This is what transitions look like

Over the last couple of months, I’ve lost more than 20 pounds on what my friend Molly refers to as the Blow-Up-Your-Life Diet. I’ve been apartment searching in Boston, packing to move, preparing to start a new full-time job after three-plus years on my own, and starting to lead a seminar at UMass Amherst entitled, ironically enough, “Living Strategically.” (I taught my first class last week by the way. Let it be said: I love my students. And I love teaching.)

On second thought, “living strategically” isn’t so ironic after all. If not for the strategies I’ve learned, practiced – and blogged about here – over the past few years, I’d undoubtedly be in far worse shape than I am today.  Hard as things are right now – and they are pretty hard – I have tools and perspective.

That is when I remember to use them.

Last week, I was going through an especially difficult patch. I’d made the two-hour drive into Boston from western Mass based on a realtor’s promise to show me four to seven apartments only to discover on arrival that none of them accepted cats, despite my having clearly indicated that one would be coming with me. I start my Boston job a week from tomorrow. I still have no place to live, and once I find one, I’ll still have to move. It all began to seem utterly overwhelming. Was this whole thing a mistake? What had I been thinking?

And then, just in time, I remembered: This is what transitions look like. Not in every specific, of course, but in the experience.

In life coach Martha Beck’s Change Cycle model of transitions, I’m right on track, smack dab in the middle of Square 1 (Death and Rebirth). “The bizarre, formless, zero-identity netherworld of Square One is what anthropologists call a “liminal period,” Beck writes in Finding Your Own North Star, describing such a time as one “where you’re on the threshold between identities, neither inside nor out, neither one thing nor the other.”

She continues: “During most of Square One, you’ll probably feel panicky, groundless, and desperate. Problems and complications seem to attack from all sides: big ones, little ones, strange and unfamiliar ones. You rush around in frenzied activity but feel as though you’re getting absolutely nothing done.”

Yes! And yes and yes. That is exactly how I’ve been feeling.

For his part, transitions guru William Bridges describes this uncomfortable stretch as “the neutral zone,” a “period of confusion and distress” that follows an ending and precedes a new beginning. He devotes an entire chapter of Transitions to this difficult time, including a number of suggestions to ease the way.

The first of these: Surrender — we must “give in to the emptiness and stop struggling to escape it,” he counsels.

If you’re caught in a riptide, you’re supposed to stop fighting and let yourself drift. If you’re facing an angry bear, you should lie still, pretending to be dead. (At least, this is what I’ve always heard; in the interests of full disclosure, I’ve tested neither of these.) Both of these responses would seem to go against our basic survival instincts. I imagine that, in the instant, knowledge is often a poor match for adrenaline-powered impulse.

But, as I know from long experience, the first impulse isn’t always the right one.  As I continue through this month of dramatic change and uprooting, I’ll be calling on the collective wisdom of all who have gone before me (and here, I include not only others but also my own past selves.) While surrender doesn’t come naturally, it’s nonetheless what’s called for.

Life Experiment #9:  “The present moment is the mother of the future. Take care of the mother, and the mother will take care of the child.” I love this line from one of my Buddhist teachers. The focus of this month is surrendering to – and caring for – the present moment, the only thing we ever have to work with.