As I was walking through the park the other day I began a conversation with a man who eventually told me he was dying of cancer. He had this cancer, he explained, because he was too stressed, too worried, too agitated.
He described being troubled by almost everything he saw around him and even though he knew it wasn’t good for him, even though he believed there was nothing he could do to correct these concerns, he said could not stop worrying and fretting.
I wondered about this for a long while after I left him. Could it be true that there was nothing he could do to help himself?
This gentleman expressed many concerns to me as he complained non-stop about how our government was misspending taxpayer’s money, how misinformed our medical system was in providing proper treatments for people, and a seemingly endless list of other issues and complaints.
I don’t know if it was true as he believed, that he had cancer because of his agitated mind. But I know he thought so.
So it was most interesting for me when I heard him say he felt he was powerless to stop complaining about these things even though he felt it was killing him.
Oddly, he didn’t seem particularly interested in his thought process as he joined one bothersome issue to another, each seeming to serve as fuel for the next. He reminded me in some ways of an alcoholic continuing to drink, knowing full well it was destroying him, and calmly saying there was nothing he could do about it. And perhaps he was right.
I think for some people change is not possible, or at best it is a remote possibility. It seems that there actually is nothing they can do to alter how they think, feel and act in the world, even though their life may be heading downhill.
But if they are powerless, why? How can this be explained?
Some people can’t change because they are not interested. There are those who do nothing about stress in their life simply because they don’t seem to think about doing anything about it until it is too late.
Often these people seem to have a very limited awareness of themselves and others. Their life is hectic and non-stop almost as though they need to get to the next moment before they have arrived at this one. They don’t seem to properly identify with, or appreciate, their problems, and even though others might be concerned about them, nothing will come of their efforts to help other than frustration for all concerned
Some people can’t change because they don’t see the problems in their life as having anything to do with them. Instead, it is other people, the world “out there” causing their suffering and if only ‘it” or “they” would change, their problems would be over. Not surprisingly such people often tend to be disruptive in the lives of others.
Some people can’t change because they have given up. They have tried many, many, times with little success and much disappointment. They have lost hope trying to feel better when nothing they have done has made a difference. Such people can often be deeply cynical about almost everything and everyone. As long as they still care enough to look after and protect their existing reality as miserable as it may be, they can survive. But if they are then faced with an unexpected and significant life challenge they can crumble. When they finally reach the stage that nothing matters this is often life-threatening.
Others are still willing to try but have no clear direction of how to actually do this and are going in circles. The will is there, but the energy is wasted.
So in these examples, I think change for such individuals in not possible; at least not under the existing conditions. But that is not the same as saying nothing can help.
But if it is possible, how can this be accomplished? And for those who are willingly seeking to change how can this be accomplished?
There are many, many questions which need to be asked and answered when we talk about change, about who can change and how to to do it. What do we even mean by change? Is change actually possible or is it an illusion?
For me the answer to the question of whether or not change is possible is, “It depends”.
I don’t mean to sound elusive in this response but I think it is correct to state it this way. There are many conditions which have to be met before change can occur and it is helpful at the outset to consider what some of those conditions might be. In the next series of articles on Mindfulness I will look more closely at this.