After 13 years of working as an afterschool director, I found myself standing in a crossroads. Each day I was confronted with facing difficulties, the struggle to maintain order not with the children but with the adults I worked with and for. Day by day, I was standing in front of the path that I knew deep down I needed to one day make a choice.
In the Fall of 2018, the Universe made that choice for me. I was laid-off from my job. The transition again played a role in life’s departure. My extended-release revolutionized my life was about to change.
I treasured the moments I spent at my previous job; all the memories, experience, and learning I have achieved prepared me for the next level in my life. For the first time in years, I could meet the day with vitality and dream about the future.
I found my experiences mirrored what many wise people have said about what happens during transitions. I discovered a rich literature and tradition around changes, containing maps and guides for navigating them in my new path.
I learned that changes are distinct from transitions. Changes are events. You get married. Your company is taken over and ceases to exist. A global pandemic breaks out. Your cat dies.
Transitions are the inner shifts of identity, possibility, and belief that help us assimilate and adjust to changes. Some are easy, and others are difficult. They don’t occur automatically, and they often require consistent and specific efforts. Like a video game where you slay a demon to move to the next level, transitions throw down a series of monsters that you must overcome before you can move ahead.
As I navigated the transition occasioned by my new circumstances, mindfulness proved an essential ally for me. It created the ability to keep me moving ahead through a bewildering territory and into a renewed sense of purpose, wonder, and joy.
Changes are inevitable. I’ve observed life challenges that propel me into reconsidering my life: Lost, Toxic People, Uncertainty, Negative issues, and Adversity. They are the messengers of transition because they signal that something familiar—a role, a way of living, a relationship—has come to an end. In a culture like ours that sees time as a straight line moving from past to future, these changes seem like finalities, the end of the road.
There are other kinds of changes. Graduations, births, and promotions are also moments when the old and familiar dissolve into something new and unknown. These are the changes that can take us by surprise because even though they are ostensibly “positive,” there is still some reformatting taking place, and with that, an old way of life passes into history.
Maybe you miss the quiet days before children or the frivolity of student life or the flow-like pleasure of contributing to an organization without the heavy responsibilities of being a manager. Your sullen feelings, or longing for some previous way of being despite moving into a new and wider world, may feel mysterious and even incongruous to you.
Endings need to be acknowledged. We need to give them attention, accept that they are taking place, and appreciate the experiences that led to them. They ask us to bring things to closure. Instead of seeing time as a straight line, if we see life as a series of cycles of growth, maturation, and death followed by rebirth, we better understand why endings are necessary for new beginnings.
Navigating through the Fog
After the end of the familiar, it can seem like you’re stepping into a void. In this foggy maze, there are no signposts with arrows assuring you, “This way out.” You can feel lost and zombielike or at least unmoored and disoriented as you wander the earth. The old rules don’t seem to apply anymore. What used to work well no longer does. You feel strange and not like your old self but not yet something fully formed. Does the caterpillar in its pupae stage on the way to butterfly-hood ever think to itself, “What the hell is going on with me?!”
A familiar feeling here is anxiety that takes the form of a desire for answers and a rush to a settled future. A friend of mine who had worked for the same organization for decades found herself unemployed. As we sat together at lunch with two Ceasar salads separating us, she asks plaintively, “How can I get through this as fast as possible?”
What distinguishes this middle period is doubt, discomfort, and disorientation. Learning to return to the present and accept uncomfortable sensations is one of the monsters to be faced at this stage.
We sometimes think it would be preferable to give up on life because the story of who we are doesn’t fit anymore. When we believe our story too much, we feel like not only has the story come to an end, but maybe we’ve come to an end. Why not just get out of the misery? In my case, mindfulness allowed me to recognize and be with depression, anxiety, and uneasiness without getting swallowed by it.
The feelings and the desire to isolate oneself might be our system’s way of asking us to slow down and take stock. What rules apply now? What do I need to let go of in life? At this particular moment, we need to be still and breathe.
Letting go of what doesn’t work anymore is the next monster, the next transition. Maybe what needs to be released is a belief, a resentment, or an identity. The process is deconstructive.
Sometimes as adults, we come to terms with letting go of our view of oneself as an underdog. We always have to fight to get what we want. We realized that not seeing life through the lens of a constant battle can be hard to live more comfortably. Just as a hot-air balloon must drop the weight of sandbags to soar, letting go of the old and unworkable is the only way to keep from sinking. It makes space for something new.
Though you may be sloughing off the old, at some point, you realize you’ve hit bottom. Choices become very simple. No matter how much you may want to, you cannot return to the familiar old world. If you choose not to founder on the rocks, the only way is forward. The growth aspect of this middle period is intentional exploration. So the task here is to balance letting go with the search for new relationships, new places, new ways of thinking, seeing, and living. Like trying on new clothes, looking in the mirror, and asking, “Can I pull this off?” This process can feel wasteful and indulgent. There can be many false starts, further compounding the sense of hopelessness.
It is only part of the monster’s bag of tricks. Perseverance is essential. Put one foot in front of the other. Do the next thing, even if you’re unsure what the next thing after that is. Enlist the support of others—we don’t walk the path alone, and rarely is the way straight. It’s a journey of discovery.
Finding Your New Identity
Eventually, something sticks. A tentative sense of aliveness replaces despair. Not sure if this sensation, we are suspicious that something could feel fulfilling or enjoyable. We question it. Could this be real? Am I being duped and betrayed? However, a new equilibrium can begin to emerge.
There are often confirming events that dampen doubts and signal a new way forward with a sense of resolution, commitment, and possibility.
In my case, I gained a series of teaching awards, reaffirming my love of working with people. Also, I received a breakthrough that would allow me to focus on my new pathway in life. That set in motion a different experience from the one I had before the transition. I emerged into a new role and learned that what I did have was value for myself and others. I received gratification in my profession and comfort in self-worth. Life bore little resemblance to the one that had ended.
I’ve found that dreams can sometimes shed an appealing light on transitions, as archetypal ideas bubble up from deep in mind.
New beginning manifested a dream of finding my sense of words and the willingness to express my thoughts and my writing for humanity. It took over 13 years to find my rapture, my joy, and my treasure in the things I love to do.
It makes optimistic to see the resilience people have in the face of enormous changes. I’ve become a cautious optimist about human possibility. We all strive through lives transition. The repeated exposure emphasizes that we’ve all been through this before and we can do it again.