There’s one part of life that, if you can master it, while I can’t definitely guarantee it will make you happy, it will definitely help make your life significantly happier. Let me start with a story.
When I was younger, I had finished my undergraduate degree in psychology and was planning to go on and get my Masters in comparative religion. It was a very challenging time for me because I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do with my life at that point. I really loved psychology and I thought about going into psychology as my career. But I also really loved to learn. I loved studying the religions of the world and I thought about becoming a college professor. Because I kept changing my mind, I ended up applying to a variety of schools, some later than others. I was accepted into some, but was put on a waiting list by others or just wasn’t accepted. In the end, I decided to go to Arizona State University and was very happy with my choice. Though I had wanted to go to some of the other schools I had applied to, I knew ASU was an excellent school and I was excited to go there.
So once I arrived, I chose my courses and also learned I was going to be a T.A. or “teaching assistant.” I was even given my own office with my name on the door. The following Monday, I was going to start teaching and going to school at the same time. It was an exciting time in my life because I finally had settled on what I wanted to do and everything seemed to be in place… including my name on a door. Then on the Thursday before I was to start teaching, I got a call from Princeton. They said, “We know we put you on a waiting list because you applied late, but we now have an opening and we’d really like you to come here.” Now mind you, ASU was a great program and I was really excited to be there. But Princeton had really been my first choice for studying world religions. You can probably imagine the emotional turmoil I was in at that time. But here is what I decided to do. Because I had made a commitment to ASU, I felt I needed to fulfill that commitment. However, I decided to tell my professor what had happened. First, I wanted to see what his thoughts were. Second, if he was understanding of my dilemma and would give me permission to leave ASU, I then needed to see if I could get financial aid at Princeton, because I was one of those many very poor students.
Well, when I sat down with my professor, he was incredibly gracious and kind, and he said, “Of course, you can go to Princeton. I know their program well. They have offered you a great opportunity and we definitely support you in this decision.” Excitedly, I called Princeton and they were able to give me almost a free ride to go there. So I packed my bags and drove off to the east coast.
What this story is about is that life is impermanent. Life changes regularly, and if we flow well with life, then life will go well for us. If we fight life and its changes, then we’re going to suffer. It’s really one of those absolutes in life. Life is going to change, period. It’s just not going to stay the same. People we love are going to die, we’re going to have to move, we’re going to get sick, and so on. Studies have shown that the average person will have six jobs in his or her life, and these may even be jobs that they have to get re-trained for. Six! That’s a lot of jobs! Also, if you’re from the United States, there is about a 50-50 chance you’re probably going to get divorced. So even your marital status is probably going to change in your life. Now mind you, some things do stay the same, but there are never any guarantees.
There are people that go to school, get a job, stay at that job, retire, and then pass away. They lead a fairly simple, straightforward life. There aren’t many people like this but they are out there. However, even these people who live a fairly simple life of very little change are still going to have changes in their life. They’re going to lose their parents or loved ones, they’ll suffer personal illnesses, children may come into their life, and more. Things are going to change for all of us. The only thing permanent in life is its impermanence. Life is impermanent, life changes, so if we fight changes (and they are going to occur all along the way of life), then we’re definitely not going to be happy campers.
Though it’s good to have goals and make plans in life, we definitely have to be flexible. Flexibility allows us to be happy, allows us to flow with life instead of fighting life. If we fight life, we’re just going to suffer. But if we flow with life, then life goes pretty well. Let me give you another example, using the world of sports this time.
In American professional football, there are certain players known as “receivers”. These are the guys that run down the field so their quarterback can throw them the football. Their job is to catch it, and then to try to run for a touchdown (i.e., a score for their team). What often happens with them is that they run down the field at break-neck speed, they jump up in the air to catch the pass, and just as they catch the ball a player from the other team comes and hits them as hard as he possibly can and knocks them to the ground. As you can probably imagine, receivers have a lot of injuries. However there are professional athletes, like the great receiver Jerry Rice and some others, who played for years and never got injured. When we as psychologists interview them and ask, “Why haven’t you been injured? What’s your secret?”, it may surprise you that they all give the same answer. They tell us that when they get hit, they relax. When they relax, they don’t get injured as much, or as often, or not at all. This is actually just physics in motion. In physics, when you hit something like a pillow, it doesn’t hurt anything because it’s very relaxed and flexible. On the other hand, if you hit a steel plate, your hand is probably going to break because the steel plate and your hand are both stiff and inflexible.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the example of the traffic accident where a drunk driver has been driving and he hits another car, and everyone in that other car is gravely injured and dies, while the drunk driver walks away from the crash with barely a scratch. What happens here is that the drunk driver was relaxed from the alcohol and, because he was relaxed, he wasn’t injured. Of course, the alcohol impaired his abilities and caused the accident, so I’m definitely not advocating that you drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol so you can be relaxed in case you have an accident. I use this example only to point out the theory that a relaxed body accepts what’s coming at it, just as football players avoid injury by relaxing their bodies before impact.
