When we talk about change each one of us thinks about something different in terms of what it looks like and how it is measured. That is normal- as we all occupy different space, time and cultural dimensions- but it is also curious because change is a common condition that is present in everything we come across, whether it is a living thing or not. Ancient philosophers often invited us to view change as an inherent aspect of our existence- as Heraclitus put it, “πάντα ῥεῖ (everything flows)”. According to Taoism change is the only truly immutable thing there is. Even quantum physics, a more modern science, describes one of the components of matter as an ever-moving shape.
We certainly do not need a degree in philosophy to notice how everything, both internal and external to us, is constantly undergoing continuous changes. The pandemic caused by the coronavirus broke the illusion that many of our habits and life choices were immune from the inevitability and unpredictability of change. Over the span of a few months some of the constants of our “modern life”, which we viewed as solid conquests of civilisation- at least for that part of the population that lives in a more “advanced” industrialised world- such as being able to move freely at any time of the day or the night, taking a train or a plane to go wherever we want to and being able to choose our lifestyles, showed us their transient nature and fell apart just like books that were stored in humid and dark basements for too long.
Then how come change did not become part of our mechanisms of conscious acceptance and is not perceived as normal, but is faced with resistance and fear instead, and is even rejected? Recent neuroscience discoveries provided an explanation for this. Our brain- which consumes energy like a supercharged SUV, often stealing it from our limbs and organs that need it to support us and enable us to stay active- learned, over thousands of years of evolution, to utilise mostly pathways that have been patiently generated by thousands of pieces of information passing through the same synapses and that therefore require less creative effort. As the old saying also echoes, “Who leaves the old road for the new knows what he leaves but doesn’t know what he will find”.
Then how come change did not become part of our mechanisms of conscious acceptance?
That explains why we always try to do the same things, ideally in the same modality: repetition with no change requires less effort and energy. Therefore we create a world made of habits (same coffee shop, same order, same friends, same road, same newspaper, etc.) in order to make as little effort as possible, believing the illusion that doing the same things will always lead to the same outcomes- minimal effort and optimal performance. On top of that, we also create a pseudo image of ourselves that fits well with this “little old world” setup, wishing it will always stay as it is, and we try to convince ourselves that, “We are this way and we certainly cannot change now. Also, why should we?”. In summary, on one hand we live in a world where nothing is the same as it was even a millionth of a second later, and on the other hand we try to build this reassuring illusion that we are leading an absolutely straightforward life surrounded by our protected world of comfortable sofas, slippers, television and risk-free habits.
When are we forced to wake up from this desired numbness then? When are we forced to reactivate our abilities, our attention, our inventiveness, our creativity and our awareness? Usually only when the feared and ignored change comes knocking at our door, or shatters it, announcing that the world we carefully designed no longer exists. Then, we reluctantly leave our protected nest and face the damned reality, usually trying to modify it so that things can go back to how they were before as soon as possible.
Resting, relaxing and enjoying quiet and ludic moments is an integral part of our healthy way of living so what we struggle with are not so much the events that take place due to their continuous evolution but our mental attitude- our desire to freeze our relationships, our work and our activities into a static shape that simply does not exist. Buddhists define this mindset as attachment or the attempt to stop something that is continually and relentlessly moving. Here comes the good news though. Instead of trying to stop or resist change we can work towards the only helpful thing that we can actually have control over: our attitude. We are the ones to decide how we feel about the environment around us. Instead of shutting down we could embrace change with interest, curiosity and flexibility, just like we used to do at an early age, when we used to tirelessly explore everything while having fun at the same time.
Instead of trying to stop or resist change we can work towards the only helpful thing that we can actually have control over: our attitude.
Therefore what I propose is to abandon a certain passivity and become proactive by adopting three simple- though not always easy- constructive attitudes that would allows us to overturn the old paradigms described above and embrace change. The first one is to ask ourselves “what new lesson we can learn from a specific situation” with the same curiosity and brightness that children display towards anything that is new to them. The second one is to switch from “I should” to “I want”, meaning that every time we say, “I should do” this or that, we can think about “what we really want” in that situation- “What do I desire? What outcome could help me move more coherently towards that desired goal?” This will make it easier to take back the driver’s seat in our life rather than feeling like passengers and that someone else is making all the decisions. The third mindset I suggest to adopt is to ask ourselves (questions are a really powerful tool because if there is a question there must always be an answer) what would be the best, most useful and effective thing we can do whenever we are facing an unprecedented situation or whenever something changed the course of the game we were playing, together with the rules that we knew.
We can even employ all three strategies at the same time. Our evolutionary skills have no bounds. We have been employing them for thousands of years and they allowed us to adapt to all the changes that we went through as human beings. Basically, there is nothing else left for us to do but to act, play and have fun!