The Challenge of Change
by Ayya Dhammadhira, 2014
When I first entered the monastery, I had an intuitive sense of what I would be facing in my life as a nun. I remember drawing a picture of two feet standing on a patch of earth as it crumbled in front of me. The caption below the drawing read, “Let this ground fall away from beneath my feet, for all ways of imagination are incomplete.” I had no idea at the time how this was going to play out in my life, but over the years this truth would re-emerge in unmistakable ways. Each time I thought that I had arrived at something solid and dependable, the ground would shift and become unstable. The problem wasn’t that conditions weren’t reliable but that I had expected them to be.
The Buddha taught that uncertainty is one of the three fundamental marks of existence. It is the key to understanding the other two marks – unsatisfactoriness and non-self – because it is impossible to find lasting satisfaction in what is constantly changing and we can’t claim what is out of our control as being our own.
Psychologists tell us that the number one cause of stress in the lives of individuals is due to the uncontrollable changes that we experience. A loss of a job or a relationship, ageing, sickness and death are but a few of the challenges we will be faced with at some point in our lives. Of course, if our health improves or we find a better job, we find these kinds of changes favorable. Hence, uncertainty in and of itself is not the problem. Rather, it is that we prefer certain outcomes over others.
There are many ways that we try to protect ourselves from life’s unpredictability but most of them only give a temporary or false sense of security. Instead of dealing with the underlying fear and anxiety that we harbor in our body and mind, we often cover them over with activities, busying and distracting ourselves from the inconvenient and uncomfortable aspects of existence. We manage situations that we find difficult by coming up with plans and strategies aimed at ensuring that the future is more secure. We try to armor ourselves against what we perceive to be threatening in our environment, be it physical intrusions or the complexities of interpersonal relationships. Being unsure of what’s coming around the corner, we build up our defenses, construct policies, check our ammunition and get the back-ups in place. This seems logical, but it puts us on hyper alert. In trying to safeguard against our vulnerability, we are actually adding stress to our lives.
While acknowledging our various coping strategies, it is important that we don’t judge them. To some degree, we need external situations to provide us with a sense of security. In fact, a safe environment is essential for the healthy development of children, the lack of which effects us into our adult lives. Moreover, it will be difficult if not impossible to meditate on higher truths if our physical or emotional well-being feels threatened. Even as mature adults, there are times in our lives when we get re-traumatized by events. Something happens that pierces right into the tender spot that we thought we had protected.
The process of meditation itself can allow old emotional disturbances to surface once again. Here it is important not to ignore what is happening or to interpret it in elevated terms that bypass our felt experience. Instead, we need to allow the feelings to surface, to be known and held in awareness. With gentleness and kindness, we can embrace unwanted emotions rather than demanding that we pull ourselves together in order to meet expectations of what a spiritual practitioner “should” be experiencing. Contrary to what we are conditioned to believe, there’s no need to improve on anything, including ourselves.
Being present with whatever arises in our minds and hearts can be very uncomfortable. There can be a sense of helplessness or despair when we don’t have control over what we are experiencing. Having no guarantee that we will be able to cope with what comes next can feel more threatening than if a cobra were standing in front of us. Understandably, our reaction would be to distance ourselves from this perceived threat by running in the opposite direction, distracting ourselves, fighting what we perceive to be the enemy, or numbing out. Unfortunately, these strategies don’t solve any of our problems.
Alternatively, we can employ mindfulness of the breath and body to bring attention to the present moment. When watching our breath, we do it without trying to change the length or depth of our inhalations and exhalations. We just allow the breath to be as it is. Likewise, when we encounter unpleasant feelings, we can apply the same approach. By allowing what is emerging to be held within a space of awareness, we are not caught in the scenarios that the mind conjures up. When we breathe into any physical or emotional knot in the present moment, we will find that it is not only bearable but transient and, thus, not who we really are. In just this much, we have found a refuge wherein we can stay with the changing nature of physical and mental phenomena.
As we let go of what is familiar to us, it is natural to experience fear of the unknown. When this happens, it’s good to remember that fear is a habitual reaction to moving closer to the truth of uncertainty. To the rational mind, welcoming unwanted emotions such as fear seems contrary to our well-being. Here, it is important to discern whether the unpleasant feeling is due to a real or imagined threat. In other words, do the present conditions allow me to engage in the process of waking up to the way things are or is my well-being compromised beyond my capacity to cope skillfully? A heroic stance is not always the most skillful response. Our intuitive sense is more trustworthy than relying on the ideals that have been handed down to us. Wise friends may offer support and provide helpful advice but ultimately we need to come back to the integrity found within our own hearts.
It is common to come to a point in our lives where we feel we are at a crossroads. For some reason, we are unable to continue in the same direction that we have been going. Unfortunately, the way forward is not always obvious. Confusion, desire and aversion can color our perception at any given time and make it impossible to rely our own thought processes. We may see several options in front of us while not knowing which of them is the “right” one. Fear of making the “wrong” choice can be highly stressful if we think in terms of duality and absolutes. We can feel stuck or trapped by our circumstances but, at the same time, unable to move out of them. Many factors can contribute to our ambiguity such as the expectations of others, what is seen as culturally acceptable or our sense of duty and obligation. We can reason for days, months or even years and still not arrive at an answer that satisfies all these competing demands. Ultimately, making skillful decisions requires that we let go of the “perfect” outcome and be willing to face whatever may come from our best intentions. Through struggling with this process repeatedly, I’m gradually coming to trust that no matter what I choose I will have the opportunity to learn the lessons that are needed for the sake of my heart’s true freedom.
Finally having made a choice, we may battle with doubt or regret, wondering whether it was the right thing to have done. If our context changes significantly, there can be a sense of dislocation resulting in no place for “me” to exist in its familiar way. The forms we take, the roles we play, and the relationships we have with others are all ways that we define ourselves as a person. When these change, we can feel adrift on a sea without an anchor or safe harbor in sight. Some would view this as an existential or mid-life crisis to be corrected but, seen in the light of Dhamma, it is precisely at this point that we are at the threshold of a deeper understanding.
Instead of creating a new identity by clinging to different forms, roles, and relationships, we could just feel what it is like in the gap where no one exists. If we are able to gently inquire into our experience, we will discover a stability and strength beyond the limitations of who we once perceived ourselves to be. By not clinging to the past and the future, we can allow the present moment to be our teacher. In doing so, a new space opens to reveal an underlying wholeness within our being. Just this becomes the ever-present ground beneath our feet.
The Challenge of Change