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The 2 Most Important Words This Holiday Season

December 22, 2018

 

Once when Suzuki Roshi was giving a talk in the 1960's, he was asked to sum up the Buddhist teachings into something simple and understandable. He said just two words: 

 

Everything changes.

 

Vipassana teacher, Joseph Goldstein, expanded on this: If you understand those two words, then you'll understand the entirety of the Buddha's teachings. 

 

Now, whether you're religious, spiritual, or neither, it is difficult to debate this law of impermanence.  I share that story of Suzuki Roshi to communicate how weighty and all-pervasive impermanence really is, in addition to the inescapability of it! 

 

And rather than getting too philosophical or even metaphysical, I want to draw attention to the everyday practicality of those two words. It is helpful to deeply understand that everything changes so we are not completely thrown for a loop when things do change. And given that the holiday season can be quite a visceral experience of impermanence, it feels timely. 

 

DUH, TELL ME SOMETHING I DON'T KNOW

 

Despite how intuitive impermanence seems, most of us still act very surprised or even unaccepting of change when it happens. And we continue to cling to inherently impermanent pleasant states and experiences, which can make change even more difficult to handle. (This is completely understandable, and is something we all share as humans. The suffering we experience, however, can be lessened.) This isn't because we are unaware of change as an inevitability. It is one thing to know that everything changes, it is another thing to live our lives from a deep understanding that everything changes. So, how can we learn to live our lives in such a way?

 

BECOME FAMILIAR WITH THE FEELING OF CHANGE

 

We can learn a lot from noticing directly the phenomenon of change, along with the fluidity of moment-to-moment experience. By paying attention to the ebb and flow, and the sometimes turbulent, physical, emotional, and intellectual landscape of the present moment, we can become more and more familiar with the direct experience of change. 

 

The concept of becoming familiar is key here. One reason change can be so hard stems from an unfamiliarity with it. Not an unfamiliarity with change happening in our lives, but with how change feels to us physically and mentally. And by practicing mindfulness and equanimity with change now (big or small), it prepares us for handling it more skillfully - and with less suffering - in the future.

 

NO, REALLY BECOME FAMILIAR WITH THE FEELING OF CHANGE

 

Humans are quite good at recognizing change, and many of us adopt ways to simply "deal" with it by way of distracting ourselves or avoiding it in some other way. What we develop is a kind of partial awareness, and thus partial experience of the feeling of change.

 

What I'm advocating for here is not a closer examination of the contents of what has changed - the eroded Christmas Tree ornaments, the fewer (or more) family and friends seen from one season to the next, or our annual disappointment with our "festively plump" bellies. Rather, I'm advocating for a closer examination of what change feels like, particularly in 2 areas: the physical body, and the mind (including thoughts and emotions). 

 

TRY IT! 

 

Here are a few questions you can experiment with (whether sitting in meditation or not) before, during, or after a change. WHATEVER your honest answers to these questions may be, the instruction is to experience them with a sense of gentleness, kindness, non-judgment, and if possible playfulness.

 

How do you feel in your body when "good" changes happen? Tingly...warm...heart beating fast?

How do feel feel in your body when "bad" changes happen? Tense...clammy hands...clenched jaw?

What emotions arise? And how do these emotions feel in the body? Do they have a color, a texture, a size or shape? Do they shift and change, or are they more static? 

What thoughts or habits of thinking arise? Oh, I hope this lasts...I hate this...I should be better at this by now...I should've known! Any other judgments, worries, criticisms, or judging of the judging?

 

Again, whatever arises, try your best to maintain mindful kindness - or "kindfulness" if you will. (not my word) Whether this lasts 3 seconds or 3 minutes, this is a way (not the only way) to become more familiar with change. And the more we practice this, the more natural it will become. So, when change does happen we will be more inclined to respond rather than react. We will be less likely to steer into overthinking or unnecessarily pounding our foreheads in "problem-solving mode," and more likely to experience what is true: the fluidity of pattern and change in our body, mind, and heart. (It is important to note, however, that this practice is not always possible, particularly with very difficult change or trauma. At the least, a light touch should be used, or consider seeking additional resources.) 

 

Part of the original definition of mindfulness is non-forgetfulness, or remembering - remembering how and where to place our attention. So, whatever changes are happening for you this holiday season - hellos and goodbyes, a few more gray hairs, neatly wrapped presents suddenly turned into shreds of wrapping paper all around the living room - remember the most helpful place to place your attention (hint: it's here now). 

 

Happy holidays, everybody :) 

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