Supporting clients as they go through major life transitions has been a significant part of my psychotherapy practice. I am now going through several major life transitions of my own. This challenging time has given me the opportunity to contemplate where I’ve been in my life and what may lie ahead, and to use the tools I’ve learned for navigating major upheavals in life.
I have been noticing my intense emotions as I go through the challenges of getting ready to leave our home of ten years, anticipating a move to a new city, and redefining my livelihood as I make this move. What I notice clearly is that this is a grief process (using my grief counselor and psychotherapist lens), and that it is a challenge to the ego and the process of letting go and trusting, rather than trying to control the outcome (using my mindfulness and Buddhist practitioner lens).
Buddhist teachings emphasize that change and impermanence are always happening, moment to moment. However, knowing this intellectually does not help us avoid painful and confusing emotions. In fact, working with those emotions is necessary for navigating life’s changes in a healthy way.
The Three-Step Emotional Rescue Plan
Dzogchen Ponlop, in his book Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Heals You, offers a helpful and effective “3-Step Emotional Rescue Plan” for working with and navigating difficult emotions.
The first step of the Emotional Rescue Plan is called “Mindful Gap.” In this step, we zoom in to fully experience what we are feeling. As I experience the emotional ups and downs of my current transition process, I first zoom in on what I am experiencing in my body. It might be a tight clenching in my chest or stomach, or a fluttery feeling around my heart. I can then identify the emotion associated with that direct felt sense. That emotion is often fear. I then hold the feeling and breathe into it, giving it some space and letting go of the thoughts that are needlessly intensifying the experience of fear.
This leads directly to the second step of the Three Step Plan: “Clear Seeing.” In this step, we zoom out to get a panoramic view of what we are experiencing. In my current groundless state of uncertainty, when I zoom out, I see that my fear relates to not knowing what is coming next for me, as well as a sense of helplessness in knowing that I cannot control the vicissitudes of my current situation. Zooming out to clearly see the whole picture helps me let go of feelings of isolation, knowing that we all, at one time or another, experience the roller coaster of life transitions. Knowing this, I can have greater compassion for myself and less resistance to experiencing the intense emotions that accompany transitions in life.
I also realize that I am experiencing sadness and grief as I navigate my transition process, and let go of many of the trappings of my old life. I remember, based on my knowledge and experience of the grief process, that all transitions and changes entail grief, even those transitions and changes that are positive. We need to say goodbye before we can say hello again.
Saying goodbye to an old way of being is an example of the third step of the Emotional Rescue 3-Step Plan, “Letting Go.” In order to move into the next chapter of my life, I need to let go of some of the trappings and self-identification of the current chapter of my life. Letting go is also a process of accepting what is. In my case, this includes accepting that I have no control over many aspects of relocating and redefining my career.
A Road Map for Navigating Transitions
William Bridges, in his seminal book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, talks about the transition process as a three step process: an ending, the neutral zone and a new beginning.
Our society does not respect and acknowledge endings the way that many other cultures do. Other than funerals and retirement parties, we have few rituals for acknowledging endings. We are told to “get over it” and not to “cry over spilt milk.” Bereavement leave is often just a few days, and the bereaved must then put on a happy face and return to work. Our death defying medical culture values cure over comfort and dignified end of life care. The attitudes of our Western society do not encourage us to give ourselves the needed time to experience the fullness of the endings in our lives.
Bridges says that it is important to experience endings in order to fully move on to the next chapter in our lives. He states “the new growth cannot take root on ground still covered with the old habits, attitudes and outlooks because endings are the clearing process.” This clearing process allows us to relax into the neutral zone, the bardo space between the ending and new beginning, with a sense of spacious curiosity rather than anxiety and fear.
The Neutral Zone
It is a common human urge to avoid anxiety and fear by jumping from ending to new beginning. The “neutral zone” is the groundless space of not knowing, and is the most important phase of the process of navigating major life transitions. Fully experiencing the endings in our life and grieving with appreciation what we are leaving behind can make the neutral zone a fertile time for self-inquiry. “For many people, the breakdown of the ‘old enchantment’ and the old-self image uncovers a hitherto unsuspected awareness,” says Bridges.
The “great emptiness of the neutral zone” provides us with an opportunity to examine our values and discover what is truly important to us now. Although most of us don’t have the opportunity to go on a solo vision quest, as do many American Indians, we can create a personal vision quest, taking time to be alone in silent retreat. Using time alone to meditate, journal or pray allows us to turn away from the outer world, turning inward to contemplate and ultimately discover what we want the next chapter of our life to be.
The New Beginning
Bridges describes the gap between the old life and the new as a process of disintegration and reintegration. Through this process we are renewed. Through renewing ourselves, with patience, equanimity and grace, we can discover what we want to create in the next chapter of our lives, our new beginning, with a sense of satisfaction and peace of mind.
Dzogchen Ponlop. (2016). Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You. New York: Tarchen/Perigee.
W, Bridges, (2004). Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
© 2017 Beth S. Patterson, MA, LPC. www.bethspatterson.com. All rights reserved.