Shift Happens

Barbara A. Bernard

Barbara A. Bernard

When I was young, the prevailing cultural view stressed the importance of preserving and maintaining permanence. Holding on and keeping things the same were values that I heard both in church and at school. Fortunately I lived in a home where the dinner table was a place for dialogue and sharing of ideas. Although my parents participated actively in church and school, they demonstrated time and time again that they were willing to change their minds about issues of the day.

Clearly I had great modeling for changing my mind as an adult, and yet I sometimes find myself feeling the tug of old ideas that were prevalent in my extended family. Being of Nordic origin and having lived through the Depression, the majority of my relatives tended to focus on loss and hardship. The messages I got from them said, “Life is hard”; “Suffering and surrender are necessary”; and “You can’t have gain without pain.”

I know I am not unique in having some mixed messages from my younger years. I also understand that as an adult I must decide which ideas I will choose to embody in my daily actions. Often it takes me a while to understand what the new means in my life. Lots of change happens without pain, and even when there is pain, it’s my choice whether to suffer or not.

Reframing has been a great support to me in the midst of change.  If I acknowledge that my stories can evolve and that I can change my mind, I am able to embrace the idea of impermanence. The stories I formulated at age four can change as time passes and new information comes to my attention. As a result, the beliefs that direct my actions can also change. Like clear water that becomes muddy when disturbed, my perceptions of myself and my stories can seem confusing at first when I try to view my childhood stories differently. But if I can allow myself to shift over time by continually revising my life narrative, I am better able to observe the mud settling and the water becoming clear again.

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When we have a rigid view of ourselves and our stories, we are more likely to cling to habits, routines, and the familiar. But if we can learn to embrace impermanence, we’ll be less likely to focus on loss when changes occur in our lives. The words we choose to tell a story will illustrate how we relate to what is different.

Here’s an example from my own life: A few weeks ago, I received information that indicated I would likely benefit from making a new adjustment to diet. This meant eliminating some foods that I enjoy, particularly legumes like chickpeas, peanuts, and beans. I decided to adhere closely to this new way of eating for a few days and then see how I fared. To my astonishment, I immediately felt so much better that I realized giving up these foods could truly enhance my health.

To support me in maintaining a positive focus while eating in this new way, I used my phone to photograph the lists of everything I’m allowed to eat. Rather than feeling sorry for myself, I decided to focus instead on all the foods I can still have. Since then, I’ve been exploring the grocery stores for replacement foods and have made some delicious discoveries.

Our bodies change over the years, and my body is no exception. It provides me crystal clear evidence of the fact that change is constant. So there have been times in the past when I’ve made the choice to care for myself with adjustments in diet and exercise. Giving up dairy was a major challenge, as was giving up gluten. Each adjustment has involved a trial-and-error period to give me information about what works well for me. I’ve needed to call on my Champion big time when making these changes, since it’s so easy to fall back into the old patterns that no longer serve me.

Beyond diet, letting go of some other behaviors and long-standing cherished ideas has also taken self-discipline. I remind myself that when things are different in my life, especially when the change is not deliberate on my part, I have a choice of what to focus on. I tell myself that change is part of life, and I’ve seen repeatedly that a great many changes turn out for the better.

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Resisting change, clinging, grasping, working to keep things the same in an ever-changing world all take a great deal of energy. We have a choice whether to label something that is different in our lives as a loss or a change. Seeing change as a constant in life is a step toward understanding and valuing impermanence. We can discover great personal power in the knowledge that how we choose to respond to change can make all the difference in our view of the world.