What a year it has been. A global pandemic, almost five months of quarantine, social upheaval and protests and international social justice movements, online and off.. At the turn of the new year, none of us saw any of this coming. As for me, as I toasted the new year with non-alco bubbly, four months pregnant, I knew 2020 would be different.. but I didn’t anticipate this.
Over the past weeks and months as we and I have seen waves of transformation crash over us, socially, politically, environmentally, personally, I have been contemplating change – how, why, where it happens, how we can navigate change with grace, and, understanding its dynamics, how we can bring about positive lasting change in our own lives.
We want change – but do we really?
You might say that none of us wanted the changes that have come into our lives recently. With great distaste we have left behind our old lifestyles, busy work and life routines, altered our rhythms dramatically to fit with the “new normal” we are all living with. So you might think that familiarity and comfort are what we as a species prefer. In fact, that very impulse to constantly be doing and working is part of the desire for change – new experiences, new possessions, the flashiest new phone, new car and clothes, progress. We crave change. The thing is that we aren’t always prepared to do what is required to get it.
Change requires making room. There is only a finite amount of time, space and energy in the universe and in order for the new to come in we must let go of the old.
No pain, no gain.
Change is often accompanied by discomfort – lockdown has certainly demonstrated that. And in particular when big change happens in a small amount of time, the degree of pain corresponds with the nature of the change occurring, as space is carved out for the new. I always felt that the intensity of labour for example was an appropriate process for the appearance of new life into the outside world. It would seem odd to me for such a great change to occur without some side effects, and indeed, the surges of physical sensation were like drums and trumpets heralding the arrival of our new little human.
This is why pregnancy – a time of great transformation – is a preparation by making space, mentally emotionally and physically, for this new life. I found that the more you can relax into the process and let the changes happen, the easier the whole thing is – that goes for pregnancy and labour too.
For any transformation, pain and discomfort is worsened by resistance. Physically when we clench, but especially mentally when we grasp on to how things used to be or how we would rather they were. In Buddhism we know that suffering is caused by desire – the wish for things to be different to how they are now. As time inevitably rushes forward, the difference between this old configuration and present reality gets greater and greater, and when we cling on to the past way, we get more stretched and bent out of shape as time pulls us forward away from how it used to be.
Change is life
This is the thing – as long as time is moving forward, change is happening. Life itself is change. Birth, growth, death – each stage of our lives is a transformation, and it’s easy to forget that this is happening all the time. We are hurtling forward towards the ultimate change -death. This explains why we cling to the past. If we can halt change maybe we will delay our inevitable demise.. In the Yoga Sutra Patanjali lists this clinging to the past, abhinivesha, as one of the kleshas, the hangups that make our thoughts (citta vrrti) into obstacles (klista) (YS.1.5) Our minds create great palaces of thought from memory, or even notions of the status quo, and we can get lost in these constructions, left behind as time rushes on.
How did we get here?
Change is such a delicate and subtle dynamic, we often can’t see it happening at the time. But hindsight shows the dramatic differences that come with cumulative progress. The physical yoga practice is a great place to see this play out, as we make progress, physically or mentally. Change is happening in every single moment, as the hairs grow on your head, as the clouds move across the sky and pour down waters onto the Earth.
If we look back we can see each event of the past months and years leading to the next, though we could never have seen it coming. All of the social justice work, the global surge in support for Black Lives Matter and the reassessment of our treatment of other marginalised groups.. The killing of George Floyd landed in fertile social soil. After 3 months of quarantine our lifestyles had changed so much that we had already broken down many of our habitual ways of thinking. Consumerism, individualism, neglect of our natural and social surroundings, taking the world for granted. Covid showed us that our way of life has to change, and pushed our tolerance levels for injustice through the floor. Similarly the build up to this pandemic has been accumulating for a while – decades of globalisation, unhealthy habits, the breakneck pace of life. That bat in China was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Meanwhile if I look back at where I was a year ago, my daughter Olya wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye, I had no idea where I would be at even in a couple of months. But when I look back now, I understand that the busy-ness, fun and excitement of last summer(yoga workshops! Friend visits! Sunny days and fast bike rides!) created the sense of contentment and wellbeing in me that made me literally ripe for conception at the end of the season.
We don’t see what changes are happening at the time because we can’t fathom the myriad factors that are at play. I’ve written before about how the world is too big for us to control – it’s too vast for us to calculate where things might turn next.
If the world is so big and change so constant and inexorable, how can we lasso its force to affect change, to steer our lives in a positive direction?
I suppose as with dealing with anything powerful, it’s a good idea to start with respect. We must bear in mind that the force of change is a torrent as powerful as the ebullient life force itself, yet it unfolds gradually, intricately. So if we want to create change, it has to be done patiently, and responsively.
The first weeks postpartum unfolded carefully for me as I held this in my mind. Ordinarily I am one to leap onto my mat at the first opportunity – my energy levels and enthusiasm know no bounds! Here however I came face to face – or rather, body to body, with the healing of the most sensitive and delicate parts of me. Muladhara and Manipura, the root and the solar plexus, burst open – to knit them back together would take such sensitivity and patience. Only when I really slowed down I felt my recovery come together in an enduring and integrated way.
I would argue that all transformation processes are equally delicate, calling for reverence and sensitivity.
Part of that sensitivity and reverence means allowing ourselves to be changed. Just as the body itself is constantly adjusting, responding to outside stimuli,just to maintain homeostasis, so we must be open and flexible in order to affect change, and even more so to navigate the turbulence of the world around. Life will transform us – we cannot avoid this.
Be reborn every moment
After Olya was born, for the first timeI felt tangibly, intimately, that the self doesn’t exist. I felt like a total blank canvas, not only because the external things about my life were different, my body, my daily habits, my work and pastimes and plans all shelved for the foreseeable future – but deep inside there was a new spaciousness where transformation was taking place.
Does it sound familiar? Having to let go of your old habits and activities, not recognising yourself if you’re not productive or going out and doing what you used to do? A lot of us went through this as lockdown descended, coming to terms with the discomfort of losing these external forms by which we know ourselves. We had to shed them, and this is where the process of change began, why we are all different now, we let go of our old lives and stepped into this constantly shifting “new normal”.
There is a cliche that as a child is born, so are her parents – it’s true I suppose, although I’d always resisted what always felt like a kitschy oversimplification – that you suddenly become a whole different person. No, you are always going to take forward your own qualities into a new role. Even though there is a new spaciousness in me and I’m not the same as I used to be, the kind of parent I’ll be flows out of what kind of human I am, that I have shapeshifted into over the years of my life.
There were some days when I felt resistance to this shift – I don’t want to let go of the fun hyper-productive busy girl who speeds around town on her bicycle from teaching to practising to socialising. Of course I realised that it was the very clinging to this old me that made me feel so uncomfortable – if I relaxed and allowed myself to change, who knows what kind of exciting new adventures I would encounter.
Change yourself in step with the world
This is the thing – we think we are static beings, but that’s only how it appears from the inside looking out. We are as fluid as the world around us – every moment we live shapes our bodies and minds – this is what ensures our survival.
So this is how to navigate change with grace – we allow ourselves to be changed, and dance apace with the universe around us. If we stop carrying the burden of emotional baggage (known in yoga as samskaras), past ideas and idealised notions, our vision gets so clear, and we are able to see how things really are right now. The more information we have from the present moment – from our bodies, from nature, from the people around us, the more efficiently we can adjust and live in harmony with our surroundings – transforming and transformed every moment.