April 30, 2019

How to Stay Grounded when Change—& Chaos—is Inevitable.


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As predictable as the tides’ rise and flow with the Earth’s rhythm twice a day, we can count on change to flow into our day and keep us on our toes.

So, why then does change always bury us in anxiety?

Each morning, many of us snooze our alarm a few times and roll out of bed with one eye still closed, trying not to trip as we step into the shower. To stay prepared, we turn on our local news program and hope to hear what Mother Nature has planned for the day ahead. Then, we head off to work or school.

Suddenly, without warning, the inevitable spring construction barrels and flashing arrows wish us “Good morning.” In a split second, the panic sets in, and we are unexpectedly detoured. Now, we are going to be late.

Here we are on yet another whirlwind adventure sponsored by none other than our dear friend, change.

Being a Spanish-bilingual teacher for 12 years, I learned that change is a constant for every living being on this Earth.

Just as change crept in to disrupt my daily plans with an unexpected fire drill, a leaky roof, a new student joining our class community, or the dental clinic pulling students for check-ups, my students and their families were experiencing their own unforeseen challenges. Some children had to spend the night at a cousin’s house because their parents were called into work at the last minute. Some children’s parents missed the 3 p.m. pick-up time because their 2004 Dodge minivan had broken down with a flat tire. Some children entered the classroom about to explode with excitement because they would soon be welcoming a new baby brother or sister into their family.

We have all been there, and no matter how much we try to prepare for the unexpected, we have no control over change. It drips into every crack of our day and enjoys watching us dance around with anxiety.

So, when teaching became more about documentation than the kids, I knew change was lurking nearby.

Over the last 10 years, both public and parochial school teachers suffered immense attacks from outsiders. Each year, new demands were added onto the agenda, forcing me to reflect on and document every skill and strategy I innately used throughout my day. By the end of the school year, I had 30-some pages of documentation and artifacts describing my worth as a teacher.

After five years of drowning my students in assessments, evaluating my own value as a teacher, and always falling short according to the latest research-based or political standards, the universe nudged me forward. It was time to move on.

Of course, I did not know what the next chapter would be, and the transition again left me wobbly kneed and stumbling, just like after every other major life change.

As the anxiety swirled like a mid-Atlantic hurricane in early October, I was desperate to reach a shore—any shore—where I could plant my feet firmly on the sand.

All I knew was that I wanted to continue working with families. I wanted to find a career in which I felt purpose and could be of service to others. I wanted to walk a path that would continue to help me learn, to continue to see the world through other people’s eyes.

Through the fog of anxiety and self-doubt, the shore finally appeared. For the first time, instead of walking into a classroom, I will be walking into an organization that serves people in need of assistance finding clothes, furniture, transportation, and housing resources. Even though my heart feels a whisper of peace when I think about the new opportunity standing before me, I cannot escape the pull of anxiety still hovering thick over my head.

I am doing all I can to not let my mind sink into the quicksand of what-ifs: What if I do not like the job? What if I do not make enough money to pay for daycare? What if I cannot wake up on time? What if I no longer have time to grocery shop? What if I will never write again? You name it. I have thought of it and invented a story line to go with it.

We spend our entire lives being thrown out of one nest and into another. As soon as we find any bed of comfort, the clouds rush in, the wind blows, and the rain falls yet again to wake us up. One would think that by now, our backpacks would be bursting with ways to navigate the oceans of uncertainty and doubts that accompany change.

And yet, we struggle. Why?

In trying to understand, I looked to the wisdom of Pema Chödrön. In her book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, she describes the discomfort of groundlessness that we often feel when we are treading water in the waves of transition and what we can do to climb our way back out:

“Our discomfort arises from all of our efforts to put ground under our feet, to realize our dream of constant okayness. When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we let go and not struggle against it, when we embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality that’s called enlightenment…Another word for this is freedom.”

The anxiety we feel is because we are forcing ourselves to step out of our comfort zone. Even though we will not live there forever, we must swim through it if we are to grow. Standing in moments of groundlessness is like hanging in our very own chrysalis. A few weeks may pass while we feel lost and scared, our world turned upside down, our vision dark. But, as if pure magic, the density of our shell suddenly thins, and light from the knowledge we gained shines through. We emerge once again, ready for the next phase of our life’s journey.

So, how do we lean into this groundlessness without letting it destroy us?

First, we have to let go of the stories we write in our minds about all that could possibly go wrong. They merely build a wall, blocking our view from what is actually happening. Rather, we need to sit with the moment of uncertainty, of discomfort, and bravely stare at ourselves in the mirror to see who we truly are—scars and all.

We also need to remind ourselves to slow down and breathe. We need to place our hand over our heart and feel its rhythmic beat. If you cannot find it within your chest, let Mother Nature help you. Take your shoes off and stand firmly on the ground with the grass between your toes. Feel the Earth’s heartbeat rise through the soles of your feet and guide you toward finding your presence.

And, if your doubts are still screaming louder than your breaths, repeat after me, “The caterpillar does not become a butterfly overnight. One breath at a time, one step at a time.” Repeat this again and again until your mind listens.

Thus, as I inhale deeply, placing one hand on my heart and one foot in front of the other to begin again, I choose to lean in and take Pema’s advice; “With love and acceptance, you can go forward with curiosity and courage.”

I will not let anxiety win.

I will take the leap.

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