You can find me at http://conscious-transitions.com
There are moments when I can hardly bear the passage of time, moments when I’ll look at my nearly-six year old and realize how young and small he really is but knowing that if these six years passed so quickly, how much more quickly will the next six pass, and the six after that. There are moments when I deeply long for unbroken sleep, but then I snuggle up next to my fifteen month old and revel in his smallness, knowing that, in what feels like a blink of an eye, he’ll turn two, then four, then six. Humans try to defy nature at every turn, but try as we might, we cannot defy time, which moves inexorably forward toward the end of a life and beyond.
My passion for paradox led me to study Jungian psychology; my life training in transitions has helped me develop an expanded comfort level with holding two or more emotions within a single experience. But still, at times, I resist. I wish for a way to stop time at my will, to hold onto the preciousness of their smallness and innocence. Paradoxically, I delight in their growth and wish for nothing more than to be able to witness each passing day and the ways in which my kids evolve more fully into themselves and manifest their potential. For as much as I feel the ache of nostalgia when I see photos of Everest at two or four, I celebrate the person he is today. If I froze him at four, I would never know the wondrous boy he’s become at six.
With each complete cycle of breath, I grieve on the exhale, pause, then celebrate on the inhale. And this is how it goes with transitions. We let go, we sit in the empty space, and we’re birthed again. We breathe into the pain of loss, the awareness that time keeps marching on despite our human desire to hold on, and we embrace the new moment which is ripe with possibility.
It’s the polarity of opposites that creates the ache and ecstasy within me. It’s walking into Asher’s room when he wakes up from a nap and seeing him sitting up on his cozy little bed, his brown hair tousled, wearing just a lime green cloth diaper, the purest smile brightening his face when he sees me. It’s holding him close in the most delicious embrace and knowing that these days are finite, that he’s only this small and pure for a couple of years, then the relationship changes into something more solid and reciprocal, more challenging and fulfilling in a long-term way. It’s embracing the still point at the center of this polarity and tasting, for just one moment, the divine.
In response to my recent post on moving, I received several emails and comments on the Inner Bonding site about my suggestion to implement a ritual as a way to concretize the feelings activated by a move. While the person writing was open to the idea of a ritual, they all said that they had a hard time imagining suggesting the idea to others because it sounded to “hooey-wooey”. This is fascinating to me because the word connotes the antithesis of hooey-wooey in my mind; for me, it evokes grounding and connecting in a way that people have grounded and connected for thousands of years.
A ritual is, quite simply, any act that is done with intention. A ritual can also be an automatic act that is empty, like shaking hands when you first meet someone. You may not want to shake hands and there may not be any conscious intention behind the act, but you do it because it’s a ritual in our culture. But when I talk about rituals in connection to transitions, I’m talking about anything that will help you drop down into your body, to slow down into the present moment and access the answer to the central question of a transition: What is it that I need to let go of?
Does a ritual have to involve candles? No, but before you brush off the idea of candles, consider for a moment how you feel when one is lit. Does a ritual have to involve prayer? No, but again, consider how you feel when you’re in the presence of true prayer. Lighting a candle and saying a prayer are ritual actions that people have enacted for centuries, not just something hippies started doing forty years ago. Instead of dismissing the word immediately because it sounds too much like something out of Woodstock, perhaps it’s time to restore the word to its original meaning, with roots in the word rite, as in rite of passage, which is really another word for transition.
Just for fun, I consulted Wikepedia on the matter. Here’s an excerpt:
Rituals of various kinds are a feature of almost all known human societies, past or present. They include not only the various worship rites and sacraments of organized religions and cults, but also the rites of passage of certain societies, atonement and purification rites, oaths of allegiance, dedication ceremonies, coronations and presidential inaugurations, marriages and funerals, school “rush” traditions and graduations, club meetings, sports events, Halloween parties, veteran parades, Christmas shopping and more. Many activities that are ostensibly performed for concrete purposes, such as jury trials, execution of criminals, and scientific symposia, are loaded with purely symbolic actions prescribed by regulations or tradition, and thus partly ritualistic in nature. Even common actions like hand-shaking and saying hello are rituals.
What determines the efficacy of a ritual is the intention behind it. If you’re using a ritual to protect against your feelings – as is often the case in the new age movement – nothing positive will be achieved. On the other hand, if you’re utilizing the ritual as an aid toward dropping down into your emotional body and accessing the wisdom of your Higher Self, rituals can be extremely effective in helping you move toward the questions that need to be answered in the midst of a transition.
While Arnold van Gennep introduced the term “rite of passage” to the West in 1960 through his book Rites of Passage, William Bridges brought the three-stage roadmap of transitions to mainstream culture with his book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, in 1980. If you’re interested about deepening your understanding of transitions, both books are must-reads. Today’s quotes come from Bridges’ more recent book, The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments (2001), in which he chronicles his wife’s dying process and his own parallel transition. Here are a few of my favorite passages (but really the entire book should be read because nearly every page contains gems):
“After I began working with people in transition, I found that ending and losses are the commonest first sign that people are in transition. These endings tend to be signaled by one of several experiences:
* a sudden and unexpected event – like Mondi’s [his wife's] death – destroys the old life that made you feel like yourself;
* the “drying up” of a situation or a relationship that once felt vital and alive;
* an activity that has always gone well before, suddenly and unexpectedly goes badly;
* a person or an organization that you always trusted proves untrustworthy and your whole sense of reality comes apart;
* an inexplicable or unforeseen problem crops up, at the worst possible moment, to disrupt the ordinary functioning of your life.
