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The Pain and Beauty of Change

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Buddhists say that so much of our contentment in life depends on how we deal with change. Change is constant, and once we accept that and roll with the tides, we'll tap into that deeper well in all of us and be more at peace.

I, for the most part, hate change. There are of course some kinds of changes I like -- the change of season, when the summer air becomes crisp. When a new restaurant replaces one that was mediocre. When my children started to sleep through the night. (Even though I sometimes miss those quiet, moonlit feedings.) A new car where the "check engine" light doesn't come on in the middle of heavy traffic.

But so much of my life has involved what I consider to be harder changes, and these mostly deal with career and family. My job transitions in the last few years have created a sense of groundlessness that has at times felt unbearable. I watched too many movies as a kid and thought once I graduated college, I'd find the perfect job and stay there for life.

Family transitions are even harder. Being divorced means I only see my kids half the time. There's not a constant, central place for us all to come home to. I live in a heart-wrenching cycle where the "mom" side of me rolls out with the tide and the "single woman" remains in the sand.

Each time a big change comes in my life, I have a tendency to focus on loss instead of gain. The loss of time, the loss of comfort, the loss of mental space.

Years ago, stressing about a work and schedule change, a psychic at a Halloween party told me, "Just because it's different doesn't mean it's bad."

I've tried to take that to heart.

A week ago, my Quaker meeting had a mindfulness retreat. It was a perfect beginning to a new transition in my life, I decided. It would help center me before starting a new job, perhaps set me at ease and help me find perspective. That afternoon, we were instructed to go outside for a walking meditation. I thought I'd be bored by walking mindfully -- but quickly the thought rose up in me that I'm in a place of re-creation. What if, instead of focusing on change and loss, I saw each new stage of my life as a simple re-creation, a reordering of events and elements, rather than a harsh and traumatizing blow to my comfort and stability?

Later, at the same retreat, a group of us gathered to play what our facilitator called the "stone game." It meant that in complete silence, we were to use stones and other items to build a geometric figure together on a flat surface. One person would place a stone in a particular location, and all would take turns building upon that design, or taking something away, or moving an item. We could create together, but we weren't allowed to discuss what we were doing.

The stones the facilitator had given us to work with were beautiful. I loved the way they sounded as they hit each other and scraped the wooden bowl. I admired the smoothness of each of them when my friend rolled them in his hands before placing them onto the surface. So a few times, when it was my turn, I chose not to put down a new item into our design, but instead pick up his stone and feel it in my hands until my next turn. This made the others in the group laugh -- it looked like I was taking the stone for myself, like I wasn't playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. During other turns, there was repositioning -- taking something that had been placed and moving it to another place, or shredding up a leaf and sprinkling it over top of everything.

I realized, as we were playing, that this game is a lot like what happens to us in life.

My friends and I could have simply kept taking stones and leaves and placing them down, keeping everything mostly the same. And that would have been rather boring. Rather, when we improvised, when we sought a deeper experience, something more interesting happened. When we were playful and unattached to where our items were placed or what would happen to them, we had fun. We met each other on a deeper level. We were more fully engaged and alive.

The experience made me realize that while I'm typically averse to change, my desire to learn and grow and experiment is actually a much deeper part of who I am. I've always thought that the brutal changes in my life found me, that I would have tried to keep everything the same. But my yearning for depth in my life, for re-creation and fullness and beauty, is most likely what has brought about the many changes I've experienced. I can look at changes as traumatizing events, or I can view my openness and flexibility to change as a kind of bravery that helps me get closer to the root of all things.

When our time was up and we finished the stone game, I had a strong desire to put my hands over all of our items and brush them playfully away until the space was clear again, the way a child steps in her sand castle after it's complete. I felt at peace knowing that nothing can stay the same, that the things we create cannot possibly last forever.

As I left the retreat that day, I realized that the deepest solace we find in life is in accepting when things are over, letting the pieces fall away, and starting again.

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