Transitions can be challenging. For children they are often fraught with tension, forcing them to give up the comfort of the known for the anxiety-riddled unknown. When children are given appropriate support and attention before, during and after significant transitions, by parents who understand that one of their primary roles during this time is to help children understand and be able to manage their uncomfortable feelings, they grow connections in their brain for being curious and excited about transitions. As children are provided with such attention and begin to acquire a capacity for addressing fears and concerns on their own, they also begin to develop an increased capacity for what neuroscientist Margot Sunderland describes as “seeking-behavior.”
Transitioning to Whidbey
I am in the middle of making a significant transition myself, excited about seeking out and realizing some long-held dreams of my own. After living for almost 30 years on the San Francisco peninsula, I have made the decision to voluntarily leave a secure life amidst a network of many friends, with a steady job and lots of things to keep me busy, for the unknown uncertainty of a new life reborn up on Whidbey Island in Washington State. In many ways this has the recursive feel of an ongoing healing journey for me – a do-over designed to clear out and integrate any number of experiences that I was overwhelmed by and unable to successfully address the first time around.
Take for example, the first time I rented a U-Haul and packed up and moved from California the first time, in 1972. I got as far as Albuquerque, New Mexico on April 1 and ran into a freak snowstorm that dropped 8 feet of snow on Route 66. Completely frustrated and overwhelmed by the governor on the carburetor that wouldn’t allow me to drive more that 50 miles per hour, I used the impassable conditions to justify dumping our belongings off with the local Mayflower moving company and returning the U-Haul to a local franchiser. Doing that allowed me to begin to relax just enough to complete the 3000 mile trek in reasonably good health. This week I ran into a freak snowstorm as well, but this time I was able to keep going, making it safely to the island destination two and a half days earlier than scheduled. I seemed to have more internal resources with me on the road this time.
I recognize other “do-overs” spiraling around once again as well. Fear thoughts arise unbidden: “How will I survive?” “You’re no spring chicken.” “What about health insurance?” “What about all the friends you will miss?” “What if you hate it there?” and “What about all that rain?” are just a few among many. Well, I don’t try to suppress or push those thoughts away much. Apparently, I have developed some prefrontal connections that allow me to simply observe such thoughts and let them be, let them float through and dissolve as I repeatedly turn my attention to whatever may be calling me in the present moment. (Like my commitment to write this column, for example).
This capacity for observing my own thought process, similar to what Dan Siegel calls Mindsight, developmental psychologists call Theory of Mind, and what Buddhists might call mindfulness has apparently been growing in strength over the years. Many fear-based thoughts and many emotionally overwhelming life experiences later, I don’t seem to take the thoughts I think all that seriously these days – “In this moment, everything’s all right.” My own mind is becoming less and less a tyrannical master – especially with respect to fear-based thoughts. Yes, I do pay attention, and yes, I do sometimes take action in response to unsettled stirrings of mind – like making the time to investigate what the monthly costs for me will be for Washington State health insurance. To do otherwise would be similar to Pavoratti’s recognition that only an insane man has no fear of the high notes. Still, I seem to be simultaneously developing Servant Mind – a gentle mind that pats fear thoughts on the back and allows me to focus more and more on my own genuine well-being right alongside the well-being of others. Better late than never.