Is Change Really Difficult?

I suppose that the whole discipline of coaching wouldn’t exist if the assumption didn’t persist that change for us humans is quite difficult. The notion seems such common sense that many of us have never challenged it or even given it much thought. But I wonder if it’s the case? Or to be more exact, what do we really mean when we say that it’s difficult to change?

Anyone with a Buddhist background (or who is older than, say, 15) would readily say that such an idea is oxymoronic, since change is happening everywhere all the time and there is nothing we can do to stop that. So it’s not exactly that change is difficult. Then what are we talking about when we say this? Of course I have the beginning of an idea about this, which is why I am writing: to see where the idea goes.

I think that when we say that change is difficult, what we really mean is that we can’t get the world to be the way we want it to be. It’s not so much that we want change (although sometimes that’s exactly what we have in mind, for example, when we want a change in the weather, or for our body to stop hurting, or our recurring thoughts to shift, or some emotional pain to evaporate). It’s more that we keep imagining how situations, relationships, results, events could be better; then we simultaneously feel an interest and sometimes even a moral obligation to move in that direction.

When we encounter our limitations in crafting the world that we imagine, we say “the world is hard to change.” This is shorthand for saying “the world is not going the way I want it to go.” Perhaps this phrase begins to sound like what a two-year-old would cry out—are we still working out the frustrations from our early childhood? How is it that we are never long satisfied with whatever changes we are able to bring about? (Does Joe Jackson have it right when he says “you can’t get what you want ‘til you know what you want”?) Hmmm.

A lot more could be said about getting what we want. An obvious first point is that what we want is clearly shaped by our time and place, and by who surrounds us. Watching TV is especially good for discovering new things to want—for example, I am deeply involved in dance lessons; can you guess why? When we slow down, simplify how we’re living and clarify our mind a bit, we have a better chance to discover what it is that we want, as distinct from what our cultural surround is serving us up at the moment. But even then we are still left with the task of getting it.

A second point is a deep wondering about why we believe that getting what we want will be good for us in some way, will make us more happy. Some would say it’s the nature of human beings to want—that, for me, sounds too close to a justification for consumerism. Wanting seems to be there, but why do we sacrifice our bodies, our relationships, our talents to it? For me, this is the real territory of coaching (and not so much cleverer strategies for fulfilling our desires, as some coaches would have it). Until we have good answers to the questions that reveal the root of our wants and why it is that they never seemed satisfied, we can only, it seems to me, get more and more frantic in our attempts at acquisition. How does that turn out?

Maybe the more insightful of us have long ago recognized that it’s fruitless to attempt to change the world at large and that our real task is to fully take on changing ourselves. We read about or observe or hear about people who seem to be happier, more peaceful, kinder, more compassionate, and so on, and begin to feel an urge to be like them. Or through the murky waters of memory we see ourselves as being better in some ways at an earlier time and want to be that way again. Some of us belong to religions that appear to require us to change ourselves in very particular ways, and these same religions have long lists of people who over time have made these changes and become saints. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do? Maybe not.

It could be that our genuine human task is to de-clutter our minds and wean our bodies from the addictions to particular experiential states (brought about by an endless list of inner and outer activities). Real saints seemed to have accomplished this quite well. They became full of themselves by abandoning trying to change, and instead learned to cooperate in all aspects of their being with what was happening at the moment, what was emerging.

But perhaps this is not the path for all of us (or at least it’s not what our coaching clients sign up for, at first).

Many of us may have to, for a long time, work to have a sense of efficacy in the world—a real felt sense, recognized by others as well—that we have an effect on the world by how we live in it and the actions we take. Powerful actions, ones that last and have a broad positive impact, come from a mind that is at least somewhat serene and a heart that has moved well beyond greed, pettiness, retaliation and the worst aspects of fear. So is this what we’re working on when we say that we want to get better at changing things? I think so.

Naturally and inescapably you must decide all these things for yourself. I urge you to study your own history; what has been the effect of actions you have taken in your own life?—there’s much to be learned here. Also please study the lives of other people and notice the effect of what they have done on their experience of being alive. What do you find from these two inquiries?

Change—in the sense of getting the world to be the way I want it to be—does, in fact, look to be quite daunting. When you take on or are given the task of bringing about a new array of facts (when you’re trying to change something or have a particular result), then please first start with attending to your state of mind and state of heart. Then, even if the end result is not exactly what you imagined, it’s much more likely you will be happy anyway. In other words, return to yourself as the first and final step in any change.

Take care of yourself.

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