Light and Shadow

Challenges in religious and spiritual life

As the World Turns: Learning to Enjoy Times of Rapid Change

How can we stay centered when events around us are constantly shifting?

Recently I was in an aerial tram car going up a steep, craggy mountainside. The tram car, suspended from a sturdy cable, was circular in shape. To provide panoramic views, the floor would slowly but steadily turn around, providing riders with ever-changing perspectives on the surrounding landscape. Although I loved seeing the dramatic scenery from so many different angles, the constantly shifting views also prevented me from lingering and fully taking in any one single scene. I found that if I tried to focus on anything for more than about 10 seconds, I’d be craning around backwards to try to see it—and accidentally pushing into the person next to me.

Life often feels a lot like this tram ride. Even when good things are happening, it can be tough to stay centered when the people, tasks, and environments around us are shifting constantly. Attempts to reflect on any single experience can be elusive, because we seem to be so quickly swept into the next one. Sometimes careful time management can prevent or reduce this sense of constant motion...but not always. 

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Seasons of frequent change and movement pose special challenges for people who need time for quiet reflection. When you always seem to be in motion, it may feel as though your thoughts can’t catch up to your body. Instead, you drift (or sprint) from place to place, task to task, person to person.

Some of us experience such times as spiritual challenges. To nourish ourselves spiritually, we feel a need to slow down so that we can pay greater attention to our experiences. We want to feel the breezes and currents swirling around us and try to discern their meaning. We want to reflect and to let things sink in. We want to listen, to learn, to breathe deeply. Although we find ourselves yearning for stillness, our lives continue to revolve around and around. Fatigued and out of our natural rhythms, we may find ourselves feeling disoriented and disconnected.

Here are a few ideas for making the most of these seasons of rapid change:

Be present. As the environments, tasks, and people around you continue to shift, try to focus on what (or who) is in front of you right now. Some distractions are inevitable. But as suggested in research on focused attention and mindfulness, we benefit cognitively and emotionally when we can be fully present in a given situation, rather than mentally exiting to focus on other tasks (e.g., unrelated worries; text messages; e-mails). This ability to focus may be especially important when we are interacting with other people. To the extent that we can be fully present and engaged with those who are with us, we will feel more satisfied and less scattered. We also validate others when we give them the gift of our full attention. It’s a way of saying, “You’re important to me.” 

Seek stabilizers. In that ever-rotating, sometimes swaying tram car, handrails were crucial. With something to hold onto, riders could have a sense of stability despite the constant motion. Similarly, in times of intense change, it can be helpful to seek out activities that can provide some anchoring and stability. For me, these stabilizers often take the form of time-honored habits and routines: exercise, reading and writing, prayer, regular contact with familiar people, and projects that are ongoing but not too demanding.

Hold on loosely. Although those handrails provided a sense of stability, there was a catch: While the handrails stayed in place, the floor continued to rotate. So if I held on too tightly to the handrail, I would eventually be pulled off balance. A better strategy was to hold on lightly, touching the handrail with the tips of my fingers, and to grab it tightly only when I felt unsteady. Especially in times of rapid change, I've found that a similar strategy works for my goals and projects: hold on loosely, but don't let go. (Remember that 1980’s song by 38 Special? The song was about a girl, but it might also apply to some of your goals.)  

Embrace moments of stillness. When I exited the tram on top of the mountain, I was surrounded by throngs of people. But with a little effort, I found quieter spaces. I walked to each lookout point and sat down, taking in the vistas. I heard the wind whistle in the pines and felt its bracing touch on my skin. As I reduced the flow of new input and was able to savor my surroundings, my soul began to settle down. When it was time to head back, I enjoyed the crowded tram car more after those peaceful moments on my own.

My tram ride encouraged me to focus on the beauty of the present moment. In life, though, the prospect of focusing on the here and now might feel a little risky: By being fully present to the person or experience in front of us, could we miss something important that’s hovering around the edges of our awareness? When I have these thoughts, it helps me to remember a lesson from my psychotherapy training: If there’s something that I’m really supposed to see, or a message that I really need to hear, I can trust that the same theme will come around again...when I’m ready to focus on it.

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She is a licensed psychologist and a certified spiritual director.

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