Transitions are inevitable, they are a part of life, but we often have a difficult time being with life as it is. We spend countless hours, days - years even - trying to outrun life, trying to escape change. This is human. Change is often painful and it’s natural to want to move away from what hurts. But trying to avoid the inevitable creates stress, unacceptance, and more pain, from Buddhist teachings this would be referred to as the "second arrow of suffering".
Image by Sheenu Jain
TRANSITION IN SEASONS
Like the seasonal markers of a year, our lives go through seasons. Depending on the season we are in, our energy waxes and wanes. There are times we feel vibrant and full of life, and times where we feel tired, sore, and withdrawn. We easily accept the vibrant times but assume that there’s something wrong with us when we are in a resting season. Our inability to accept where we are creates an extra layer of suffering.
The Spring season of our lives could literally mean the years of conception, childhood, teenage years, and the early twenties. But we could be in a spring season at any age. It is a time of newness, new relationships, new job, new home, or learning a new skill. Sometimes spring follows major change: after a heartbreak or loss, after a winter season of catching our breath and nursing our wounds, spring is the time where we notice that we feel a little bit better, but we are still learning to walk again. If we’ve been isolated in grief (a winter season) for a time, but then are ready to slowly see people and peek out of our hibernation in small doses, that peeking out would be the first glimpse of spring. Spring also arrives again after menopause, after a "mid life crisis", when we’ve found our bearings in a new land. Once we accept that we are no longer back “there” we can discover where we now find ourselves.
Summer could be our late twenties, the childbearing years, the peak work years marked by productivity. Again however, summer can happen at any age, when we feel we are full of juice, inspired, and productive. We need to learn - if we are in summer in older years - that summer needs to be kinder and slower, maybe even more inwards, but there can still be a productive summer.
Fall is when we start slowing down a little. For women it is the years leading up to peri-menopause towards menopause. When we look back on it, we might notice that it started long before we were aware. For men there is also a change, sometimes it leads to what has been called a "mid-life crisis". I think there is a deep questioning however one identifies, often leading to re-organizing based on what the questions find: what matters the most now? Often it’s an invitation to turn inwards, to discover, or finally take the time for internal pursuits as opposed to external ones. In a world that celebrates productivity, constant growth and youth, without some soul searching discernment and acceptance this season leads to being stuck, unable to accept where we are, unable to go forward. No matter what it is, a major transition isn’t always acknowledged or understood. There can be a lot of grief that comes with aging. There might be things that we hoped for ourselves that we never accomplished: maybe we never had children and we question our decision, never travelled to all the places we dreamed of, never got the university degree; maybe we never settled down, or maybe we did settle down and wished we had more experiences with other people; maybe we feel betrayed by our aging body. We become more aware of death. It is often during our middle years that we begin to lose people. Even our own body doesn't recover like it once did.
Then there’s winter. Winter scares people. Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder and can’t wait for brightness of summer. In our life cycle winter is old age and - eventually - death. Again, being a culture that celebrates youth, we aren’t very good at dying. But because endings are a part of life, this leaves all of us at some point needing the skills and the compassion to be with loss. At any age we can find ourselves in the long, hard season of winter. We are in the cold when we unexpectantly lose our job or our home. Sometimes winter begins when things happen as they "should" – our children leave home, we retire, we choose to move to a different city. It can happen when we are going through a life change, teen years, motherhood, post-partum, peri-menopause, or aging. Winter is a time to move inwards, rest, reflect, grieve, and assess - which sometimes leads to hard choices. The winter is dark and that darkness is felt spiritually and emotionally, there’s often a lot of uncertainty, an uncomfortable sense of not knowing. The world seems unfamiliar, we may have no idea how to carry on.
“Within the grip of winter, it is almost impossible to imagine the spring. The gray perished landscape is shorn of colour. Only bleakness meets the eye; everything seems severe and edged. Winter is the oldest season; it has some quality of the absolute. Yet beneath the surface of winter, the miracle of spring is already in preparation; the cold is relenting; seeds are wakening up. Colours are beginning to imagine how they will return. Then, imperceptibly, somewhere one bud opens, and the symphony of renewal is no longer reversible. From the black heart of winter, a miraculous, breathing plenitude of colour emerges.” – John O’Donohue
Transitions are inevitable. We are constantly crossing thresholds from one version of our life into another. Many are celebrations, marriage, births and birthdays, graduations, new homes, and retirements. But even celebratory events can bring mixed feelings. Becoming a new parent and leaving the freedom of childless days. Leaving home for the first time. Retiring when work has been so much a part of our identity. Divorce, even when it’s chosen, is often still something we need to grieve.
