Don’t Freeze the Moment
If we are to develop the ability to recover from the stress of the changes we face, we need to be flexible. And being flexible means bending without breaking. The dictionary definition of flexibility is “bending without breaking,” and “able to easily respond to altered circumstances or conditions.” It describes “a person ready and able to change, so as to adapt to certain circumstances.” So that’s being flexible.
When we’re flexible, we’re able to enjoy the freshness of life’s beautiful moments. We can appreciate how every moment in life is fresh. Not frozen. Thank God; otherwise, we would be a bunch of people standing around like statues, or frozen meat.
Life is beautifully flowing from one moment to the next, quite like a river. And all of the conditions we meet in life, whether adverse or pleasant, are also fresh and momentary. This experience of momentary changes is refreshing. It makes life interesting because it catches our attention.
There’s nothing static here, nothing boring. It’s very exciting, actually. But what makes this fresh and energetic life turn into a frozen state is when we put it in the freezer of our thought processes. Then it’s like the motor of our refrigerator buzzing, barking, and chirping when the motor just continues to rattle. (Those are official refrigerator sounds from GE, by the way. I didn’t make them up.)
But all in all, our thoughts are how we freeze that momentary nature of life’s conditions and the world. When we do that, it’s as if there’s a heavy cloud of ice always hanging over our head.
Why do we try to freeze the moment? I don’t know exactly, but one possible reason is that we want certain things to stay the same. Why do we refrigerate things? Because we want them to stay the same, or at least to keep them as close as possible to their original condition. We want our veggies –– and our life –– to be unchanging.
We try to keep things the way we want them to be. Because then we feel as if there’s a kind of predictability in our life. We feel secure in that environment. And we can maintain the impression that we are in control. It’s nice to feel that we’re in control.
But do we really know what the next moment is going to bring? Or next year, or next week? Will there be a tomorrow? I don’t want to get too Nietsche-esque here, but it seems that the thought of change, or the momentary nature of life, somehow becomes the source of our stress, and sometimes outright fear.
That’s good, however. In fact, it’s really good. It’s the first sign of wisdom dawning. As uncomfortable as we may feel with that fear, it is still a sign of wisdom. So we feel uneasy, and in some sense, we even feel fear in relation to change.
Any change is stressful, whether it’s a job change or a change of a wedding venue. In any case, it is somewhat nerve-wracking because we don’t know what’s going to come next. We’re in unfamiliar, uncertain territory. And uncertainty kind of freaks us out. We can’t predict what will happen, and we can’t plan. Planning is a big deal, especially in our American culture.
When I first came here, I was shocked by that. I thought, “Oh my goodness, I have to plan for everything, even going to a friend’s house for tea.” In India, you just show up at a friend’s house anytime and have tea. You can even walk into their house while they’re having dinner, and sit down to dinner with them. But you can’t do that here in the US.
Control Freakout, or Curiosity?
Change freaks us out because we have habituated our minds to a false sense of control. We’re control freaks about our lives. And that illusion of control is comforting, even if it’s false. There’s nothing wrong with feeling comfortable. But the reality is that life is quite unpredictable and beyond our control. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen.
So we have to be realistic. It’s good to be prepared, by developing skills that can help us deal with the reality of change.
When you face change, you have two choices, basically. You can embrace change and the reality of uncertainty. Or struggle against it and just allow yourself to be rattled.
Those are our two choices. And I hope you choose the first one — embrace the change. Embracing reality means you engage with it creatively and skillfully. It’s not just saying, “Oh, whatever happens, happens.” That’s kind of fatalistic and not helpful. But when you meet change with a sense of wisdom and kindness, you’re being open-hearted and curious. You remain inquisitive, and you inquire with openness. You’re accepting whatever comes your way as a good challenge and a valuable opportunity.
If the reality of change didn’t exist, we would have no opportunity to make the most of our life. We would be stuck with whatever we are. But when we embrace the inevitability of change, it’s a way of saying yes to our beautiful life. Because our life exists in the very changes we experience from moment to moment.
When we meet a change in that way, we appreciate the possibilities it brings. Then, not only are we saying yes to the good things in life, but we’re also saying yes to adverse conditions. Because hardships and difficulties can be very helpful to us in accomplishing our aspirations.
Keeping these points in mind can help us find our balance when we are pushed to our limit by challenges and stress. If we’re going to make such changes workable, we have to start somewhere. And when we meet life’s moments with curiosity and openness, we have a chance to rediscover our resilience and let it shine.
Expect the Unexpected: An Exercise
1. Think of a current situation where you have a strong hope for a certain outcome.
2. Imagine that situation will turn out just as you wish, in ways that benefit everyone concerned. Feel what that’s like to imagine that. You might write a few words appreciating this possibility.
3. Now imagine something about that situation that could surprise you or throw you off course. Feel what it’s like to imagine that. Is there a way this surprise might be helpful? Make a few notes about that, if you like.
4. What was different about imagining the two scenarios: the expected, and the unexpected?
5. Breathe and relax for a moment. Let your mind rest.
6. Consider that you always have the choice to appreciate the changes you encounter, whether or not they meet your original expectation.
The teachings on which this article is based were given by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche at the retreat “Be Wise, Go Kind: Joy on the Path of Resilience” in April 2021, hosted by Nalandabodhi International and Nalanda West.