have been almost daily conversations about driving: learning to drive; thinking of what it will be like when she can drive on her own. And now it's happened. 

And for the most part I am relieved. The burden of driving her all over a city the size of Los Angeles was starting to wear me down. I was spending 3 or 4 hours a day in the car just getting her to and from school, dance, auditions, friends' houses, the store, restaurants...on and on. And it was causing us to fight. She felt stifled by the limits I imposed as to when or where I was willing to drive her places.

Suddenly this morning, I woke up and watched her get in her car and drive away. As I watched, there was almost a painful physical sensation, as if there had been another invisible umbilical cord that had held us together all these years and it was suddenly cut. But unlike in the hospital, when the nurse cut her umbilical cord because she no longer needed it to survive, this time she cut it...because she no longer needs it to survive.

She's growing up. She doesn't need to me to constantly watch over her. She doesn't need me to make sure she knows the proper directions and knows exactly where she's going. 

It's taken me almost 40 years to realize I don't like change. Change is scary for me. When I was younger, I didn't think about it. Change would happen and I would simply adjust. But as I've gotten older, I find myself fighting things that are unfamiliar. It's hard to learn new routines, and it's hard to make adjustments to habits that make my days familiar.

And now, if I find myself confronted with impending change, I immediately find myself worrying. I assume that changes will be for the worse, and I have to remind myself that all of the good things in my life were brought about by change. That change isn't always bad. Sometimes change is pleasant. At the end of the day, we just don't know. Sometimes things I thought were good changes, ended up being negative experiences, and sometimes things that were changes I hadn't wanted ended up being blessings in disguise. 

My mom refers to her state of sickness as her "baseline." I've sort of adopted the idea of a baseline as the place where I am able to balance the good and the bad, the happiness and the sadness. Sometimes there are days where I am thrown off my baseline because I am feeling particularly sad. And there are other days where I am feeling excited and happy. 

When I find myself feeling out of sorts, if I take a minute to re-center myself and think about what I'm doing, I can usually find my baseline again. I can find that place within me where I can see that most changes, whether they feel good or feel bad, are not actually movement higher or lower, up or down, but more parallel. I can see that most change doesn't mean things get "better" or "worse." They just shift around.

So, as I sit here with a slightly heavy heart, I am reminding myself that my sadness about my daughter being able to drive, being able to have independence, is joyful for her, which brings joy to me. And the changes that feel painful to me because she is more independent are necessary for her on her road to becoming an adult.

I can't always stop myself from wishing I could stop change from happening. But I know I can't stop it. Nothing can stay the same. Nothing should stay the same. 


Here's my interview with my mom on this topic:

You often write about impermanence. Would you say this is a concept that became more important to you after you became ill?

I don't know whether it became more important, but it certainly became more evident. I realized that my life and the world was all about change, change, change—which is the name of the chapter on impermanence in one of my books. Impermanence is a universal law. It doesn't just come from Buddhism. It's recognized by all religions and by science too. 

But change can be wrenching. Your essay talks about that. It certainly was wrenching for me when I got sick and had to give up a profession I thought I'd be in for another 20 years. Perhaps because it's a universal experience, the Buddha focused on change a lot—how we'll all grow old, and we'll all experience illness, and we'll all be separated from those we love. 

Many people think about separation as referring to death, but it can apply to any separation. For me, it applied when you and Jamal [Mara's brother] moved out of the house. That separation was really painful. You talked about Malia now driving on her own, and I thought that, as much as it was a burden for you to have to drive her everywhere, it did put you next to each other in the car. And that physical closeness nourishes a relationship. So suddenly you're not in the car with her, so I see that as a kind of separation that may not be easy for you—and maybe not for her either. 

When I write about impermanence, I always focus on what I refer to as its corollaries: uncertainly and unpredictability. Because if change is ever present, then we can't be sure what's going to happen next. Uncertainty and unpredictability are uncomfortable, that's for sure. No wonder we don't like change. Imagine if we could control what's going to happen next, whether it be in our personal lives or globally—it would be easy to be content. But that's not the way life is. So one of the things that helps me is to work on making peace with impermanence and the fact that we control so little. 

Are there specific Buddhist practices you can share that help with coping with change?

My books are full of practices. I write about impermanence and unpredictability a lot. So I'm going to share something I've never shared before. This is something called the five remembrances. It comes from the Buddha's list of what we're all going to experience in life at some point, like it or not. A lot of Buddhists recite these remembrances daily. I offer it here, knowing that it might not suit everyone. If it isn't right for you, that's fine. 

So here are the five remembrances:
  • I am of the nature to grow old. 
  • I am of the nature to have ill health.
  • I am of the nature to die. 
  • All that I cherish and everyone I love will change. I cannot escape being separated from them. 
  • My actions are my only belongings.

Whew. Talk about tough love! But don't take the Buddha's word for it. If you think about it, all of these are true. The first four are about change. They describe four experiences that are a natural part of the life cycle. This is why it helps to make peace with them. 

I'm sharing them because I've been finding them helpful. Here's how I use them. I don't automatically recite them every day, but if something related to one of them pops into my mind (for example, a concern about growing old or fear about death), I immediately stop whatever I'm doing, and I recite the five remembrances silently to myself. 

This is definitely having a positive affect on me. At first, reciting them felt strange to me—even shocking at times—but gradually, it's helped me to regard growing old, being ill, dying, and being separated from those I love as a normal part of the life cycle and that's taking the fear of them away. That's why I'm sharing it—in case others find it helpful.

Sometimes after people experience a big change in their lives, they feel regret. Do you have any advice for people who find themselves stuck with regretful thoughts?

There are two kinds of regret. First, we can regret the paths we didn't follow, the dreams we didn't pursue. With those, I suggest saying to yourself something like: "Everyone experiences this kind of regret. Everyone has dreams and plans they wish had work out. I may be disappointed but I'm going to move on with the life I have right now, today."

Second, there's regret that arises when we do something that might have hurt someone or even made ourselves feel bad. That kind of regret feels really bad. In my view, when something feels really bad—like guilt, for example—it rarely serves a useful purpose. Here, though I'd say that this kind of regret does serve one useful purpose: you may be able to learn from it. 

Here's how I suggest handling it. First, don't blame yourself—forgive yourself for what you did. If you don't forgive yourself, it's hard to move forward. Next, see if you can learn from whatever you're regretting by investigating it—thinking about it. Was it something you said? Or some unkind thought? When I talk about action I'm including thoughts, speech, and actual behavior. So, it could just be a thought—for example, rushing to judgment about someone. I used to do that a lot. 

Usually this kind of regret arises after you've acted out of greed—you want something and you don't care who you hurt to get it—or out of anger or ill-will towards someone. So look for those things. Were you being greedy or harboring ill-will for someone else? 

Once you can identify what you did that's making you feel regret, resolve not to do it again. (Remember that fifth remembrance: your actions are your only belongings.) And if you find yourself doing it again, investigate what happened, and renew your resolve.

Bottom line: everyone has regrets. But if you get stuck on them, you're living in the past. For me, life is too short to do that. So I would say, forgive yourself—why not? You've said something unskillful, or you snapped at someone, or you didn't spend enough time with someone—just forgive yourself. Then resolve not to engage in that behavior again.

Having done that, forget about it. Move on. You can't control the thoughts that pop into your mind. So, if you feel regret—you feel regret. Don't make it worse by dwelling on it and assigning blame. Acknowledge it and move on.  One thing I feel certain of: living in the past is the road to bitterness and anger, not the road to happiness.

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