"We do one thing or another; we stay the same, or we change.
Congratulations, if you have changed." ~Mary Oliver
And so the big ah-ha moment: Change is hard.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about change, and the ways we engage with it (or don't, or won't) depending on our perceived readiness to embrace it. All of us are all really just layfolk on our own journeys through change, whether on a physical, emotional or spiritual plane. At the risk of this post degrading into simple platitudes or pop-psych blather, let me try to say a little more.
As an acupuncturist and yoga practitioner/teacher, I am in the business of change. People come to both of my realms of experience badly in need of change on lots of levels, and sometimes on levels they are not yet aware of. From addiction to depression to grief to chronic pain to over-training in athletics, I see it all. In the realm of yoga, for example, many people are tasting a dissatisfaction of sorts with their lives, a discomfort as though something is out of place, or just "off" somehow. They have tried many things to facilitate change: self-help books, raw food diets, Tony Robbins seminars, various prescription or recreational drugs, month-long silent retreats, binge eating, trips to India, internet shopping. Nothing seems to satisfy the craving for more, and they are desperate. So, often they show up to yoga. Of course there are many other reasons that people show up there, too, but that is another topic altogether. There is an urgency that something needs to shift for them to realize the more that they feel they are inside, or to at the very least shake the doubt and discomfort that life has dealt them thus far.
In Acupuncture, people come to me in pain, mostly. They are struggling and suffering, sometimes for extended periods of time, and generally they just get tired of it. In the same way, they have often tried many things to initiate change: Physical therapy, meditation, medication (either prescribed or self-selected, for better or worse, and just one letter away from the former), John Sarno's book, floatation tanks, water fasts, enemas, Peruvian Shamans, you name it. They come to a place where they are READY for whatever is next because they are sick of what is present and sometimes they are jaded, as they have tried many avenues already. How on earth can sticking a stainless steel needle into someone do a damn thing to help their pain? The truth is, it is so much more than that.
Which brings me to something I have been reading about lately. Psychologists (et al) please forgive me (or correct me!) if I misfire here about the Trans-Theoretical Model of Change, my most recent obsession of how we can, as thinking and feeling people, engage with change. And how I, as a practitioner and teacher, can best help both suggest it, and support it as it arises.
So when I first suggest to someone that they may need to do something different, there is a stage called Pre-Contemplation. In other step-based programs this one might also be called denial. I call it making excuses for why we need not change, which is an odd situation for a person that seems to desperately want to make a change. But never will we see the exquisitely functioning mind at its level best, leaping into action, then when an argument is made for it to have to change. And so we argue. This is where I try to nudge, not force, to get to the actual Contemplation stage. I often will suggest contemplation or inquiry rather than insist on action. I ask questions. "Does running ever hurt your hips?" I ask. "Is there something emotionally in your life that is not getting your attention, that is really asking for it?" I know the answer. So do you. I do my best to observe and not judge what I find. Sometimes a good bit of honest reflection back to the person of the things that have been have said to me in the past can be so useful in coming to the next stage, which is loosely defined as Preparation.
In the Preparation stage, there is a bit of ambivalence about what needs to happen, but not abject denial anymore. Our mind is changing a bit, even if we are reluctant to open it entirely. This is a stage that needs lots of support! This is where we might actually look up the class schedule online for the yoga center that our friend goes to and blabs on and on about, or call a new healthcare practitioner and inquire if they take our insurance, or wonder if drinking less at night might actually help us sleep better, or ask someone about meditation. If we get this far, this is a great time to be able to start forming a plan of action, support and resources, so that any intention to heal or change can be supported not just by us, but by a community of loving friends, well-wishers, and family. We can't do it alone. And the cool thing is, we aren't even supposed to.
Preparation is usually followed by Action, real action, where we start to see some of the benefits from the changes we have made. In yoga, its when the practice starts to actually DO something that is palpable beyond the obvious things like "touching your toes" (which incidentally is a totally worthwhile goal) but stretches into things like a calmer temper in a normally aggravating situation like in line at the DMV, more understanding and patience with our children, asking a questions instead of flying off the handle in an argument, and the like. Maybe I am just exposing myself here, but there are just some of the by-products of taking a new tactic toward Action. These are the life-altering changes to both our health and the health of our community and family. To put it in terms of pain, when we hurt less, in any capacity, we are generally less hurtful, less depressed, more participatory in our life and the lives of those we care for. When we take care of "me" we are capable of taking care of "we."
At the next stage, Maintenance, the exciting dance-party of newness is over. The bloom is off the rose of yoga, or the reality sets in that making and keeping the change is a life-long endeavor, which may not be good news to us after all. Cue sad trombone sound here, wah-wah. It's harder to get up in the winter for that pre-work yoga class, perhaps life is a bit harder without percocet to get us through the day, we are mad that we still suck somewhat at our new choice of exercise since injury meant we had to give up cross-fit, and even though many other things may have improved, we are slowly sliding backwards. Habit is brutal. One of the hardest things about changing ourselves is that often our relationships change too. Interactions can become complex if we are doing something new (drunk people don't always particularly like sober ones, for example.) and sometimes in general our friends aren't stoked that we are vegan/gluten-free/raw-foodist/vegetarian/organic/insert whatever now and eating out is more complicated than it used to be. Or we don't run anymore because we ruined our knees and thus now have to change exercise routines and thus change exercise partners or groups, or now go to bed early so we can wake up early to practice our newfound love of yoga or meditation. It just may not jive with the old life. Talk about change, its not just us that are affected by the changes we make, however positive they are. Maintenance requires ongoing support, and in most instances involves creating new habits and patterns and gathering new people that are favorable to that new set of habits and patterns.
With change, in both Acupuncture and Yoga, its not "Poof! You're better! Its all done!" and then you can get on with it. There really isn't any going back. It's ongoing, and consistently, you guessed it, changing, evolving. It is generally a long-term commitment to a new way of seeing, being, and knowing that will sustain positive change and growth. I have found that the major key is support, a community that is wise to and supportive of, our changing. That differs from one to the next, but it matters to all of us.
So the next time you threaten to change, to finally do something different, try thinking on this little system. See if you can find yourself in there, at one of the stages, and see what comes next. Inquire. Chances are you will need help. We all do. And the good news is, with so many of us asking, chances are we will be there for each other. So go forth, make positive changes, ask for help, and practice your follow-through.