When staff selected Transitions as the theme for our very first week at New Life Portugal in December, 2021, we suspected but had not yet experienced just how perfectly that concept would fit. There were so many overlapping transitions to consider! The move of staff to New Life’s new home, followed ten days later by the arrival of our first guests; the massive transition from a construction site of dirt and scattered stone to a finished campus of cork, stone, and metal buildings set on greening hillsides filled with wildflowers; for our guests, the move, both physical and psychological, from their homes around the world to the Serra da Estrela; even the customary and yet unique turn from one season to the next. How to capture and communicate these and other crossings? What has been tested? What was learned?
Now, as we approach our six-month anniversary, we at New Life have come to recognize that Transitions is a central theme not just of our start-up but of all the work we do here. Guest after guest names transition as one reason if not the reason they chose to come to New Life. Be it in work life or personal life, in stage of life, or family life, our guests come to contemplate change in their lives, to process the emotions that have surfaced, and to make meaning of their experience. At the end of every stay, we ask: What has been tested? What was learned? How will you show up differently in the world to which you are returning?
Here at New Life, we explore the theme of the week in everything we do—from workshops to yoga classes to wellness activities. So we have asked our guests, What comes up when you hear the word Transitions? Among the answers we’ve explored together: a time of insight….something that takes longer than you want…energy, with an edge to it….the demands of a world that is constantly changing…the urge to resist that change. We’ve considered synonyms, like vicissitude, threshold, transfer, shift. We’ve looked for word pictures that resonate with our experience, like that defined in the field of physics, where transition is taken to mean a change of state, from solid to liquid, or liquid to gas. Picture boiling water, just as the boiling begins– an actual moment like no other when water turns to gas. Or try another word picture offered by one of our first Resilience Path guests: that of opening a jar. You twist and twist, and then suddenly the lid turns, and opens. What, we ask ourselves, are the equivalents in our lives? What would it take for us to manage our own changes of state mindfully, skillfully?
From Endings to New Beginnings: the Three Stages of Transition
As a guide to our self-examination (and your own), we consider the three stages of transition as outlined by William Bridges. In his work, Bridges defines transition as the psychological process of adapting to or managing change. That process includes not just what we do when we are in transition and how we do it, but what we think and feel about a given change, and how it impacts core relationships with ourselves, others, and the world. The subject includes changes that we initiate and ones that seem to happen to us. There are job changes, relationship changes, sexual identity changes, the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, trips, moves, and more. There is no one who has not experienced transitions in life. In fact, we are never not in a state of transition or change; it’s part of the human condition.
Bridges’ model offer us a way to think about and organize these experiences and their attendant emotions. Not all of us recognize that embedded in every transition, whether chosen or forced upon us, is a loss, a leave-taking, what Bridges calls an ending. In the Western world, we tend to focus on what we are heading towards, not what we may be leaving behind. We want to press through—to engage! We override the messages of our physical body telling us to slow down; instead, we may actually speed up and overwhelm our own nervous system with demands that it ‘keep up’ and ‘push through.’ Often, we fail to attend to the emotional labor involved in a transition and then are mystified or frightened when unfinished business shows up down the road. Then, instead of welcoming grief and loss as the harbingers of change, we resist and reject them as baggage from the past.
So many of our guests these first six months have arrived in or on the cusp of this stage. It shows up again and again in Morning Meeting, where we invite new arrivals to introduce themselves and say a word or two about why they’ve come to New Life. Something is not working in my life, they will say; the things I used to do to manage my stress don’t work anymore. For many, the pandemic tipped the balance. What was once manageable became unmanageable. Transient moments of worry and sadness mushroomed into more permanent states of anxiety, panic, and despair. Old coping skills of distraction and avoidance morphed into troubling habits bordering on addiction. Understanding these feelings as grief can allow the structuring of a new relationship to reality. In this first stage, our guests work not to change the circumstances of their lives but their relationship to those circumstances. In so doing, they find not just relief but empowerment.
The Neutral Zone
The phase of leave-taking is followed by one Bridges calls the neutral zone, a period in which resources are consolidated and plans made, a time of increasing acceptance but not yet one of momentum towards change. Those who are familiar with the Stages of Change model (Proschaska and DiClemente) will recognize this part of the wheel of change as a kind of transition within a transition, moving from preparation to action, from stasis to direction. Again, our bodies speak our minds and if we listen, we may find ourselves acting in clearly instinctual, but to our 21st Century minds unexpected and even uncomfortable ways. In her recent book Wintering, author Katherine May captures this strange limbo and likens it to hibernation. “Doing these deeply unfashionable things—slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting—is a radical act now, but it is essential,” writes May.
Here too, we are learning with our guests how not to rush to problem-solving, how not to overbook ourselves to the edge of overwhelm. It sounds paradoxical, perhaps, but the best choice a guest dealing with burnout can make may be not to attend two workshops and an evening session in one day but to slow down, listen to their body, and prioritize. What do I really need? What serves me most in this moment?
Just as winter gives way to spring, so this neutral zone, says Brooke, leads to a phase of new beginnings, a time of energy and movement when we embrace the change before us and step into the future it brings. As we go, we may engage in the practice of meaning making, integrating this transition into our life narrative as we normalize the new. There are two parts to this phase, we have found, for our guests. The first occurs on our campus, as guests integrate new learning into their daily lives, forming new habits of being with themselves, with others, and with the world. Sometimes (often) this takes the form of physical change and restoration. The combination of rest, relaxation, mindful self-examination, and engaged community living at New Life is deeply restorative. The second, sometimes more difficult stage occurs as our guests take this learning home to families, jobs, and friends. We make room in our discharge discussions for slippage, recognizing that new habits take energy and practice. As they say in recovery circles, relapse is part of recovery; the question isn’t if old habits will show up, but what we do, when they do. We plan for that.
Skills for the Journey
Here we arrive at the concrete subject of skills. What are the skills we need to manage the inevitable transitions of our individual lives? When you leave New Life, what do you take with you? Not surprisingly this list of transition-related skills maps directly onto the pattern of resilient wellbeing. In the realm of the physical, we talk about the importance of breathing and more specifically of paced or modulated breath as a means of finding our equilibrium in the midst of turbulent change. We note the importance of structure in unstructured and chaotic times and talk about the value of setting small, self-care goals when bigger life goals are not yet known or complete. We practice visualization as a tool for imagining and designing the future. We discuss how to normalize the state of not knowing that is part of any transition.
Other skills taught at New Life are drawn from the attitudes of everyday mindfulness, which is the newest subject in our rotating roster of weekly themes. These include patience and acceptance, trust, generosity, gratitude, letting go, beginner’s mind, non-judgment and non-striving. As we study these attributes, we work together to build the ability to be in silence, to sit with ourselves. We learn how to use the body to calm the mind.
Transitions Without Mirror Transitions Within
All this work—and it is work—takes place in the container of the Serra da Estrela. Every day, in every possible way, this truly extraordinary landscape holds up a mirror in which we can read transition and resilience. In the valley below us, we see the blackened skeletons of oaks and chestnuts left by a devastating fire rising from abundant slopes of wavy, green Scotch broom. Here on the mountain, we find ourselves sunning like lizards one moment, then enveloped by a cold mist in the next. Everywhere we look, there are wordless messages of growth and change. All around us is the evidence of endings and new beginnings, if we choose to see them. Come and see for yourself.
by Daral Boles – New Life Portugal Counsellor
This blog is offered with grateful acknowledgement of all the guests who joined us on the journey these first six months.