Opening to Change
Learn how to bend, not break, in the winds of change
Posted Jun 29, 2020
Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality. — Pema Chödrön
Change is a difficult, but inevitable, part of life. Some of us are naturally more comfortable with change than others. In fact, research shows that openness to change is a core personality feature, which appears to be somewhat stable and at least partially inherited. But we all struggle to adapt sometimes, regardless of personality. For example, we all feel threatened by loss and get stressed by major changes, like a move or job change. Luckily, we all can build our capacity to accept change with grace using complementary wisdom from Buddhism and modern psychology.
The Buddhist teaching of impermanence (annica in Pali or anitya in Sanskrit) asserts that all of conditioned existence is “transient, evanescent, inconstant.” That is, nothing lasts; all that exists is impermanent. This teaching offers a perspective from which to understand change and a guiding principle for how we can respond. It teaches that nothing can be grasped or held onto; that there is nothing to gain but suffering when we fight the inevitability of change.
This may initially strike us as sad or difficult to accept: how can we simply let go of the security of things we have worked for, the people and things we love? But we needn't view it negatively. In fact, accepting this teaching is quite liberating. Acknowledging the transience of all things actually makes life all the more poignant. It makes the things we have and love more precious, as we know they won't last. Furthermore, the inevitable loss of what we love becomes not just sad, but also beautiful. Beautiful because we appreciate the fleeting, lovely gifts we have been given in this life. Like the brief but vibrant blossoming of a magnolia or chokecherry tree in spring, we anticipate and then pause to enjoy the beauty and fragrance each year. We accept this evanescent pleasure without trying to alter the course of nature. With intention, we can bring this same spirit to the other changes in our lives.
In sum, the teaching of impermanence can help us appreciate life just as it is. We learn not to fight against the tide, but to surf the wave of change, with openness to the unknown of what's next. Theoretically, to achieve total openness is to live in the flow of the universe, and to know complete freedom from suffering.
Although total openness is an aspirational (rather than practical) goal, building a mindset of openness confers a variety of benefits. For example, people high in the trait of openness possess strong adaptive problem-solving strategies, higher than average levels of well-being, and more positive, loving relationships. Though research suggests personality traits are relatively stable, at least some personality characteristics can be changed with intervention. Therefore, it may be possible to cultivate openness and use the wisdom of impermanence to suffer less and live more fully in the face of change. To begin this process, give the following strategies a try:
1. Switch up your routine. Train yourself to adapt more readily to change by inviting changes into your life. For example, take a new route to work, take a class, travel, get to know a new person, or try a new cuisine.
2. Give thanks for gifts that came in unwelcome packages. Pause and think through some of the unexpected and unwelcome twists on your life's path and how they turned out to be blessings in the end. For example, maybe you would not have met your partner had your heart not been broken by someone else. Offer appreciation for these unexpected gifts.
3. Cultivate curiosity by living in the grey area. Anytime you assess a situation as black/white or right/wrong, challenge yourself to acknowledge the nuance and the grey area. Notice the habit of making automatic judgments and try instead to contemplate the more complicated, messy reality of life by being curious and open to new ideas and perspectives. For example, try to “walk in the shoes” of someone with whom you have conflict, recognizing that his/her behavior and feelings have reason based in his/her perspective of the world.
4. Meditate on impermanence. For example, you can meditate on the inevitability of death. While this may sound morbid, the practice is widespread among Buddhists and can be quite freeing. The truth is that we all will die. Accepting that reality reduces fear and enables us to live more fully and with greater appreciation for life.
5. Find your mandala. The ancient ritual of making sand mandalas, in which monks painstakingly create intricate, colorful, perfectly geometric mandalas from sand, is designed to symbolize the impermanence of the material world. Take the time to craft something beautiful and then let it go. For example, carefully build a sandcastle at the shoreline. Bask in its beauty and then smile as it's washed away.