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.