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Suffer Less. Change Your Response to Change.

Life is change. Growth is optional.

“Life is change. Growth is optional.” Isn’t this a brilliant title for a book? (Way to go, Karen Kaiser Clark!) But it’s the follow-up line that makes my yoga philosopher’s heart pound – “Choose wisely.”

Change is not a choice. We don’t get to choose what life brings our way – whether it’s going to hurt us, challenge us, or thrill us. The truth is that life is going to take twists and turns that you and I would never (ever) choose for ourselves.

Growth is a choice, though. We do get to choose how we respond to what life brings our way. And this choice makes all the difference. For growth to happen we must allow change. We must learn to welcome it even. Poet Pixie Lighthorse invites us to cherish change in her prayer/poem (from Honoring Transformation) about transitions. Can you imagine seeing change on the horizon and choosing to cherish it as an opportunity for growth?

Change = AFGO

If you’re a regular human being like me, this is a real stretch. In fact, author and teacher Elizabeth Lesser (who I consider to be pretty enlightened) confesses in her book, Broken Open, that she often receives change as A.F.G.O. (another “effing” growth opportunity). Don’t know about you, but that resonates with me.

The need to feel in control leads to a resistance to change

What is it about change that bugs us so much? Why would most of us most of the time choose the comfort of constancy over the excitement and challenge of change? In a word – control. We like to feel like we’re in control. In other words, like my anxiety-ridden dog, Pax, we like things to be the way we like them to be, thank you very much.

This deep-seated (instinctual even) desire for predictability and control manifests as attachment. Yung Pueblo, in an Instagram post on March 27, 2022, defines attachments as “our craving for things to exist in a very particular way,” which is exactly how Pax (and most of us humans) approaches life. Pueblo continues, “attachments represent our inflexibility.”

Resistance to change leads to suffering

Yoga philosophy teaches that raga (craving or clinging) and dvesa (aversion or resistance) are at the heart of most attachment. These are two of the five kleshas or causes of suffering. (See Yoga Sutras 2.3-9) In other words, when we cling to the way things are or resist the way things are changing, when we are inflexible in the face of life, we cause ourselves to suffer.

It is worth highlighting that the ancient yogis are making a point here that is surprising to most: it is our response to life that causes our suffering. Just reading that might have sent you into a paroxysm of reaction – the first time I bumped into this notion I didn’t just resist it, I flat-out rejected it.

But as I’ve navigated some twists and turns in my own life that I would absolutely not have chosen, as I’ve practiced, failed, and tried (and tried) again to live my yoga practice, I’m beginning to buy into the idea that my response to painful change dictates whether or not I suffer. (The bumper sticker for this idea reads “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is not.”)

As I have watched myself navigate change (especially the big, hard, painful ones) I have noticed that my resistance often rears up when the change is hardly a speck on the horizon. If I remain in that state of aversion, by the time the change is upon me I am so rigidly clamped down – physically and mentally – that there is no chance whatsoever that I will be able to bend flexibly with the proverbial winds of change. In other words – ouch!

Awareness that I’m resisting change serves to soften my resistance

With practice, I am learning to notice my resistance as it wells up. But because my mind is crafty and quite persuasive, it is rarely my thoughts that tip me off – it’s my body that gives my aversion away. A little tightness in my chest. A subtle clench of my jaw or lift in my shoulders. An irritable belly. A feeling of anxiety or jumpiness.

I am learning to recognize these sensations with a question – “What are you trying to tell me?” If I am patient enough to wait for an answer, it is always one of two themes: “I don’t want this!” or “I really really really like things the way they are.” In other words, aversion or clinging.

Here’s the really interesting part: the more I recognize my habitual, instinctual reaction to change, the less powerful it becomes and the easier it is for me to choose another response. (See Yoga Sutra 2.16) While I may not make it all the way to cherishing or welcoming the looming change, I am able to soften enough to accept that this change is where life is bringing me.

Bending (and growing) hurts a lot less than breaking

Mark Nepo, in his book The One Life We’re Given, says that acceptance like this requires fortitude, and I agree wholeheartedly. That said, unlike the powerful clench of my resistance, this strength leads to (again Nepo’s words) tenderness and resilience. My fortitude to accept change allows me to be tender with myself as I bow and bend and bounce back from yet A.F.G.O. Which, it turns out, hurts a lot less than getting broken.

Life is change. Growth is optional. I am learning to choose growth. How about you?

If you’re interested in learning more about real-life applications of ancient yoga philosophy, check out the recording of my class “Demystifying the Yoga Sutras” or reach out to study with me one-on-one.