Saturday, October 28, 2006

Eight Behaviors for Coping with Change

This is the final installment in my series on change -- the other pieces, in order, can be found here, here, here, and here.

Eight Behaviors for Coping with Change

When an individual is undergoing change, either by choice or brought on by internal or external circumstances beyond his/her control, there are certain behaviors that, if cultivated, can make the process easier to navigate. Each of these eight behaviors will ease the transition process and make the time in liminal space a little less overwhelming. If the individual is able to employ two or more of these behaviors concurrently, the synergistic effect will be that much greater.

The individual should begin the process of developing or strengthening the observer self. In essence, the observer self is the proximate self of Wilber’s self-system.[i] A developed observer self has the ability to step back from the distal selves, or masks, and to take even another step back from the ego, acting as an observer of the whole outer aspect of self. The main benefit of this behavior is the ability to dis-identify with whatever struggles the distal selves are engaged in, as well as to see the meta-narrative of a life, rather than being caught up in the scenes or chapters.

The observer self -- the part of the self-system that can step back and listen to the mind obsess about finances, or an annoying coworker, or whatever the wind of the mind is blowing into consciousness -- is more of a real self than ever will be the ego’s stream of words always flowing through consciousness. It is the first real approach to finding the higher Self, or the witness, which resides beyond the realm of ego.

The first crucial step is to quiet the winds of the mind, to develop the capacity to observe the mind operating, to know that “I feel angry, but I am not my anger,” as psychosynthesis teaches us.[ii] One of the best ways to develop this behavior is through meditation. Sitting for only five to ten minutes a couple of times a day, focusing on the breath, identifying the thoughts floating through consciousness, and then releasing those thoughts immediately will pay enormous dividends when entering a transitional phase. Possessing the ability to dis-identify with the struggles of change can give a needed time-out, a chance to get centered in the meta-narrative for a few minutes.

2) The second important behavior is dependent on the first – the individual must be able to see his/her life as a long narrative, and recognize that the individual scenes and chapters are not the whole story. The phrase “unable to see the forest for the trees” encapsulates the cliché version of this behavior. A person going through change can get so caught up in assaulting the barriers, or seeking internal resolution, or any number of other coping strategies, that the story is lost within the scene.

Having an observer self allows the individual to take a step back from the struggles of transition and see that the process is in service of the greater story of her/his life. Being able to hold the perspective that “this too shall pass” makes the process a little easier, but it also reframes the struggle within the context of a meaningful initiation, allowing that the process serves a higher purpose.

3) Another important behavior for someone engaged in change is to seek out someone who understands what is happening and talk to that person. For most people that will mean a mental health professional, a person of faith, a parent, or a close friend. Ideally, the individual should seek out someone who is familiar with the change process, and has been through it him or herself. The best guide through a new territory is someone who has been there before you and made it through.

There are three important aspects to this behavior for the individual to learn. Each will have benefits beyond the change process.

A) The Power of Naming: Being able to talk about the experience, to name it, and to name the feelings being experienced can give the individual a sense of control previously lacking. Many indigenous peoples believe that naming a thing gives one power over it. To a certain extent that belief holds up – for someone engaged in an emotional transition, and unable to name the feelings, naming those feelings removes some of the mystery those feelings held, and gives the individual a sense of power over those feelings. In essence, this is the value of “talk therapy,” that the therapist can guide the client toward a recognition and understanding of the dynamics of his/her psyche. The same value adheres to the situation, whether the other person is a professional, a person of faith, a parent, or so on. As long as the conversation is able to help the individual see the situation more clearly, the benefit will be obvious.

B) The Power of the Ally: The importance of having an ally during a transitional period cannot be underestimated. One of the emotionally difficult aspects of being in liminal space is the sense of isolation the individual feels. Having a friend, or professional guide, who understands the process and the challenges can provide comfort and reassurance during the most difficult times, when the individual feels as though no one understands and s/he is feeling the full existential force of liminality.

Most often, the ally will be the same person with whom the individual feels most comfortable talking about her/his struggles. This need not be the case, however. A partner or close friend can also serve as an emotional ally even if that person does not have the experience or the skills to act as guide. The important point is that the individual should avoid isolating his/herself from friends and loved ones, if possible, and seek out at least one person who will stand by the individual no matter what happens.

C) Finally, when talking about the process, it is important to change the phrasing from “I am” to “I feel.” This seems like a simple thing, but it can make a difference over time. This change in phrasing is another way to dis-identify with the pain or the confusion. To say,” I am confused,” or “I am depressed,” is to define the self as those emotions. To say, “I feel confused,” or “I feel depressed,” is to acknowledge a feeling, but by using this phrasing the individual avoids identifying with the feeling as a way to define the self. Part of what allows a person to become stuck in the Gamma Trap of liminal space is to become identified with the liminality.