“The irony is that people naturally view such events or situations as disasters to be averted, as probelms to be solved, or as mistakes to be corrected. But since they are really signals that the transition process has commenced, making them go away is no more than turning off that alarm that woke you up.
“Whatever its details, an outer loss is best understood as a surrogate for some inner relinquishment that must be made, but one that is difficult to describe. What it is time to let go of is not so much the relationship or the job itself, but rather the hopes, fears, dreams, and beliefs that we’ve attached to them. If you only let go of the job or the relationship, you’ll just find another one and attach the same hopes, fears, dreams and beliefs to it. And, on the other hand, you may find that you can let go of those inner attitudes without actually terminating the outer situation.
“Since a loss is best seen as the cue that it is time to let go of the inner thing, one of the first things a person in transition needs to ask is:”What is it time for me to let go of?” The danger is that the person will fail to grasp the inner message and conclude that the outer change is the whole story. I myself had done that by believing that “moving to the country” and “finding my new career” were ends to themselves. Fortunately, my struggle took me long enough so that I had time to discover that what I had to let go of had far less to do with vocational activity and geography than with the programming that had carried me through the first forty years of my life.” (pp. 14-15)
“In the West, we associate development with learning and adding to what is already there – as I realized with my meeting of consultants during the winter after Mondi died. But there is an older (and, I believe, deeper) wisdom that tells us that it is by unlearning and stripping away what is there that we grow.
“We lack institutions which are based on a pedagogy and offer a curriculum of un-learning. The educational programs that are available emphasize learning, not unlearning. And the religious and therapeutic centers, where such things might happen, all have their dogma which the initiate is meant to learn. Where can we go to dis-identify with all that got us as far as we have gone in life?
“Yet life runs a perfect curriculum, and the tuition is modest. If you miss the offerings this year, you can catch them next year. Again and again, it offers us a correspondence course in letting go: Introductory Letting Go, Intermediate Letting Go and Advanced Letting Go. Life does so not because what we are identifying is bad, but because we are ready for something else, something further, something in some way deeper.
“The alternation of letting go of an old world and beginning a new one is the rhythmic pattern underlying life itself. The heart is nothing more than an organ that does that with our blood. Our lungs do the same thing with the air we breathe. The air does the same thing with blood – leaving it behind when we exhale and reentering it again when we inhale. The earth lets the fallen rain go back into the atmosphere and then reincorporates it after it falls again. The ancient wisdom from Ecclesiastes that tells us that there is a time for living and dying is an affirmation of this basic alternating current of the universe that drives the blood and the breath and the weather, although we sometimes imagine that it is a precursor of modern relativism.” (pp. 80 – 81)
Each life transition carries one or two core issues. The wedding transition triggers issues around intimacy and commitment. Moving activates our childhood experience of comfort and home. Losing a job or enduring a career transition often triggers issues around identity and security. And labor and new motherhood activate our issues around mothering: our relationship with our own mother, the ways in which we mother ourselves, and our fears about becoming a mother to a little one.
A few nights ago I was privileged to speak with a dear friend who was in labor realm: minutes, hours, or days away from starting labor. Knowing that their “due date” had passed, I called to check in with them to see how they were feeling, and they said they were on the way to see a reflexologist who has a 99% success rate in helping initiate labor. Upon realizing that she would likely be starting labor soon, my friend suddenly felt overwhelmed by fear, excitement, and grief. I had been speaking with the daddy-to-be (who’s been one of my closest friends since high school) and, seeing his wife falling apart next to him, he asked if I could speak to her.
She immediately burst into tears. I smiled and said, “Good. These tears are good. Keep them flowing.” She cried for several minutes then said, “I’m so terrified. And excited. And overwhelmed. And sad. What if I don’t know how to be a mother? What if I can’t sustain the commitment? What if…?”
Given her painful relationship with her own mother, she had addressed many of these concerns and fears throughout her pregnancy. But with the vulnerability of labor just breaths away, the fears and grief descended upon her at a new level. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. Transitions strip us of our normal defenses and offer an opportunity to accelerate our healing and growth. Sometimes we’ll only be able to access these deeper layers of loss, grief, and fear in the midst of a transition (which is why I always encourage my bridal clients not to stop the tears on their wedding day despite the culture’s insistence that she shouldn’t ruin her makeup).
My friend cried and talked and cried some more. Mostly I just listened and held a compassionate space for her to release. Once in a while I would say something like, “You’re going to be a wonderful mother,” which would trigger another layer of fear and grief. “But what if I’m not? What if I don’t like being a mother? What if it’s too hard.” I told her that there would inevitably be times that she wouldn’t like being a mother and that it would feel too hard, but that she had already proven through her marriage commitment that she had worked out acting on the part of her that wants to run things get hard. As someone who is devoted to her process of healing, I have no doubt that when the spiritual tests of motherhood arrive – as they always do – she’ll address them with consciousness.
When we allow it, this is what arrives in the tender and raw realm of the liminal zone of transition: moving day, wedding day, labor day, the day the firstborn leaves for college and the day the youngest leaves home, summer and winter solstice, birthdays and transitional holidays, dusk and dawn, death. We must resist the habitual tendency to avoid the painful feelings ingrained by a culture that shuns the idea that grief and joy live in the same chamber of our heart. We must learn to embrace the spectrum of feelings initiated by life’s transitions so that we learn, slowly and patiently, that the more deeply we delve into the fears and grief that arise, the more easily we’ll be able to embrace the new life, the new identity, the new season, the new day. Life offers endless opportunities to practice the art of letting go, and when we approach each transition with consciousness, we become more fluid in this most challenging and ultimately rewarding aspect of life.