Coping with Change: How I Meet Life During Chaos
Updated: Apr 15, 2019
This post shares my insights on coping with big changes, both in my past and now. With all of my personal posts, my intentions for sharing my story is to connect to others and myself as to help us feel less alone.
During Autumn I take time to watch the leaves change color. I love seeing them eventually fall off the trees. In a play I wrote in college I described this process as colorful death. I've always been fascinated with autumn. It's a time of the greatest and most difficult change in nature. And there's an acknowledgment and recognition of big, sometimes chaotic, changes within ourselves.
I personally have been struggling with two very big changes in my life right now:
1) leaving Hobart and my previous hands-on role at Bija Yoga Tasmania
2) Approaching the most important role of my life: Motherhood, which I am
extremely excited for and at the same time the calling is daunting.
Lao Tzu describes how to cope with change:
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
This sounds lovely in a quote but it's very hard in practice. Change can be very painful even when we let it flow. This is why Buddhist believe suffering can not be avoided in this life. I believe Lao is saying, suffering will be greater if we resist change.
By resisting change we resist life itself.
My Childhood Depression
Growing up I had many big, dramatic changes. I lived in eight different homes by the time I was 10 years old and went to five different primary schools. My caretakers were both my grandparents and parents. For most of my early childhood things felt very chaotic.
(To give some reference: my parents were teenagers when they had me. I can't even imagine having a child at 16 & 18. And we continue to have a really beautiful relationship.)
Stability and structure are so important to children and their ability to thrive. This is why kapha (dense earth and water) governs the time of our youth. While vatta (light air and space) governs the time of our retirement, the time to cope with the biggest change of our lives: death.
So what happens when a child is thrust into rapid and consistent change? Thrown into the air, made to move this way and that? What happens when structure and stability are no where to be found?
For me, these drastic changes created deep existential questions and experiences at a very young age. Mostly about death. I'm not just talking about innocently asking where do we go when we die. I experienced a strong feeling that I was going to die, a feeling as if I were dying.
By the time I was 9 I fell into a very big depression. I couldn't eat, nothing brought me pleasure, and I would have panic attacks when left alone with my mind. I was deeply afraid to share these attacks with anyone and so I was to cope primarily on my own.
An archaic definition of cope is to meet. Which is an interesting concept slightly different from how we use it today. Now, to cope means to deal with emotions or struggles successfully. Our culture is obsessed with success, particularly the outward facade of success.
To be honest, I was terribly successful as a child, coping in the latter meaning of the word. I would beg and plead for friends and family to stay over as long as possible; I would watch TV as long as possible before bed; I would play video games right when I woke up. Eventually, I found the magic of dedicating my energy to sports. And in middle school settled into one home for the rest of my adolescence. The depression seemed to fade.
I successfully distracted myself for years until I seemingly had no more depression. And let me be clear, this was necessary and the healthiest way forward at the time. Distraction can be the best medicine...for a while.
Until one day in High School, when my home life was thrown back up into the air. I remember this familiar coat of depression weighing me down. And in that teenage moment, I turned to my breath. I remember listening to it like the wind, even as tears would come I remained diligent to the feeling and sound of my breath. I remember finding peace in meeting my life force. There was a brief but significant light-bulb moment. At the time I couldn't articulate the discovery but looking back this was a knowing: meeting my breath was actually coping and transforming my depression.
From that day forward in High School, when I found difficulty or depression I would go to my room and stretch and listen to my breath. This was before I took any formal yoga class. Somehow, with the help of grace to be sure, I found the strength and integrity to cope with the changes that were out of my control. This didn't mean I didn't feel depressed, it meant I found a way to meet my life and all the craziness whirling around me.
Meeting Chaos Today
Recently because of big changes happening all at once -- moving across the pacific ocean, changing my role at Bija and bringing new life into this world -- I have had to slow down and it's made me look back at my relationship to depression. I have found some of my old patterns and tactics, like watching TV and longing for friends and family to distract me. But here in this small town I've actually been forced into isolation and aloneness.
This has made me double down on my beliefs in the practice of yoga. Yoga has been the most successful way for me to meet my life. I'm not talking about postures, although this does help, but moreover the ability to meet my breath and mind exactly where it's at.
Yoga is to meet my thoughts about change at Bija:
Will I ever find a job as fulfilling here in the states? Will I find a vibrant yoga community that fulfills me here? Will I find a city that I love just as much as Hobart to call home?
Yoga is to meet my thoughts about childhood and motherhood in this strange new town:
What mistakes will I make with my child? Are we going to be alone in raising him/her here in this small town? Will I be able to balance motherhood with other roles I want to have? How do you nurture a child?
Change can bring forth a flurry of questions like a gust of wind in the face. It can create anxiety which for some people eventually leads to a halt and heaviness, or depression. All of these questions scare me and this change scares me. The fear leads to a resistance until it builds into resisting the flow of life, tucking away in distractions, not wanting to meet life here and now. This past month I had met that familiar old pattern of depression. This was a sign to deepen my practice.
During autumn, the most chaotic season for nature, I focus on two elements in my practice and in my seasonal hatha classes. In the beginning there is a three week period of earth practices. We slow down and counter the dramatic turn from summer to autumn. To counter the chaos we ground. I would do this in times of great change, like I'm experiencing now.
However you don't want to ground too long as we will become too heavy, perhaps for some this leads to inaction and depression.
So then we move from earth to air, connecting to the qualities of air changing quickly and swiftly without attachment to the previous way or direction. What a great lesson! Yoga can help us feel and understand this lesson through the breath-body-mind connection.
I have to learn this lesson over and over again. I use wind as a guide and teacher to help me let go of stubborn ways of thinking or ways I thought my life would go. Air is what reminds me to detach from my old role at Bija and to trust the flow of life, which is guiding me back to the states (for now). This is a release, a surrender to the chaos of moving and preparing for the role of motherhood which you can't fully prepare for, at some point you just have to live it, flow with it.
Often when students leave yoga I hear them say they feel lighter. This is a sign of moving with the flow of the breath or wind in their bodies, changing previous wind patterns, breaking up heaviness and surrendering to the flow. In fact, yoga focuses on the breath so much because wind is the way toward quick change of prana (energy). Yoga can be the most natural and quickest way to change one's frame of mind.
Yoga is my main coping mechanism. The success is simply in the action -- to listen and observe how wind moves through me, to consciously meet the moments of my life, essentially to meditate. And the success of yoga is not glorifying or a bright Instagram post or a numbing pill relieving the pain (not to say these are all useful at times). The success of yoga is simply living and being. This is quiet and can be sad and painful as well as exciting and joyful.
Yoga allows me to view success as simple as living fully.
For you that get down sometimes too...
I share this intimate side of my history and my current struggles to give you a glimpse of my own humanness. To let you know you're not alone and to remind me I'm not alone.
I'd like to end with an offering of breath practice. This is a balancing breath technique that can neutralize moods and help connect to air:
ay we all enjoy our yoga and find the coping skills that help us meet life!
Love & Blessings,
Holli Gipson, Yoga Lobbyist