A Lesson from Buddhism (and the Seasons)
It’s that time of year when, if you squint your eyes, you can see little green buds on the tips of the trees. What looks like a green haze on the treetops serves as a reminder that we have once again emerged from a seemingly endless winter. As we suffered through the cold of the last few months, we didn’t realize that spring was already making its preparations under the surface.
Nature works like that – in cycles. Death, rebirth, growth, shedding. Our world is in a constant state of flux. Our bodies are no different – our cells regenerate, our hair and nails grow, our physical appearance evolves. But, to what extent do we engage in that same process psychologically? Most of us do not allow our minds that same openness to change. We like to hold onto things, finding security in what is familiar.
One of Buddhism’s core teachings is the principle of “impermanence,” which posits change is constant and nothing lasts forever. Embracing impermanence is seen as one of the essential ways to remove suffering from our lives. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Impermanence does not necessarily lead to suffering. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”
What might you be holding onto that is keeping you from being open to new possibilities? We are all guilty of this in our own ways. Here are some examples of how we stray away from impermanence and what we can do to lean more fully into it:
Self-concept: Think about how you might respond to the ever-dreaded request to “tell me about yourself.” What words would you choose to define yourself? We all have ideas about who we are, which not only affects how we present ourselves in the world, but also reduces us to certain traits and qualities rather than acknowledging our own complexity. Try to understand your identity as a process rather than a fixed thing. For example, one might shift from “I am an anxious person” to “I am experiencing anxiety right now.” Additionally, one might move from “I’m not good enough” to “part of me believes I’m not good enough” (which is a good part to explore in therapy!).
Emotions: Our emotions, too, are in a constant state of flux. Even so, we tend to want to hold on to feelings associated with joy and contentment. In this clinging to feel-good emotions, we reject those emotions that are more difficult, wanting to avoid or get away from them as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this only adds to the burden of the emotion. Let’s say we begin to feel anxious. In wanting the feeling to be gone, we get anxiety about our anxiety! But what if we were to just let the feeling play its course? When anxiety surfaces, try your hardest to just be with it rather than trying to change it. You can do this by experiencing anxiety as a sensation in your body rather than an experience of the mind. Notice the tightness in your chest and breathe into it – attend to the discomfort in your body rather than attending to the thoughts and/or the urge to flee from the sensation.
Patterns of behavior: We all have behaviors, or defense mechanisms, that we have adopted as a response to traumas we have experienced. Maybe you had a dismissive or unresponsive caretaker in childhood, so you learned to withdraw from others when experiencing emotional pain. While that behavior served as a form of protection when you were young, perhaps now it keeps you from seeking the emotional support you need. Acknowledging your defense mechanisms and how they affect you is important. Try attaching a visual to your defense mechanism – perhaps it is a wall. In visualizing your defense mechanism as an external object, you have the power to explore it and choose what to do with it. You might even express gratitude, saying “thank you for protecting me during difficult times. However, I no longer need you.”
Impermanence teaches us to let go of expectations and shed the things that no longer serve us. It teaches us not to despair when times are tough, and to savor the moments when joy is present. It reminds us that we continue to grow and evolve, even if we can’t see it with our eyes. Just like the trees have been secretly preparing for the springtime – suddenly, we are surrounded by flowers.
Sonja Spangler, LSW is a Staff Therapist at our Exton, Paoli, and University City Offices; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set-up an appointment, you can reach her at email@example.com or 215-382-6680 ext. 7021.