All of life, all of learning and growth, all of healing follows a spiral path. We return over and over to a place of pain or suffering in order to master the lessons held therein. Each revolution of the spiral brings us more experience and perspective and skill, so that our path is smoothed and we become increasingly resilient and expansive. This sounds good, but in practice it can be quite difficult.
When we find ourselves repeating old patterns we thought we had gotten rid of, dealing with the same difficult people repeatedly, or turning into a teenager again after spending 15 minutes with certain family members, we may feel discouraged. When we are trying to change our behavior from something we dislike to something we like, or to something more functional from something less functional, it is hard to find ourselves in that familiar, rotten territory—all our hard-won awareness shines a blinding light on our foibles, while our bag of well-earned tools hangs loosely at our side, for all intents and purposes utterly empty. But these are actually opportunities for change, and so we can welcome them.
It isn’t easy to change how we do things. The older we get, the more years of habit we have keeping us in the familiar groove, whether or not it serves us. Those grooves were laid down very early on, when we were soft and spongy. Those tracks can be very difficult to obliterate or alter. But not impossible.
Fear not, and do not dismay. These seeming setbacks are natural, normal, and in fact necessary to the process of living our lives, healing our suffering, and moving along our life paths. If we can accept that we have certain lessons we need to learn, it becomes less onerous when they pop up repeatedly. Comprehending the spiral nature of self-healing and understanding the stages of change can help us recognize our successes and appreciate our own hard work.
First, we develop awareness. We notice that something isn’t right. We aren’t happy in our relationships or we aren’t satisfied with the quality of our lives. We may search for understanding, in counseling or through contemplation or self-study, or simply wake up to what we are doing. This can be a very painful part of the process of change, but it is necessary. If we don’t know what we are doing, we can’t change anything. But at this stage, we can’t usually act differently.
If we cultivate a nonjudgmental observer’s point of view, a friendly curiosity about ourselves, we can gather a lot of information. This kind, detached attitude also helps us avoid triggering the old patterns, most of which evolved out of self-protection. Refraining from attacking ourselves when we see these patterns means we won’t aggravate them further. No salt in the wound.
Once we understand how we get ourselves in trouble, we can choose an alternative, the next stage in the process of change. The general rule here is, “just do something different.” We are talking about change, not perfection. Doing something different is a success, even if it is not pretty or smooth. Learning to excuse ourselves to go to the bathroom instead of engaging in a habitual conflict is not the only strategy we will ever employ, but just breaking the momentum of a negative habit is a powerful experience.
The practice is up to us. This is the third stage. We have identified the problem, the alternative to it, and now we have to actually walk the path. We will not do it perfectly or have fabulous results every time. We will be clumsy and mess up. If we use our friendly awareness skills, we will notice that just practicing—whether it is meditating, thought-replacing, or lifting weights—is a reward in itself.
Practicing anything intentionally engages us with our lives. The more we practice the new action or thought, the less room we have for the old one. We realize that our work is paying off. We find ourselves automatically saying the new words, pausing where we might previously have rushed in, or stepping forward with confidence where once we might have hidden. We start to see that our work in one area spills over into other areas. Just as lifting heavy weights in the gym translates to ease in lifting grocery bags, children, furniture, and other previously immoveable objects, working consistently with our minds eventually brings more peace, more happiness, and less suffering to ourselves and those around us.
Please note that after the third stage—or any time, really—we circle back around to the first stage. There is no final stage where we win. The process never ends, but it gets easier with practice, so we might as well relax.
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