The Timetable of TransitionsBy Sheryl Paul
March 15, 2011
Transitions, like grief, have their own timetable. Despite one's best efforts to rush along the difficult feelings and anxious thoughts, each person will traverse the terrain of transitions according to their own internal needs and rhythm. While major life transitions like getting married or becoming a parent usually follow a two year course (engagement to one year anniversary or pregnancy through baby's first birthday), this time frame can vary dramatically depending on the deeper issues that are triggered during the transition.
For example, for many people the wedding transition releases deep-seated and formerly unconscious beliefs about love and marriage. If your parents divorced, it's likely you will carry the belief that says, "Marriage never lasts." If your parents had a seemingly perfect marriage (there's no such thing, but it may have appeared that way to you), you may carry the belief that says, "My marriage will never live up to theirs." You're probably struggling with beliefs about the fantasy of love that everyone who grew up in Western culture carries. While a significant portion of these false beliefs can and should be addressed during the engagement, for many people the fears run so deep that they continue to need attention throughout the first year and beyond. I've italicized those last two words to emphasize that the one year anniversary isn't a magic marker that sends a signal to the psyche saying, "Okay, it's all over now. Time to tie up this transition with a nice neat bow and move on now." You will need to attend to the beliefs for as long as they're ruling your life, and for many people that extends way beyond the first year of marriage.
If you're in the middle of a transition right now, I know it's uncomfortable. I know you long for an answer to the question of, "When will this end?" Anxiety is miserable. Grief is difficult. Psyche longs for a definite timeframe, a hook of certainty on which to hang the highly uncomfortable hat of non-knowing. One of the hardest times of pregnancy, for example, is the last days and weeks when you're waiting to go into labor and you long to know the answers to the questions, "When? How? Who?" Sadly, some women schedule a C-section to avoid this state of unknown, only to find that, while they managed to sidestep one element of uncertainty by landing on a definite date, the rest of the birth and the entire lifespan of motherhood are a cascade of one uncertainty after another.
Almost any state of suffering is manageable when you know how long it will last. In this sense, it's the unknown more than the anxiety that creates the suffering. In other words, the anxiety, pain or struggle are exacerbated by the mind's relentless question of, "When will this end?" Whenever I think about this topic, a poem by Emily Dickinson comes to mind:
If you were coming in the fall,
I'd brush the summer by
With half a smile and half a spurn
As housewives do a fly.
If I could see you in a year,
I'd wind the months in balls,
And put them each in separate drawers,
Until their time befalls.
If only centuries delayed,
I'd count them on my hand,
Subtracting till my fingers dropped
Into Van Dieman's land.
If certain, when this life was out,
That yours and mine should be,
I'd toss it yonder like a rind,
And taste eternity.
But now, all ignorant of the length
Of time's uncertain wing,
It goads me, like a goblin bee,
That will not state its sting.
The real freedom arrives when you release yourself from the grip of needing to know when it will end and instead start to develop tolerance for the challenges that you're enduring. The practice is about focusing on this moment, then the next moment, then the next - taking one moment at a time and not allowing the mind to wonder how long it will last. It's the practice that midwives and childbirth educators often suggest for managing labor: each contraction is just one minute long with a beginning, middle, and end. Then you have a break. If you can harness your mind into focusing on just this one minute, you can get through labor one moment at a time. The same is true for all transitions.
If you're suffering through a transition right now - whether it's a break up, the challenges of early motherhood, or a new job - here's what I can tell you with 100% certainty: the intensity of this particular transition will end. If you approach this layer of anxiety, fear, and grief with consciousness and courage, it will move through and you will emerge on the other side feeling stronger and wiser than before. But... after spending some time in the calm of the eddy, another current will hit and you'll be thrown back into the next spiral of challenge and discovery.
So the real question that arises during a transition is this (inspired by my wise friend, Carrie, during our recent interview for the upcoming Conscious Motherhood E-Course): What is your relationship to struggle? Do you resist it and fight it tooth and nail? Or are you working to face it head on and approach it from the perspective of growth and learning? As Carrie says, "It doesn't really matter what the feelings are or the particular tools you use to address them. The question is: How do you meet the feelings?"
Life is change. As human beings, we naturally resist change and cling to what is familiar and comfortable. When we work to shift our mindset and approach change as an opportunity for growth, it carries the possibility for immense and far-reaching healing and transformation. This is the gold embedded in the challenge of change. This is a conscious transition.
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What is your first reaction when someone is harsh, critical, sarcastic, angry, judgmental, attacking? Do you attack back? Do you withdraw and get silent? Do you defend and explain? Today, honor the feeling in your body that says "This doesn't feel good" and either speak your truth without blame, defense or judgment and open to learning, or lovingly disengage and compassionately take care of your feelings.
By Dr. Margaret Paul