When a personal crisis strikes, many people are more motivated to change their lives. Despite the motivation there is a common trap in that nearly everyone will return to some variant of doing what is familiar to them, but under different ruses. A person may well set off to change, and even think that they have changed, but more frequently than not a substitution has occurred rather than actual change.
An example would be a person who has a dependency on alcohol but then becomes dependent upon Alcoholics Anonymous. We could argue that the latter type of dependency is of greater benefit to the person’s well-being, and you would find no argument in opposition to this notion here. But we would have a much harder time arguing that the underlying psychological issue of dependency had diminished. What has occurred is a substitution, albeit sometimes for the betterment of the individual.
A substitution of this type is not problematic in the true sense of the word if the person is happy and comfortable in life. An alcoholic may well find a more peaceful and content filled life through Alcoholics Anonymous. Happiness is happiness no matter how it is found.
The problem is that the clear majority of humanity is just holding its head above water in a cesspool of suffering and pain. Most people are barely coping let alone thriving. What passes for psychological and spiritual change is typically a form of surface level substitution; a dependency of one type being swapped for a dependency of another type. It is going from one rigid pattern to another different rigid pattern.
The above might convey the notion that we should get rid of all dependencies which would not be accurate. For example, we are dependent on air and food for survival. If we are in a relationship, we are dependent upon the person’s goodwill and integrity among other things. There are many examples of dependency where it is necessary and fruitful. I am sure you could think of a lot of examples which could be placed here.
Very few of us ever fully express our love for one another because we are dependent upon fear. Afraid of being hurt, we find ourselves unwilling to be as vulnerable and open as that admission requires. Unaired, such hurts close our hearts and create distance between our loved ones and ourselves. Once that pattern forms, it becomes even harder to express our appreciation and love. We close ourselves off to the possibility of deeper connection where love can flow more readily.
There is a simple method for staying open. We never close! It really is that simple. Though it is simple, it is not easy to implement. For many people their habitual responses to stress and crisis are fear based through no fault of their own. Their physiology tightens up. Emotionally and psychologically, they close of or alternatively strike out. This is known as the flight/fight/freeze response. The response triggers a pattern which often has many years or decades of personal history behind it. Once in that pattern the momentum of it makes it difficult to stop.
One of the best things we can to form a more adaptive way of being in the world is to interrupt our normal defences and reactions. A good deal of introspection mixed with a heavy dose of self-honesty are prerequisites to interrupting our defences and reactions. Often the type of awareness required to identify the patterns best occurs under the guidance of some outside help. A friend or therapist or gifted teacher can provide some objectivity towards this end.
One immediate thing we can do is to notice when we are tightening up at a physiological level. For instance, if I pay attention to my body I can notice some stress and toxicity building up in the neck region. The muscles become tense and tight. It is a long-term pattern that goes way back into childhood. To counteract that, I allow my muscles to relax. In doing so it establishes a new pattern which is much more attuned to our wellbeing. You can think of allowing my muscles to relax as a physiological way of letting go. Letting go of the tension, the anxiety build up, the days’ stressors is actually what is being taught to our bodies and mind.
At first, trying to relax and let go will often feel cumbersome. We have been taught to tighten and to protect ourselves. Anxiety is becoming more common. As are people being constantly stressed and hyper vigilant. Here is a rule to be aware of. The more we become anxious and fearful, the more fearful and anxious we will become. The pattern not only becomes ingrained, but it deepens and spreads making it more difficult to break out of. The pattern of tightening only serves to further injure ourselves in the long run.
In the beginning an effective way to begin a practice of letting go is to recognize it will be done badly. Unless a person is a grand master of some description, there will not be the sufficient skill or even aptitude build up yet. It is ok to do it badly to begin with as long as we keep doing it and strive to be a little better at it over time. Usually it will take around six months before some tangible and easily discernible benefits kick in. But invariably they will kick in so it is important to develop perseverance.
I often say to people that they are predictable to a fault. What I mean by that is that I am not predicting the person, but I am predicting the pattern which the person will follow. The person who is operating rigidly is typically unaware of the underlying patterns which make them extremely predictable. They are effectively functioning as a programmed robot.
For most of us, opening ourselves and letting go are strangers we rarely encounter, yet nearly everyone will have had an experience of it if they have lived long enough. Pay attention to when love, awe or great beauty are encountered. Rather than being closed, we are open. Usually our bodies are very relaxed and often there is a sense that all is well. To be open to life again requires us to teach ourselves new patterns of openness. The best way to achieve that is through our bodies. Learn to relax and associate relaxation with openness. When people are open, they become less predictable because there is room for spontaneity. Initially we are substituting one pattern with another just like the AA example. But the substitution eventually leads to more flexibility and different ways of responding in the world. Instead of responding in one manner alone, we find that there are many different and more beneficial ways to respond.
Relaxation is not a panacea, rather it creates a starting point where we can examine ourselves more objectively. A bit of distance is created between our suffering and our minds which is often enough to allow something more constructive to occur. Once we start examining ourselves in earnest then we start to unravel our complicated set of defences and reactions. We begin to understand what makes us tick. But for this to occur we need to break the rigidity of our reactions.
The question then becomes can the program change or better yet can we start anew? The answer is yes, but it often does require a great deal of work and patience. If we meet the challenge, then change in the true sense of the word then becomes possible. No longer bound by our typical defences and reactions we are freer to respond to stressful stimuli in innovative ways.