If the individual can avoid or reduce his/her identification with the struggle of transitional space, there is an opening through which the individual can reframe the experience in different terms. As discussed above, viewing the transition process as a ritual of initiation can allow a sacred dimension into the experience. When the individual participates in the sacred, there is a sense of meaning that accrues simply through the experience of the sacred and its inherent numinosity.

4) Learning to meditate, even for short periods of time, can make a significant difference. First of all, meditation calms the body, and as was discussed above, one of the physical symptoms of being in liminal space is anxiety and restlessness. The quiet focus on the breath, even in five-minute blocks, can help to calm the body and the mind.

Practice inhaling slowing through the nostrils and exhaling slowing through the mouth. Feel the breath as it enters the nose and moves down the airway to the lungs. Feel the chest expand with the inhalation, then release with the exhalation. Notice the sensations of the air leaving the body, the brief pause, and then the next breath. When this is easy, then expand the consciousness to feel the face, the ears, the eyes, and the neck. Feel the tension in the shoulders and release it with an exhalation. Notice any other tension in the body and draw up into the lungs with an inhalation, then release it with an exhalation. Feel the whole body relax into the breathing.

Whatever thoughts come up can be acknowledged and released. If the mind wanders from the breath, gently pull it back to the breathing and pick up the rhythm. When five minutes of this mediation becomes easy, make it seven, then ten. Sit and breathe for as long as possible. The longer the meditation lasts, the greater the benefits. If this meditation does not fit the personality of the individual, seek out another variation. There are many ways to meditate and most are very powerful tools for quieting the body and the mind.

A side benefit of this type of meditation will be the emergence or a more powerful observer self over time. As the individual becomes adept at noticing and releasing thoughts or feelings, the observer self will be strengthened and be more accessible when needed. If an individual receives no other benefit from this approach than a stronger observer self, then the work would still be valid – that is how important an observer self is to psycho-social-spiritual evolution.

5) Creative expression, in whatever form the individual chooses, is a powerful way to crystallize unconscious struggles and bring forth whatever symbolic energy is needed to express those feelings. Among the most common choices are writing, drawing, painting, singing or other forms of music, and dancing. Some other forms include sculpting with clay (or Playdough), mask-making with paper mache, Jungian sand tray, film-making, miniature Zen gardens, and dialoging. Any activity that is non-directed and that allows the ability to express pre-conscious thoughts and feelings can serve as a valid form of creative expression.

There are now whole schools of therapy based on the ability of creative expression to tap into the unconscious of the individual. In the same way that meditation is beneficial, in part, because it bypasses the ego, so too can creative expression sidestep the ego and allow the unconscious to express itself in images, sounds, or symbols.

When the change process is fully engaged, the most reactive part of the psyche is the ego. The ego does not like change, and will resist as much and as long as possible. The ego relies on the status quo, on inertia, and when that homeostasis is disturbed, the ego throws up its defense mechanisms (withdrawal, anger, cynicism, and so on) to fight the change and to try to maintain its current status. This is one of the most powerful barriers to change. However, the ego can be circumvented through meditation and through creative expression. Meditation allows the ego to be superceded by more complete aspects of the self-system, which creates a foundation for growth, but creative expression also can bring the barriers to growth into the light by projecting them onto the page (canvas, sand, etc.) in the form of symbols.

Interpreting the symbols that emerge can be a challenge for some people. In the expressive arts that allow for symbols,[iii] the individual might want to “analyze” the content of the creation, looking for symbolic meaning that will help him/her understand how the process is working within the psyche. The are many good books on symbolism, and any used book store will have at least one of the better known editions. Using these books as a starting place (but not as the final word), the individual can begin to analyze the symbolic content of a creation. Whether the creation is abstract and there are only colors and shapes, or perhaps it is fully realistic with distinct symbols, or maybe it is sand tray with an odd assortment of plastic and metal figures – whatever the format, the individual can begin to interpret the work while always being careful to feel for the right interpretation. If the “experts” in a book say one thing about the meaning of a burning bush, but the individual has a wholly different association, then s/he should listen to what feels correct in her/his life, not the book.

Finally, the individual may also consider dreams a form of creative expression and work with them in the same way s/he might work with artist expression. The dream world is rich with symbolic and archetypal meaning. In working with dreams, it will be even more important to trust inner feeling about meanings and associations, rather relying on a book or an ally to help interpret the meaning. The dreams that fill our nights are distinctly personal, and must be given the respect they deserve.

