Sylvia Boorstein on the struggle of adjusting to new circumstances. Dealing with that stress? Maybe it’s time to just take a break.
A woman I know—a physician in a city hospital where the workload is enormous and relentlessly demanding—said to me recently, “About noon today I felt so overwhelmed that I thought I might just sit down in the middle of the clinic and cry. I didn’t do it, of course,” she said, “but I felt like it.”
I used to explain that sort of thing, when it happened to me, by saying that although my body is 67 years old, there is a three-year-old living in it who doesn’t know what to do. These days, though, I tell myself that it’s because the 67-year-old living in me doesn’t know what to do.
My 92-year-old friend Beatrice recently moved to an assisted-living facility and wrote me a note in her still elegant but now shaky script, inviting me to visit. “I need you to come and teach meditation here,” she said, “because I’m having trouble getting adjusted to this new circumstance. All of us here are having that trouble.”
I visited Beatrice and taught a class that was advertised on the bulletin board as “Learn to Meditate.” The experience confirmed two things for me. The first, which I thought of when I read Beatrice’s note, was that her articulation of her current difficulty—”I’m having trouble getting adjusted to this new circumstance”—is a lifelong problem for everyone.
Erik Erikson, a pioneer in Ego Psychology, outlines eight stages—starting with infancy and ending in old age—positing particular developmental hurdles for each age. There are tasks specific to each age. Toddlers, teenagers, young adults and old adults all need to develop particular capacities, but fundamentally everyone is always adjusting to circumstances. Erikson is also clear that successfully realizing one’s chronological ego-potential does not mean being on top of everything all the time. Everyone wobbles.
In addition to the challenges of new developmental stages, there are always the challenges unique to each person’s life: adjusting to a new diagnosis, to a loss of a love relationship, to a new job, to a new baby, to an “empty nest,” to an overly busy work schedule. When I ask people, “How is your life these days?” and they answer, “I’m in transition,” I often think about how we are all, always, between yesterday’s reality and today’s new situation, and although some adjustments are easier than others, we’re always adjusting.
The second thing that was confirmed for me at Beatrice’s assisted-living facility was that the hope for peace of mind never goes away. When I taught that class of twenty very old people, the only difference between what I taught there and anywhere else was the volume required in order to be heard. “Speak up!” my students said. “Not loud enough!” they insisted. People moved their chairs around to be in direct view so they could read my lips. “We want to hear what you have to say.”
I talked about mindfulness being about telling the truth. I said I always found it a relief to tell myself what was really happening and how I felt about it, even if it was difficult. I said the mind that is telling the truth might be sad, or even mad, but at least it would not be confused. “Sometimes I cry,” I said, “and sometimes I need to say what I’m mad about.”
I invited them to sit for two minutes, paying attention to their breathing, to their body, to the thoughts they were having. One person said, “I got so relaxed I almost fell asleep.” Someone else said, “I could hear myself breathing and that made me feel good.” Someone else said, “I didn’t worry, and my hands got warm.” Other people chimed in, “Mine did, too.”
I thought about the soothing quality of just stopping, of taking a break from confronting challenges. The “problem” doesn’t get solved, but the mind relaxes and feels more courageous about going on.
When I asked my physician friend, “Were you able to take a break and sit quietly at noontime in the clinic?” she said, “No. That wasn’t a possibility. I looked at the clock, though, and figured out how many hours I had left before I could go home to my family, and then I kept on.”
My friend Jack Kornfield tells his story of asking a venerable Tibetan meditation teacher for advice many years ago: “There are so many students wanting to be on retreat,” Jack said to the teacher. “I’m teaching continuously, and I’m very tired.” Jack hoped, it seems, that he would be given a special practice for strength—perhaps a mantra. But the teacher said, “Maybe you should take more vacations.”
Almost everyone laughs when they hear that story. It’s funny because it isn’t the answer most people are expecting. It’s also good dharma: life is difficult, the Buddha taught, and it becomes more difficult when we struggle with it. There is no end to challenge. Not everything needs to get solved today.