Navigating the Winds of Change

By Melissa Moore

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Change is coming, and there's nothing we can do to stop it, so the question is, ‘ how do we move gracefully through the inevitability of life’s changes and be wisened by them?’ 

Some societal changes sweep in change faster than we can prepare for, like unexpected election results or suddenly being laid off by a giant tech company. There are gradual changes, like aging,  kids growing older and leaving home, or societal shifts that occur without too many disruptions or annoyance, like the introduction of artificial intelligence or the rise of the smartphone. And then there is drastic and unexpected change;  sudden deaths, natural disasters, illnesses, family tragedies, or accidents that come out of nowhere. These changes evolve naturally; for the most part, we integrate them as they happen; gradual societal changes are viewed as progress and expected. 

It's the unexpected change that most of us struggle with, complain about, resist, and sometimes willfully sabotage. Sudden change is usually out of our control and imposed on us, either by others who have the power or by greater circumstances like the weather.  We can also prepare for unexpected change, but not with our usual attempts to ensure ourselves against calamity. We can become busy nailing down the rug of our lives to ensure we’re not caught off guard. But suppose we could raise our gaze beyond our preoccupations with security?  We can discover the inevitable aspect of change that is always in process and the changes that move us toward living a more responsive, wise, and dynamic existence. In other words, life wisens us when we learn to embrace change.

The ability to accommodate and navigate change falls on a continuum; on one end is utter resistance and a refusal to move forward – on the other is an expectation for change. Meaning if it's not changing, we get nervous. We all fall in different places on the continuum, and it's essential to know our habits around meeting any life changes.

For several years I was the director of the research and training division of one of the oldest social service agencies in San Francisco.  I was the agency’s labeled ‘change agent,’ which didn’t make me popular with the clinicians who worked in the many mental health programs the agency oversaw. 

My job was to help the CEO update an outdated agency to modern times. In 2005,  that meant getting people to use email, implementing a newly designed data management system for client record keeping and billing, and bringing evidence-base-practices to all of the agency's services. Clinicians hated the changes. So in that job, I experienced firsthand the strategies to avoid change. 

Many clinicians resisted the change I implemented across the agency, first by ignoring them, then by actively undermining the system. It was so tricky that I ran all the agency's clinicians through a  ‘change adoption survey’ to find out where they fell on the adaptation-to-change continuum. Adaptability to change scales measured the clinician's proclivities to an experience of change. I fall on the far end of the continuum of a person who is quite comfortable with change. I get anxious if things stay the same, which made me a complete outlier in that agency. Many fell on the other end of the continuum, where any change brought anxiety and struggle.  Learning about people’s propensity to change was informative, and I realized people need to be taught to navigate change because change will happen, like it or not. 

I had to think about what made my proclivity to change so open and expecting. Perhaps a groundless childhood, moving countless times between divorced parents.  I’ve also traveled a great deal – all seasoned travelers know things do not go as planned, almost ever. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel anxious in the face of unexpected change, but I’m also known as an ‘early adapter’ in a system of change.  I believe the Buddhist teachings on impermanence have prepared me the most for adaptation to change. As a practitioner, I’ve sat in contemplation for many hours around the truth of impermanence. 

Impermanence is a natural process that teaches us that once something is born into existence, it is subject to death. We are naive to think we can put things in place in life forever, whether that be a relationship, a job, a home, or even a way of thinking about life. Holding and integrating the truth of impermanence allows us to prepare for the change that will eventually appear. It doesn’t mean change will not break our hearts or irrevocably interrupt us.

Integrating the truth of impermanence allows us to be less self-occupied when change occurs. We become more proactive in creating the changes we desire. As Gandhi said, you must be the change you wish to see in the world. 

Preparing for the truth of impermanence will allow us to navigate the winds of change. If you would like to practice working with impermanence in a group setting and share what’s arising, please join me for a Karuna Live on Thursday evening, March 9, at 6 PM MT.

Article written by Melissa Moore

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