The Six Stages of Change: Moving Mindfully Through Difficult Transitions

Change is coming. Last night, I told the man I love that I need to break from him. I know it isn’t healthy for either of us. Despite the fact that our differences are substantial, I’ve resisted changing the day-to-day nature of our relationship for more than eight years. I must sound stubborn but, really, the truth is I haven’t wanted to be alone. The thought of walking through the world without being tethered to him as a security blanket feels like thrashing about in the ocean, miles from land, trying not to drown.

Sitting in my apartment on a quiet weekend afternoon with the knowledge that neither he nor I will be picking up the phone to call the other tonight, I have tears in my eyes. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to be able to handle it. I’m that used to our nightly calls, to the sound of his voice before I drift off to sleep.

The change I’m diving into and the often unpleasant, sometimes excruciating feelings it brings up are hardly unique. There are actual steps we humans seem to pass through when we’re moving through a transformational process, according to Kripalu faculty member Jess Frey. In her Kripalu R&R workshop, Each Step Is the Way, Jess outlines the Kripalu model of change. First, she explains, we’re moving along in a state of normal. Though everything might not be perfect, we’re coasting well enough. We might be in a marriage or a steady relationship. We might have a steady job and decent health. Then some change or challenge occurs. Maybe a loved one dies; maybe we come down with an illness; maybe we’re faced with an empty nest, a job loss, or an impending divorce. Change might even arise in a so-called positive package, like a marriage or the birth of a child. And when change occurs, many of us respond with resistance.

Jess says resistance can show up in many ways. We might shift into a state of fight, flight, or freeze. We might tense up and explode, or flee, or numb out. We could lose sleep or experience digestive issues, feel unfocused or depressed. We might try to avoid the change by returning to what’s familiar, even if what’s familiar no longer serves us.

“What I’ve experienced myself and what my students report,” Jess says, “is that we resist out of fear, worry, anxiousness, doubt, self-judgment, or lack of trust, faith, or the skills to ride the waves of change.”

I’ve been in resistance to my aloneness for years now. Every time I imagine I might be able to handle it, I invariably return to what’s familiar—him. I avoid the next stage in the change process: discomfort/chaos, a period when the unpleasant sensations increase and reach their peak. On the other side of this emotional pain, apparently, lies the fertile void.

I’ve long resisted the void of aloneness because, to me, it feels like death. Jess says that within the unknown—that place where our next steps are unclear—lives our willingness to accept things as they are and to make the best of them. We begin planting the seeds of a new life during this time, without knowing when or if they’ll sprout. “It’s the trust that the fruit and flowers will blossom in their own time, in their own way,” she says. “It’s also unseen potential, the opportunity of the situation, the process of seeing through a new lens of perception or perspective.”

The next step in any change process is integration, that aha moment when we’re able to see clearly again or with new eyes. “We reflect on the past and understand why we went through what we went through, why this did or did not happen,” Jess explains. “Our learning and growing move from the unconscious to the conscious, from the unseen to the seen, from the darkness to the light.”

And finally, we arrive at a new normal, where we begin again—but having shifted in our beliefs, habits, or patterns, with new ways to respond to experiences. “The cycle isn’t linear,” Jess notes. “It’s not one, two, three, four, five. We go back and forth. Sometimes we move through the cycle in five minutes; other times, it takes five years.”

But how do we ride the inevitable waves of change with more grace, resilience, faith, skillfulness, and self-compassion? Remember this acronym: BRFWA (Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Allow). Jess says it offers an invaluable set of tools to help us relax physical and mental tension, reduce the need to manipulate and control experiences, and shift into the nonjudgmental awareness of self-observation, which leads to radical acceptance of the change we’re often so afraid to undergo.

Here’s how it works:

Breathe: “The breath brings us into the present moment,” Jess says. “It helps our cortisol levels decrease and our muscles soften.” So that’s the first thing we need to remember when panic arises: Just take a deep breath.

Relax: Deeper breathing, of course, helps us relax. And, when we relax, we not only release tension because our muscles soften, but we can also soften the mental constraints we’ve placed on a situation, our fixed way of seeing it and the resulting emotional pain.

Feel: We can’t skip this step. I want so much not to feel the pain of loss—that ache in my gut, the racing heartbeat resulting from the fear that I’ll always be alone, the grief I feel because I miss the sound of his voice and the consistency of his presence. But if we don’t allow ourselves to feel the pain, we might end up substituting it for less-than-healthy behavior, or risk returning to the habit or situation we’re trying to break free of.

Watch: “Watching is self-observation without judgment,” Jess notes. “It’s the ability to witness, notice, and develop the capacity to pay attention.” As we watch our thoughts, actions, words, beliefs, and responses, we train ourselves to be present to our experiences with a gentle heart.

Allow: This one might be the hardest. Stop trying to make the situation something other than what it is. “Allowing is the practice of surrender,” Jess says, “of releasing control, manipulation, expectation, and the need for something to be, look, and feel a certain way.” When we allow, intuition can emerge; life can flow. We drop attachment to an outcome, and we let our experiences be exactly the way they are.

“Nonjudgmental awareness takes the charge away and brings a little more space between you and the feeling, the person, the situation, the change,” Jess says.

So I have my toolkit for how to approach the emptiness I’m bound to experience tonight. When I want to pick up the phone and dial his number, I need to take a deep breath. When I feel my shoulders tense and my stomach tighten, I need to relax those muscles consciously. When I feel the tears well up, I need to let them flow. When I want to avoid my feelings with distractions, I need to prop myself on a cushion and watch my thoughts instead, or write them down in a journal. And when I do mental gymnastics, imagining how I might heal the relationship if I do this or say that, when I want to text him and say this so he’ll do that, I need to step back and just let it be. I need to practice letting go of my attachment to the end result of this change.

“Everything that life presents, every step of the way—good, bad, comfortable, uncomfortable, known and unknown—all of it is here to help us heal, grow, learn, expand, connect and reconnect,” Jess says, “and evolve into our truest, wisest, most empowered selves.” That’s the journey of the heart and the journey of change.

Find out more about Kripalu R&R.

Portland Helmich has been investigating natural health and healing as a host, reporter, writer, and producer for more than 15 years.

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Portland Helmich has been investigating natural health and healing for more than 15 years, as a host, reporter, writer, and producer.

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