Part 2 of a 3-part series on Navigating Life Transitions
In between two somethings is a lot of nothing. The Tibetan term Bardo – roughly defined as the intermediate state between two lives on earth – might be an apt description for this place. Be forewarned that the middle period of transition is often marked by inertia, fatigue, immobilization, low self-esteem, doubt, impatience and a lack of solidity. You may be tempted to press the fast forward or rewind button in order to bypass Nowhere Land. However, this period can be a gateway to transformation and growth if you are willing to be changed by change.Below, I offer five ways you can survive and thrive in between the ending and the beginning.
1) Look at Your Leftovers
Just as new losses may trigger unresolved grief about old losses, it is also likely that unresolved issues from your past may knock at your door now and seek resolution once and for all. For example, being fired from your job may resuscitate old fears, anxieties and beliefs about money, scarcity, competency and self-worth. Leonard Cohen says, “How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?”Do not invite or encourage self-flagellation at this time but do permit yourself to evaluate any cognitive distortions that may be rooted in some past experience that is no longer true. One client, whose father died over a year ago, begins to see how the identity of Hurt Little Girl she constructed as a child in relationship to her father no longer serves her adult self in the absence of her father as a mirror.
2) Mind The Gap
This is a common phrase shouted by station attendants of the London Underground, imploring travelers to pay attention to the space between the station platform and subway when boarding the trains. Cultivating a friendship with the emptiness and not knowing of this Bardo stage of transition can provide oxygen and lubrication when your body and mind start to feel constricted or paralyzed. The Hindus calls this period of inner inquiry Forest Dwelling – and the focus is on being rather than doing. Be willing to hang out here for awhile …slow down… make space to be alone for some time every day…trust that what is marinating in you is in preparation for a rebirth.
3) Let Go
As a result of the change or loss you experienced, what parts of you are now out of date? This is a period when your old views and ways of being no longer fit. In William Bridges’ book, “Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes,” he describes this as a time of disenchantment, defined as “a spell cast by the past on the present.” It’s also important to be aware that sometimes a physical ending or beginning may not always coincide with the emotional one. You may be newly retired yet still feel the old urges structure your days and interactions as if you were managing a department. This is like jet lag; it may take awhile for your emotional body to arrive where your physical body has landed.
When you can let go of comparing what was with what is, you begin to clear away the brush and bramble in order to see a new path – a way out of the forest. This is a different experience than disillusionment, which is a fixed and invariant belief about how things should be – a position which can keep you trapped in efforts to re-create or repeat old patterns. Grateful that her suicide attempt failed, one client discovered that it no longer served her to believe that killing herself would be the best way out of a difficult life circumstance in the future. After mourning and letting go of what she called her “de-fault position,” she was then able to reorganize and re-orient her thinking and focus her energy on how she wanted to live – rather than take – her life.
At some point near the end of this letting go process I notice something interesting happens. I call this the moment of fluency. When I first moved to Australia, many of the customs and language seemed foreign to me – winter was summer, two weeks equaled a fortnight, learning to drive through roundabouts on the opposite side of the road and the way mate ship trumped individuality. In the beginning, I converted everything foreign into its familiar equivalent. But after several months had passed, I noticed one day that I was no longer doing the conversion of what is to what was – I just let go, stopped trying to remember and became fluent in my present life experience.
4) Feel and Deal
The in-between stage is marked by inertia, fatigue, immobilization, low self-esteem, doubt, impatience, emptiness and a lack of solidity. There is a distinct and uncomfortable quality of fuzziness or static – not being “dialed in” to your clear signal or station. You may feel like you are straddling an abyss. Know that change is often preceded by chaos and feeling like you don’t know who you are or how you’re supposed to be. Stop struggling. You don’t need to fix or replace anything right now. This formless emptiness is a time of gestation, regeneration and renewal. You may begin to see that your constructed ideas about reality are illusions. Amplify the neutral experience and allow the alchemy of change to transform you.
5) Cultivate Receptivity
In case you’ve begun to feel uneasy with more being and less doing, there are two things you can do during this time to cultivate your receptivity about your next beginning. First, try writing your life story from a place in the future. This allows you discover that the story of your past is always changing, depending on how far away from the stage you are seated. William Bridges suggests writing your obituary or by asking the question: “What would be unlived in your life if it ended today?” Given that something or some part of you is dying in transition, this can be a useful exploration. To help you get started, see what emerges when you complete the sentence: “Why didn’t I ever….?”
Second, slow down and pay attention to dreams, hunches, cues, crazy ideas, synchronicities and odd thoughts. Notice the kinds of books, images, conversations and ideas that engage and inspire you. After I completed an intense four-and-a-half-year period of graduate school, internships and licensing exams to become a Marriage and Family Therapist, I sat in the Bardo for quite awhile asking, “What’s next for me?” I no longer had a course syllabus around which to structure my life. Yet I began to notice that most of my clients were dealing with life intersections. I had a facility for helping them navigate these journeys, perhaps because I’d already lived through a long list of life chapters. The subject of change and life transitions showed up in my dreams, as well as in the books I read and the stories I wrote. Inspiration, increased energy and excitement moved to the foreground. I no longer heard static on my station and I began to realize that I was entering a new season of transition (more on this in Part 3).
Next up: You Have Arrived…at Vuja De!
Karen Batka, MBA, MA, LMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing grief and in life transitions in Asheville, NC. She works with individuals, couples, families and organizations and facilitates groups