Mindful Change: Living From the Inside Out
“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”
– Louisa May Alcott
A person came to me recently very frustrated as she was struggling with a difficult situation. She was in lot of emotional pain and she desperately wanted her situation to change; she wanted things to be different than they were right at that moment.
Her circumstances are not different from those many people are facing and hers is likely a situation that is familiar to many of you. If we are honest with ourselves, there are aspects of our lives that feel as if they are out of our control and at times we find ourselves challenged, or even overwhelmed, by this experience. You are not alone if you relate to this. Be assured, this is a common experience, part of the human condition, and often causes us quite a bit of suffering.
Mindfulness is a skillful way to address these feelings of pain and suffering that arise in your day-to-day attempts to survive. It is important to understand, however, that by cultivating mindfulness as a means of addressing the stress in your life, the circumstances of your life are not likely to go away; they may not even change. Instead, changes are happening internally, within yourself; the work you are doing is from the inside out. As you cultivate awareness in the here and now, you have the opportunity to transform the way you relate to the difficulties you encounter. By developing mindfulness, you enable yourself to see what you are experiencing more clearly and become more familiar with your habits of reacting to that. With greater clarity, you may have the possibility of responding more effectively to the challenges in your life rather than reacting automatically, falling into the same in-grown patterns that keep you stuck. Responding with greater awareness, over time, frees you from the maladaptive reactions that otherwise continue to keep you in a cycle of suffering: either reacting as a victim to the circumstances around your, or instead, being caught in denial.
You probably have experienced the futility of changing your circumstances from the outside, without addressing your internal reactions. Some examples are: quitting a job that isn’t working only to find the same problems creep up once you are in a new job, ending a problematic relationship only to find yourself experiencing the same dynamics in the next one, or finding yourself repeating the parenting styles of your parents even though you vowed you would never treat your own children in that manner. Unless you become familiar with your ingrained habitual reactions and gently work with them to explore new ways of responding out of choice, you are destined to stay stuck, a prey to your circumstances, and endure the pain that results.
However, there are options and you do have significant influence in your life, even if control is illusive. As you develop new ways of responding to the challenges in your life with awareness, not only can you minimize your own pain and suffering, but you can also become a role model for others in your life: children, spouses, co-workers and friends. As Gandhi said, “We must be the changes we wish to see in the world.”
When you are feeling the pain of dealing with challenges in life, before you react, see if you can take some time to direct your attention inward, toward your own experience. With continued practice, you may begin to be able to explore new options and respond, with choice, out of your growing awareness.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
– Viktor E. Frankl