Steps To Change Your Life
Wouldn’t it be nice if part of what we learned in school was how to change our lives when we needed to? Imagine this: you come into Mrs. Grover’s 7th grade class and there, on the blackboard in fine cursive is: “5 Steps to Change Your Life.” And right underneath it is “Quiz on 1st step this Friday.”
The class would teach us what to do when we go out into life and get stuck and need to go in a new direction. Kind of like how we use math we’ve learned to make simple calculations, or how we learn to read and write and use that to answer emails the rest of our lives…
I guess that is what Self Help books are meant to do: give you the formula for how to change your life. But maybe you’ve found your own recipe. Maybe it’s really simple for you: “meditate more” or “just pray.” Or “believe in yourself,” or “trust God,” or “work harder,” or “save money” or “persist” or “move in with your parents,” or “stop living with your parents.”
We usually don’t discover how to change our lives until we’ve been in a terrible situation and start coming out of it. Having been in a few terrible situations myself, some of them lasting for years, I have a few ideas for how to go in a new direction. But some of those surely don’t apply to everyone so I’ve listened carefully during this pandemic to hear how others have learned to thrive during a hard time and found some common refrains that I’d like to summarize for you:
Steps to Change Your Life
The first step is to start feeling that you are stuck. Feel it. Don’t cover it up, don’t distract yourself from it again and again with TV or Youtube or TikTok videos or substances or whatever. Really turn and look at yourself and feel the agony of not being happy or feeling trapped or whatever. Without feeling the suffering, you don’t really know what you are dealing with and aren’t actually motivated to do something about it. It goes beyond defining the problem, it is feeling the problem.
The second step is searching and trying different solutions. Research. Trial and error. If you don’t try, you won’t even have a slight chance for success. But it also means you have to be willing to fail. Because many, many solutions will fail to be the right one for precisely your problem. What’s the cost of failure? People judging you? Self-judgement? Feeling even worse? Being willing to fail and deal with all the fall-out that comes with it is a big reason people don’t change their lives. But we must persist.
The third step is to do what works. When I teach meditation, I introduce numerous different techniques and try not to push people into any particular direction. Instead, I have learned (through trial and error!) to ask participants to pay attention to the techniques that work for them. This means we need to check: does this make me feel better…immediately? Today? Tomorrow? Next week? Next month? Next year? Is it solving my problem? What are the tradeoffs? Are there positive or negative aftereffects?
The fourth step is to rinse and repeat. My 11th grade math teacher, Mr. Harris, would ask us before a test: “what do we need to do for this math test?” The studious kids’ hands would shoot up and he would call on them: “Study pages 34-38?” “Focus on sine and cosine for this test?"? “Review non-linear regression?” Dismissing them all, he would answer in a cryptic, zen one-liner: “Just turn the crank.” Once we know the formula for what helps us, we have to do it! And keep doing it. Again and again.
The fifth step might be: adjust as needed. In Mrs. Grover’s class for “how to change your life,” we need to iterate. Course correct. Life changes and we need to modify our solution to the changing needs of life. Sometimes a solution works for a long time, but then it doesn’t any more. Be willing to adjust, fail, try again, fail again (step 2)…until you find the right new solution.
To illustrate these steps to change your life, I’d like to tell you about an amazing woman named J: she was struggling terribly with grief.
If you live long enough, you know that the loss of a dear loved one can be so incredibly all-consumingly painful that it makes us wonder how we can even go on. J felt the pain like she had lost a limb—she was so very sad, sometimes angry and very stuck (step 1-feel the suffering).
She tried different solutions (step 2-trial and error) but most were temporary patches, diversions or worse. But she kept trying different things.
One day, she read about meditation and wondered if it could help. She took a beginner meditation class and something did work a tiny little bit (step 3–do what works)…and unlike some other solutions, it didn’t make her feel bad the next day and was within her control—she could meditate whenever she wanted and was not dependent on anyone else to do that.
She kept showing up to groups and during the pandemic attended a weekly group…and something started happening, slowly but surely (step 4–rinse and repeat). By the way, consistency can be a big challenge in meditation, but there are lots of little tricks to keep it going.
For the past many months, she has been meditating a half hour a day, she feels a lot better, is able to let go of negative emotions much easier, can focus better on daily tasks and is much more present in her life. The combination of daily meditation and mindfulness, along with regular group support has been the magic recipe for her. And her years of persistence have started paying off.
She also keeps asking questions as she learns more about meditation and experiments herself, and I can tell she is ready to adjust her practice as she goes along (step 5).
Bit by bit, she has transformed her suffering. She is amazing and I learn so much from courageous people like her every day. She would pass Mrs. Grover’s “5 Steps To Change Your Life” with flying colors.
How about you? Which of the 5 steps above are you working on? And what have you discovered for yourself---what would you tell someone if they asked, “what are the steps to change your life?”