CHALLENGES WITH TRANSITIONS
STRESS & COMPASSION
Transitions are often stressful. While our bodies are made to handle stress, the stress is meant to end. There are some thresholds that are painful to cross and seem to take years to get to the other side, so it’s natural that stress accompanies them. We can’t lose a job, get a scary diagnosis, find out that our partner has been having an affair, or lose someone without it being stressful. That’s the first arrow, the one that’s inevitable. Life is full of first arrows, parts of the human experience that we can’t avoid, like sickness, aging, and death. The second arrow, the one that we can change, is to notice our response to it, the pressure the culture puts on us, and the pressure that we put on ourselves. This pressure often comes in black and white statements: “It should have been different”. “This should be easier, why am I struggling so much?”. “Everyone else is doing fine with this, what’s wrong with me?”. “Why is this hard? Isn’t this what I wanted?”. “Why is this taking me so long to get over and move on?” I often spend time with clients just acknowledging where they are and how hard it is. Once we can acknowledge that what we are going through is hard, sometimes compassion can begin to peek in. We can’t necessarily stop stress, but we can treat ourselves more gently.
THEY ARE SLOW
The gentleness I speak of above is needed because transitions take time, likely more time than you think and certainly more time than western culture allows for. Productivity and speed are encouraged so much that pressure to heal fast can be internalized. Clients often ask, “How long will this take?” The honest answer is “I don’t know.” It’ll take as long as it takes and there won’t be clear edges around winter and spring, they will bleed into each other like watercolours.
LACK OF COMMUNITY
When a loss happens there is often a secondary grief that accompanies the primary “event”. That secondary grief could be what Francis Weller names “That which we expected and did not receive”, one of the gates of grief. There is a part of us at a soul level that requires community to hold us. People around us that see where we are and can sit with us without trying to change or fix our experience. Transitions and grief are not something that need to be fixed, they are a normal yet challenging part of the human experience.
Most transitions are not traumatic, they are a natural part of life. But if the event that led to the transition was traumatic, there could be pieces of it that are challenging to do alone. Or, if one has unprocessed trauma in their history, sometimes a transition can bring up some of those painful threads, making the transition more layered and harder to work through. If you are overwhelmed or shut down by your experience, consider getting one on one support for the trauma pieces.
LACK OF PRACTICES (support)
Sometimes it takes us a while to realize that we are in a transition. That there is deep change happening, and that we are changing physically, emotionally, often spiritually – remember, transitions are meant to transform us. Without practices, community, or conversation to support us, we can feel alone and “in the dark”, literally unaware that we are still on a journey, that it didn’t end the day we lost our job, or the day we lost our loved one, or when our child graduated. It’s a journey that often started before that day and it continues sometimes for years after. Without maps, rituals, or acknowledgement of where we are, sometimes we are “in the dark” for years.
“Nobody goes willingly into initiation. By its very nature, initiation is a humbling of the will. It comes as a tsunami would, wild with nature, shattering us on all levels. And though every part of us may mount resistance to being changed, we are not meant to emerge intact. We are not meant to re-cover what has been revealed. Rather, we are meant to be disillusioned, dissolved, disappointed before any thought of rebuilding can begin.” -Toko-pa Turner
Some transitions need support. Below are a list of books that you might find helpful. I also have 2 courses coming up that give us an opportunity to be in community. One, "Nourishing Grief" is online only, and the other, "Embodiment & Boundaries" is a hybrid option online & in person in South Surrey, BC. If you need one on one support, please contact me firstname.lastname@example.org
Francis Weller “The Wild Edge of Sorrow”
Stephen Jenkinson “Die Wise”
Kate Codrington “Second Spring: the self-care guide to menopause
Kimberly Ann Johnson “The Fourth Trimester”
Pema Chodron “When Things Fall Apart – Heart Advice for Difficult Times”
Day Schildkret “Hello, Goodbye: 75 Rituals for Times of Loss, Celebration, and Change”