Often, it will be enough to record the dream and any feelings associated with it. James Hillman has been a powerful voice against literal dream interpretation, as has his better-known student, Thomas Moore. By allowing the dream to remain free of interpretation, the psyche is allowed to continue its work without having been defined into a particular state. How a given individual approaches this issue will depend on where s/he falls on the thinking/feeling axis of the psyche. A “thinking” person will tend to enjoy the puzzle of interpretation and want to understand all the possible meanings. A “feeling” person will want to feel the meaning emotionally and will not be as concerned with a full symbolic interpretation. Both approaches are valid and are to be encouraged.

6) Another valuable behavior to adopt is spending time in nature as often as possible, but at least two or three times a week. Angeles Arrien suggests that at least an hour a day in nature is required for optimal health.[iv] Arrien talks about how native peoples have viewed wilderness as “the Great Mysterious,”[v] as the source of empowerment and spirit. The point is valid, but it is difficult for many people to find that “extra” hour a day to be outdoors. However, any time in nature is better than sitting in front of a television.

Being in nature, and especially in wilderness, allows a new perspective that often is lacking in day-to-day life – nature makes one feel small. When one is in nature, and can actually allow the experience to get within the ego’s barriers, the ego seems to recede and feel “tiny.” This allows the deeper aspects of the self-system to surface, providing the individual with a sense of calm that may have been lacking as the change process proceeds. The emotional calm that arises is mirrored by the body, which (in the absence of danger) tends to slow its heartbeat and lower its blood pressure while in a natural environment as opposed to an urban environment. Even for those people in big cities without easy access to nature, a park like Golden Gate Park or Central Park can provide the same benefits.

Finding a rock or a tree to sit against also provides a perfect space for a sitting meditation (as described above). When one is actually on the earth, or leaning against a tree, quieting the mind through focus on the breath allows a more receptive state for the vibrational energy of the earth to move through the body, grounding it in the present moment. This may sound like a bunch of “new age” gibberish, but the sensation is very real.

7) While in a transitional period (and any other time), it is important to maintain physical health through proper nutrition and regular exercise. Candace Pert, Mona Lisa Schultz, and others have shown that physical health depends on emotional and psychological health, but the reverse is also true. If a person does not take care of the body, feeding it and exercising it regularly, then psychological health will suffer.

The are many studies, and more being published all the time, showing that exercise can be as effective in treating depression as some pharmaceuticals, with none of the side effects. Other studies have shown that exercise can help in the treatment of anxiety disorders, addictions, borderline personality, and self-esteem issues, to name just a few – in fact, exercise can improve sex drive (which is largely in the mind) and intelligence. Nutrition is just as important – bad fuel means bad performance. High sugar diets, with a lot of refined flour and processed foods, make the mind sluggish as well as the body. Yet, higher protein diets, with complex carbohydrates coming largely from fruits and vegetables, provide amino acids that keep the mind sharp and alert, maintain even energy levels, eliminate the yo-yo blood-glucose levels resulting from sugar ingestion, and provide all the necessary nutrients to keep the neuro-emotional network strong and healthy. Healthy fats (the omega fats) are crucial to cellular and neurological health. All of this translates to a foundation for emotional and psychological health.

At the more esoteric levels, there is a whole tradition in Eastern religion that privileges the body as the vehicle for the soul to transcend this world. Many of the popular forms of yoga known in America have a more spiritual basis in eastern religion, especially hatha yoga. The spiritual form of hatha yoga has as its goal the harnessing of the body’s energy in service of the soul becoming enlightened in a single lifetime. It is believed that a strong, supple, healthy body is essential to the attainment of enlightenment. Many of the Asian martial arts, while less concerned with the spiritual element, also recognize the importance of a healthy body in maintaining a strong spirit.

With nearly 65 percent of Americans now overweight, and obesity overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of preventable death, it’s clear that this country cannot possibly be emotionally and psychologically healthy. Yet, for someone who is attempting to grow and become more complex as a human being, physical health is essential in providing a solid foundation for the emotional and psychological work to be done. A healthy diet that avoids sugar, refined flour, processed and fried foods, and seeks out healthy meats, vegetables, and fats – combined with regular exercise – can make a transitional period much less traumatic and allow for a quicker resolution.

