Navigating Life’s Transitions

How are you at dealing with uncertainty - that agonizing time during which you only have partial information and don’t know how things in your life, or the life of someone you love, are going to play out? For example, waiting for the results of that critical medical test, wondering if you made a good impression in that big job interview, losing someone you’ve loved for a long time, or realizing that your life has suddenly changed and you’re not sure what life will look like going forward.

Most of us don’t like that “in between” time when answers are unclear, and I bet you and I are no exceptions. We often react automatically to uncertainty in our own habitual ways – our “escape valves”. Are you someone who immediately goes into “fix it” or “distraction” mode to try to eliminate that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing? Or does your mind go flailing about trying to fill in the blanks, often with increasingly worried or catastrophic thinking? You may be frantically worrying, but at least you’re “doing something!”

Life is a Constantly Changing Series of Waves

Many of us grew up with a kind of “black and white” thinking. We unconsciously assume things should mostly be how we want them to be, and if they’re not, then something must be “wrong”. But the older I get, the more I’m open to the wisdom that life is a constantly changing series of waves, many of them pleasant, some of them less so, but all of them an important part of the amazing experience of life. Accepting only the parts we like, and rejecting those we don’t, may be reflexive, but in the long term it doesn’t work. The more we engage in healthy practices that build our resilience and our ability to turn toward all of our life, the more we can experience something called grace as we move through transitions, and the more quickly we can bounce back from adversity.

But I’m certainly no expert on putting this wisdom into practice! Far from it. I have to keep relearning this lesson all the time. I recently came across a very interesting piece by Jeremy Hunter, PhD, Founding Director of the Executive Mind Leadership Institute, on how to work creatively with transitions.

Transitions are Inner Shifts

Hunter describes transitions as the inner shifts of identity, possibility, and belief that occur to help us assimilate and adjust to changes.” Imagine if you could view transitions, which are a natural part life, through this lens? To me this view opens up some breathing room around something we might instinctively view as “bad”. It reveals the truth that experiences that seem at first like an “upheaval” actually have the potential to help us learn, grow, and improve our ability to handle the rest of our life with more grace.

Hunter advises that transitions can deliver a series of what can seem like “monsters” to overcome. Mindfulness can be our ally as we move through our own transitions, he says, referring to that skill of nonjudgmental present moment awareness which we strengthen through meditation. Hunter describes five “harbingers” of transition: death, disaster, disease, divorce, and downsizing. Part of our life that we are accustomed to melts away, and something new and unknown takes its place. How we adapt and flow with life at this crossroad (or not) is crucial. Hunter describes the experience of “reformatting” as an old way of life passes into history. Part of moving through this reformatting stage includes acknowledging that an “ending” is taking place and holding all the experiences which led to this ending with gratitude. I think this period of acknowledgement or mourning for that part of our life which is passing away is something many of us may not allow time for. But it’s important that we do.

The Cycles of Life: Growth, Maturation, Death, and Rebirth

Hunter reminds us that life is a series of cycles of growth, maturation, and death followed by rebirth. I love how this view of life instantly shifts you into a wider perspective, vaster than what our day-to-day tunnel vision may allow. There’s an ongoingness to this view of life as a series of natural cycles that enfold into each other. But, he says, what happens at the end of the familiar? It can feel like entering a strange void or in-between stage in which you’re no longer your “old self”, but what you are becoming is not yet clear. At this stage, which he calls the “zombie zone,” many of us can experience anxiety – that feeling of chronic worry and filling-in of the blanks with catastrophic thinking. Other feelings like doubt, irritation, bafflement, sadness, fear, or a mixture of all of these, are characteristic of the zombie zone.

Making it Through the Zombie Zone

Here is where our mindfulness skills serve us so well. As we learn to meditate we also learn to “be with” all of our feelings and modes of thought with awareness and non-judgment: To allow what is hard and unpleasant to exist, to be known and felt. Rather than habitually rejecting these emotional states and modes of mind, we instead practice turning toward them. They are natural, human feelings and the more you can hold them with attention, acceptance and kindness, the more readily they will move through and transform you. Here is where I feel it’s important to remember the point I made above, don’t resist, suppress, or banish how you feel. Nothing “wrong” is happening. By practicing acceptance of the idea that this zombie phase is a natural period of uncertainty, and by being your own compassionate ally as you move through it, you won’t be consumed by it. Instead you lay down powerful emotional and neurological tracks for moving through periods of uncertainty and transition in your life, including this one, with grace and wisdom.

Finding Your New Groove

The next phase Hunter identifies as “finding your new groove”. This phase is characterized by your own intentional exploration, which includes letting go of what no longer fits or doesn’t work anymore. Self-compassion and tenderness apply here as well, as does tenacity. An emerging new way of life is flowing through you, and you will likely notice sparks of aliveness beginning to grow in intensity. Explore this new chapter of life with curiosity and attentiveness. Feel the grace of what is flowing through you. I highly recommend a daily period of mindfulness meditation as you become acquainted with this new phase of life.

Madeline Ebelini is a former stressed-out lawyer turned certified mindfulness instructor with a mission of helping people reduce stress through teaching them practical and effective mindfulness techniques. She teaches the 5-star reviewed online course Mindfulness For Stress Relief, and leads a weekly live online meditation group Remember to Breathe. Register for her free webinar Learn 3 Quick Mindfulness Practices for Stress Relief.

                                                                                                     

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