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.

Copyright © Amy Gutman. All rights reserved.

22 thoughts on “This is what transitions look like

  1. I admit I have been absent from reading your posts for a while. So I read that you have a new job in a vibrant city and are teaching at an esteemed university. That sounds a bit more like completion than transition to me not that movement should ever stop. Congratulations. BTW, are you still planning to attend the SOBCon conference in Portland? It sounds intriguing but I wasn’t able to schedule it this year. Hope that you will share some of that experience if you go. Thanks.

    • Thanks for the congratulations!

      Sadly, I had to skip SOBCon, but I think they’re going to let me apply the conference fee to another event so I’m hoping to make the next one.

      As for completion vs. transition — hmmmm. I think if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this stretch is that transition is an ongoing process and never really complete. :-)

  2. Great post. Going through something of a transition myself and it is so reassuring that it’s not just me being useless!

  3. Great reminders, Amy. As they say of toddlers, I have trouble with transitions. It’s that discouraging uncomfortable period! So valuable to remember that it’s an inevitable part of change. Best of wishes on your new job!

    • Thanks so much, Katy! I’m looking forward to landing on the other side of this transition and until then just trying to take it one moment at a time. Because, what else can I really do, right? :-)

  4. This post reminds me of something I read once (I don’t remember the source). Our basic impulse is that any movent in life that is not perceived as forward is considered to be moving backward. However, sometimes what is needed is to move sideways. It is neither forward nor backward, and it does not feel like progress, but it is sometimes necessary to get around an obstacle. This thing I read even suggested to let yourself “drift” sideways, not unlike your riptide example here. I’m glad you reminded me of it.

    Best of luck in your dramatic change. It sounds all very positive to me.

  5. Amy: what a gift that in the transition you can be kind to yourself and to us through the gift of transparency and positive intention. I’m sorry you are losing so much weight. And that realtor wasted your time – did not put you first! So sorry this is such a hard task to find housing. But you have good resources and are moving into a beautiful new place in life. Thank you for your example and my prayers and best intentions are with you. PS: did you know that tomorrow, Sept. 10, is the 513th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s big dream dying (creating a huge metal horse – France invade Milan on that day and wrecked his model and destroyed his mentor) and the 13th anniversary of the completion of his dream (500 years later a team actually built it again). These big dreams take time!

    • Thanks so much for those affirming words, Allegra, and the prayers and intentions both are much appreciated! What a time we will both have to look back on in the years to come. And what experience, strength, and hope we will have to share, to use the 12 step formulation. :-)

  6. I love the notion that this is what transitions look like.

    You are doing great, just remember that.

    And soon you will be settled here and you can look back and marvel at how you did it, just like I do.

    And in the meanwhile, you look great and I have gained back my “blow up my life” weight :)

    • Thanks for all the support and encouragement, Molly. You have been a great inspiration, and I look forward to seeing you SOON! I love that we’ll be quasi-neighbors again.

  7. The axiom about mothering the mother is a principle La Leche League teaches their Leaders who will be helping new Moms. What a delightful surprise to learn that it’s also taught by Buddhist teachers! Makes me think of how many truths are taught by many sources. Like “Do unto others . . . ”

    Take care . . . of yourself . . . in the present.

  8. So glad the first day of school went well! One of my grandmother’s many rhyming axioms was “Well begun is half done.”

    • I love that axiom, Penny! I may have to blog about it — would love to hear some others as well if you care to share them.

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