It also should be understood that for many individuals, simply adopting a healthy lifestyle of nutrition and exercise itself will be a major transition in their lives. The change process for these people should be approached in the same way as though a person were moving to a post-formal world view from the pre-formal stage. There will be barriers to overcome (mostly internal), there will be reframing that needs to occur, and there will be exterior challenges from family and friends who do not understand or cannot accept that junk food is harmful. Like all change, however, it is about growth and evolution, and making the choice to possess a wider view of the world.

8) Learn to see change as a sacred process. Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of comparative religion, helped to popularize an important distinction between the sacred and the profane.[vi] Fundamentally, what is sacred is the opposite of what is profane. Not a very illuminating statement on the surface, but an example might help to clarify the matter. Most of the time a cracker is simply a snack, a combination of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in a set ratio, baked for a specific length of time, packaged and then sold in a store. However, that same cracker, on Sunday morning, during the sacrament of Communion, becomes the literal body of Christ. When the priest places the wafer on the tongue, it is the flesh of God, made tangible through the ritual of the transubstantiation, and if one is a good Catholic, Communion is experienced as ingesting the body and blood of Christ. What is normally profane (the cracker) is made sacred through the process of ritual and the faith placed in the ritual’s efficacy.

The sacred, then, can be defined as the transmutation of an ordinary object, act, or experience into something felt to have meaning. Yet, what is sacred is relative. A thing, act, or experience may be defined as sacred by a society, a culture, a small group, or an individual. For a devoted fan of John Lennon, may hold as sacred a guitar pick he may have flicked into the audience during a show. The fact that Lennon owned the pick, used it to play music, and then flicked it into the audience during the course of a show that may stand out in memory as a profound experience, transmutes the mere piece of plastic into a sacred object. His death, by murder, only further imbues the object with significance.

One of the primary elements in the ritual process is that liminal space is sacred space. The period in which the individuals are in liminal space is a profoundly sacred time because all traditional ritual is divinely sanctioned. Liminal space carries all the elements of sacred space, including the absence of social norms, timelessness or the return to the first time, being at the center of the world (often symbolized by the spine, a pole, a tree, a mountain, and so on -- the axis mundi[vii]), and an ontological change[viii] in the individual.

The structure of ritual provides that liminal space is sacred space, and that what makes liminality sacred is that it is imbued with meaning. If the change process truly takes place in liminal space, then it, too, must be seen as a sacred experience, possessing meaning beyond the mere dropping of outworn ideas or worldviews. When one is in sacred space, objects, acts, and experiences (OAEs from now on) can take on larger meaning or be experienced in new ways. Rudolf Otto identified several characteristics of the sacred: a feeling of terror in the presence of the sacred (mysterium tremendum), its majesty (majestas) is felt to possess an enormous power, and the religious fear when confronted with its mystery is fascinating (mysterium fascinans).[ix] All of these experiences are defined by Otto as numinous (from numen in Latin, meaning god) due to their ability to reveal some aspect of divinity. To the individual, the numinous is felt to be something entirely “other,” not of this world (essentially, not profane, thus the rather simplistic definition above).

When one reframes the change process in this way, as a ritual process, the individual is then free to experience change as a sacred event, with all the conditions that accrue to living in liminal space. Those who surrender to change can experience the process as an initiation ritual, complete with symbolic death and resurrection, an experience that both grounds the process as ritual and expands the meaning into sacred proportions. The change process is well-suited to reframing as an initiation process because the outcome of successful change is, in essence, a new sense of self -- just as the goal of an initiation ceremony, whether it is baptism, a puberty rite, or menses onset, is the establishment of a new, more complex identity than previously possessed.



[i] See Integral Psychology.

[ii] See Psychosythesis by Roberto Assagioli, or any number of other books by his students, including Molly Brown and Piero Ferrucci.

[iii] Music doesn’t allow symbolic expression in the same way as visual or written art, but if it is recorded, then there is something to which the individual can go back and listen, seeking patterns and melodies filled with emotion. I am not qualified to speak about the interpretation of musical composition, but there are good books that can serve as an introduction to music theory.

[iv] See The Four-fold Way, page 30.

[v] Peter Matthiessen’s phrase from Indian Country.

vi See The Sacred & the Profane (1957). Eliade’s book deals essentially with the nature of religious experience, myth, symbol, and ritual, but the basic distinction is relevant in a variety of areas. It has been one of the most widely used books in introductory-level college classes in comparative religion.

[vii] Axis Mundi translates as “center of the world”.

[viii] By completing the ritual process, the individual is fundamentally changed, his/her being is not as it was before the experience.

[ix] From Otto’s The Sacred (1909), cited in Eliade, page 9.


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