By Anita Anand
It’s not easy, it’s often painful, but we can change the habits and behaviours that limit us, and choose new, life-affirming ones
In 1999, walking down a street in Chiang Mai in the northeast of Thailand, I fell and broke my right leg. Luckily for me, a taxi driver at the hotel stand across the street from where I fell, was watching and dashed across. As I sat on the curb, traumatised and in great pain, he said he would be back with a wheelchair. He was, and within an hour I was in hospital, my leg was x-rayed, and the attending doctor said I needed surgery and a rod in my leg. Alternatively, he said he could put an ice pack around my ankle (where the break was), give me a tetanus shot, and I could get on a plane to India. Nothing could have been further from my mind than heading back to India at that time.
Post-surgery, the doctor told me I would be bedridden for three months, and it would six months before I could climb stairs. I was devastated. I had never broken anything before (except my heart!). But, I protested, I have responsibilities, commitments, travel, etc. He smiled and said, cancel everything.
A week later, I was back in Delhi. I spent the first three days crying. I couldn’t believe that life would be so difficult – with a leg in a cast. Slowly, I got used to it. Extended family and friends came over, bearing flowers and gifts. The phone rang with concerned voices. I slept a lot, sat in the sun, read, wrote, and did water colouring. My office colleagues came over once a week for staff meetings. We sat in the garden, and enjoyed ourselves.
The six months taught me many things. I was leaving a full-time job (having worked full time for 22 years), and did not know what I would do next. As I scooted around the house on a chair on castors, I got an offer from Penguin to do a book. It anchored me. I discovered Louise Hay, and learnt that my fear of moving forward could have contributed to my fall. I would never admit it publicly, but I did begin to question myself. Was I indeed afraid?
Although I had lived a rich and diverse life, full of change, I realised that deep down I was quite afraid of change. It was the threat of giving up a comfort zone that would make me cling, at least subconsciously, to what I had. Even though my experiences led me to believe that I would be okay, the process was difficult, and I forgot about my diverse and rich experiences. I began to use the fall and fracture as an opportunity to take a hard look at my life. I had to shift gears, get into a new mode of being, thinking, and making a living. But, most important, I had to get comfortable with change. Always interested in alternative therapies, I had been initiated into Reiki and Pranic healing earlier. By chance I got introduced to, interested in, and trained in hypnotherapy and crystal healing. I began practising in 2003. I began to see that most clients were afraid of change.
Yet, change is so basic to our lives. From the moment we take our first breath till we take the last, we change, and our environment changes. The sun rises and sets everyday, as does the moon. The seasons change. Nothing is permanent or constant. Even change isn’t. If we don’t change, we die, or live lives of quiet desperation.
“I was neurotic for years…
I was anxious and depressed and selfish.
Everyone kept telling me to change.
I resented them. I agreed with them. I wanted to change, but simply couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried.
Then one day someone said to me, “Don’t change. I love you just as you are.”
Those words were music to my ears: “Don’t change, don’t change. Don’t change. I love you as you are.”
I relaxed. I came alive. And suddenly I changed!”
– Anthony de Mello (1931-1987),
Jesuit priest and psychotherapist
Change is hard work
The desire and need for change arises because we have awareness that we can stop doing things that hold us back or cause us suffering, and create a life filled with meaning, peace, and ultimately, happiness. We can make a dream come true, or bring something new into being. Big or small, we can have the things we want in life. But, it’s not easy, as anyone who has tried to change a habit, or do something new knows. To bring new behaviour into being takes work.
Change requires that we stretch mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It takes energy, determination, aspiration, and the ability to intentionally bring into being something we want.
M.J. Ryan in her book, This Year I Will… says that according to social scientists when we change a habit or follow a dream, we go through five stages: precontemplation, when we don’t even know what we need or want to change; contemplation, when we say to ourselves, “someday I’ll do that”; preparation, when we are getting ready to do it “soon”; action, as in “I’m starting right now”; and maintenance, which means we are going to keep going till we get where we want and stay there.
Despite intentions, it is hard to change. David E. Engle and Hal Arkowitz in Ambivalence in Psychotherapy argue that dealing with ambivalence is central. The authors say that people who want to change but cannot, are pulled in two different directions by motivations – to change, and to maintain the status quo. According to them forces blocking change are:
-The status quo that is familiar and predictable, even though it may be uncomfortable. In contrast, change is unpredictable and arouses anxiety.
-People fear that if they fail in their efforts to change, they will feel even worse.
-Faulty beliefs (for instance, “Unless I am 100 per cent successful, I consider it a failure”) can impede change. When others push us to change, we often perceive these efforts as threats to our personal freedom, and we may resist change. Psychologists term such behaviour as “reactance”.
-The undesirable behaviours may serve important functions (such as the alcoholic who finds that drinking relieves stress and depression temporarily). Changing (stopping drinking) may take away the only means the person has known of dealing with his distress.
In Why Don’t People Change? (Scientific American Mind, June/July 2007), Hal Arkowitz and Scot O. Lilienfeld suggest that helping people change means helping them to want to change – not cajoling them with advice, persuasion or social pressure. One such approach is motivational interviewing, a method in which the therapist aims to enhance the client’s intrinsic motivation toward change by exploring and resolving their ambivalence. The goal is to help the client (rather than the therapist) become the advocate for change. A considerable body of literature shows that such approaches are effective in helping people change alcohol and drug addiction, health-related behaviours such as medication adherence and diet, and anxiety issues.
Apart from its therapeutic use, motivational interviewing can be used to help ourselves or a loved one change. The ideas focus on listening to, and understanding hesitation about change, not opposing it, and trying to supportively strengthen the side of the person’s mind that wants change.
We can change
We change because our needs change; we change because we become aware of our internal shifts. And some external shifts also cause a need for change. Sometimes the internal and external realities are not in sync with each other. How do we reconcile this?
My leg fracture taught me that I could trust – the future, myself and those around me – and check habits that I was uncomfortable with, while consciously seeking change. Once this awareness set in, there was no looking back. But it is a continuous struggle – to be aware of the internal workings, to be connected to my higher self, and to avoid responding from the gut level. The struggle to maintain harmony, essential to be prepared for change, calls for a constant and rigorous dialogue with self and the outside world.
The goal of currently popular spiritual and religious practices – yoga, meditation, Vipasanna, the Art of Living courses, retreats – also enable us to get in touch with our inner selves. Therapies that work with body, mind and spirit energies – Reiki, Pranic, hypnosis, crystal, also help in re-aligning the body energies, being aware of destructive habits and conflicts, and working to resolve them. The Bach Flower remedy, Walnut, works by helping people to overcome difficulties encountered by changes – change of place, profession, country, etc. It’s also called the ‘link-breaker’, referring to old habits that people find hard to give up. Hypnotherapy, which works with the subconscious mind, is a powerful tool in getting people to shift gears and make change.
Henri Bergson, one of the most influential French philosophers of the 19th-20th century wrote, “To exist is to change; to change is to mature; to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.”
M.J. Ryan, speaking on the act of self-creation, says it means choosing habits of mind and qualities of soul we wish to cultivate. We can consciously choose the behaviours and skills we wish to learn, the life we wish to have, and follow through to a successful conclusion. Not perfectly, not always – because we all come with a load of baggage, and life isn’t always kind or fair – but to a much greater degree than we could before because we’ve had an experience of success to draw on. In these ways, creating a new habit brings us two precious spiritual gifts: hope – that our future will be brighter than today through the efforts we make; and faith – that we can bring into being much of what we desire in our lives. Each of us has the opportunity to change and grow until our last breath. And, we can do it.
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