Believe it or not, this style applies to life too. We have two choices in life, other than to not flow with it. What most people choose to do when change occurs is to become upset. Sometimes, these people turn to something like alcohol to relax themselves so, at least for a time, they don’t feel the change. Of course, alcohol has lots of consequences to it, as do any addictive vices. Addictions are our way of not dealing well with change. We don’t want to feel it, we want to soften the impact, we want to relax, so we drink or we turn to other substances, or we do other things instead of just feeling the event and going with it.
The other option we have, and one that I recommend of course, is to relax our minds with meditation instead of turning to alcohol and other addicting substances. First, life is impermanent. Life is going to change, and if we flow with life, if we relax when things happen and say “I may not have wanted that to happen but I’m going to flow with this and do my best to accept this change because life is a series of changes”, we will be much better off. So if we flow with it and accept that the plans we made have been altered, even though we don’t like that our plans have been changed, we’re going to find a way to turn these “lemons” into lemonade.
For example, perhaps right now you’re out of work. You didn’t expect to be out of work but you’re out of work, so what can you do? You can, of course, apply for other jobs, but you can also choose to be trained in a new field that you may enjoy even more. In the end, you’ll end up loving life more. In the end, you’ll succeed by accepting the guarantee that change is a part of life and deciding that “Well, change has occurred. I didn’t expect it, but it’s a part of life. I can either decide to fight this change, I can numb it, or I can flow with it.” What do you think is the best choice? Just remember that we ultimately have three choices on how to handle change in our life. One is that we can fight it, but that just causes suffering, not to mention that it’s futile to fight it. To want something to be different than it really is just really kind of silly. Or we can accept the change in our life and deal with it. We can say, “Okay, this is the way it is. Now I am left with two choices, because I’m not going to fight it. So now that I have two choices, what am I going to do? Am I going to numb it by turning to alcohol or some other substance that will make this feeling go away?” We all realize that this option doesn’t really work, as the feeling goes away only temporarily and we cause ourselves more problems in life. Addictions just don’t work, plus they have numerous consequences to them. The alcoholic may walk away from the accident, but ultimately he’s going to face criminal charges and mental anguish for the damage he’s caused to others. So obviously I don’t recommend turning to alcohol or drugs or addictions of any type to deal with changes in life, and I’m sure you agree with me.
So what can we do to deal with change? In the end, we can look at it and say “Hmm, this is not what I expected, but I’m going to flow with this. I’m going to make this work no matter how tragic it is.” Here’s a word of hope for us; if there’s one person on the planet going through the same thing that we’re going through and he or she is happy, that means there’s a possibility we can work through our own change and also be happy in life like that other person.
So, for example, if a soldier loses his leg in a war and now he’s an amputee, he can be comforted by the fact that there are other people in this world that have lost a leg and yet they’re still happy. He can be the same as them. They made it work and are perhaps climbing mountains and living their life’s work once they accepted the change that challenged them. All we need is one example for us to realize that we too can survive this change and make it work for us.
From this reasoning, we learn that it isn’t the change itself that causes our unhappiness; it is our resistance to that change that causes unhappiness. Ultimately people are about as happy as they choose to be. If we want to be happy, we have to choose to be happy. That means that when things happen that we don’t expect, either good or bad, then we have to learn to accept them, flow with them, and live our lives well. We are all capable of creating this kind of happiness in response to changes in our lives that challenge us. So try going with the flow and accepting change, even embracing it, the next time life hands you an unexpected change. And choose to live a happy, beautiful life.