The Stress of Change & Life Transitions: How Buddhist Psychology Can Help

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Many of the harder aspects of life relate to change. Whether you’re undergoing a life transition such as being a newlywed, new parent or new employee, or trying to adopt a new habit, change is something we all struggle with (even when it’s a “positive” change!). Why? Human beings are creatures of habit; recent research on the psychology of change demonstrates that people have a clear and reliable preference for things that have been around longer. Simply put: whether we’re happy in a certain situation or not (ie, a relationship or a career), we believe that longevity implies “good” and that any change (which is always unknown) is “bad”.

But why do we perceive change as bad? The main reasons: loss of control, uncertainty and the mere fact that we are dealing with things that are different and new, which often instills a sense of groundlessness.

From this perspective, Buddhist psychology seems to be an excellent antidote to the mental health issues that arise when dealing with change. Ultimately, change shakes the ego; feeling “out of control” – essentially being unable to “predict” outcomes or feel a sense of certainty – sends the ego into panic mode. According to Buddhism, our minds create suffering through all sorts of tricks and delusional thought processes: we catastrophize (expecting the worst outcome), try to be fortune tellers (thinking we can predict the future) and mind-read (assuming we know what other people are thinking and feeling). We delude ourselves into thinkingthat we can think our way into controlling a certain outcome, that if we only dwell on something long enough – ruminating and obsessing and driving ourselves crazy – then we’ll be able to “know” how things are going to play out and therefore protect ourselves from any potential threat, danger or pain.

When we experience change or a life transition, and our daily routines become dismantled, we are essentially shattering the illusion of security and control that our familiarity provides us. We feel uncomfortable with the groundlessness of it all and we desperately grasp at anything known and comforting to avoid the distress of the present moment – especially when that moment feels so raw, real and uncertain.

According to Buddhism, that place is exactly where we want to be. The path to waking up, becoming enlightened, entails getting comfortable with uncertainty, surrendering to life and relaxing into the here and now. We try to learn the “Middle Way” – the groundless space between all of those things that we desperately try to grasp when life feels uncomfortable. Rather than being at the mercy of our minds, which cause suffering through grasping at pleasure on the one hand (attachment) and resisting pain on the other (aversion), we try to stay in the middle, neither grasping at nor resisting the experience of this life.

Techniques such as meditation and yoga help us learn how to do that. Through these practices, we are taught how to stay: to stay with our experience just as it is, in this moment. The great Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron compares meditation to training a puppy: the mind will always wander, looking for something interesting to grab onto, but just as we would be firm yet compassionate when training a puppy, so too do we respond to the mind. Every time the mind wanders off, we patiently and kindly give the instruction to “stay”. We are firm, steadfast, confident in our instruction to the mind (/puppy), but without cruelty or judgment.

On a larger, more philosophical level, the Buddhist answer to change and transition relates to spiritual awakening. From a Buddhist point of view, change is part of life: it is woven into the fabric of the seasons, of the earth and of all living creatures. Impermanence is a cornerstone of Buddhist thought, and the Buddha said that “everything that has a beginning has an ending”. The more comfortable we can get with change, the less we suffer. Ultimately, the journey of this lifetime is all about freedom from suffering, which stems from the mind. While pain is inevitable, Buddhists say, suffering is optional. Suffering results when we get trapped in our egos or minds and relate to pain (or even pleasure) in a way that is self-limiting.

So from this perspective, a major life transition would be viewed as an opportunity to grow into our highest selves and to move toward freedom from inner afflictions. As long as our motivation is rooted in love and not fear, and we’re not simply at the mercy of ego, trying to achieve a goal that will not free us from suffering but rather perpetuate it, change is a positive thing (a good example of change being motivated by suffering is weight loss: many people try to lose weight to win the approval of others, not out of love for themselves or their bodies. In this sense, weight loss is rooted in fear, which is the realm of the mind or ego, and making such a change will not bring us any closer to freedom from suffering).

Fortunately for us, Buddhism offers many ideas and techniques to help us ensure that whatever change we make is moving us closer to our highest selves – to real peace and lasting happiness – and not further away. One such teaching relates to the five qualities, or spiritual faculties, that, according to the Buddha, can help us find balance in our lives and move closer to freedom. Those qualities are: faith (“saddha”), effort (“viriya”), mindfulness (“sati”), concentration (“samadhi”) and wisdom (“panna”). These five qualities are spiritual characteristics that can help us relate to the inevitable changes of life in a way that is healthy, peaceful and rooted in love.

As the Buddha said, “It is better to travel well than to arrive”. Happy travels, friends.