Transformation Requires Refraining

Tree sprawl 0713

Often, we get caught up in transforming our lives. We decide that we will no longer assume an old way of being or an old way of doing. In other words, whether it is New Year’s or not, we make a resolution not only to do better but to be a better person. Just like that.

What we discover is that letting go of a habit or a behavior requires a lot more than filling ourselves with resolve. Letting go is a lifelong practice for we revisit old habits, old behaviors–neuroses we once cherished–often, we recognize them immediately but sometimes, they are disguised as something new and possibly, beneficial.

 The three difficulties (or the three difficult practices) are:

1.   to recognize your neurosis as neurosis,
2. then not to do the habitual thing, but
to do something different to interrupt
the neurotic habit, and
3. to make this practice a way of life

(Pema Chödrön)

Recognizing what we no longer wish to do or be is usually obvious but recognizing all that it has meant to us–how it has disguised itself in order to be an integral part of our every day– is a lifelong practice of recognizing neurosis as neurosis.

For a while, just rising above the neurosis is reward enough. Yet, life is uneven and the rise of the unexpected often dissolves our resolve whether it lasted for minutes or months. Thankfully, life is impermanent, and we get lots of practice in letting go.

What we get to do each time we recognize that once again we have invited in a familiar neurosis is to accept that is exactly what we have done. That is the first step in letting go, accepting what is. Think of it as resolving to refrain rather than resolving to deny.

Refraining comes about spontaneously when you see how your neurotic action works. You may say to yourself, `It would still feel good; it still looks like it would be fun,’ but you refrain because you already know the chain reaction of misery that it sets off.

 (Pema Chödrön)

Even if we have begun to set off the chain reaction, we accept that we have and refrain from going any further. We set our resolve to refrain because we accept where we are. Refraining allows us to halt and not go where we have gone before and unhook from the neurosis.

Resolve serves us as long as it is to accept that life not only changes but masks itself in new faces and different viewpoints, allowing us to experience familiar habits, recognized behaviors, and old relationships through yet another perspective.

Transformation is not a matter of discarding but an accepting of all that we are and were. Such resolve is the genesis of transformation, a lifetime practice of experiencing, letting go, and when we are ready, refraining.

heart of tree 0713

14 thoughts on “Transformation Requires Refraining

  1. Thanks for this Karen. It comes at a good time for me. I’m particularly struck by your photos. Talk about transformation. At least once a year, a big wind storm dramatically transforms my landscape. This year it was early June; we are still cutting and chopping our way through that. It’s what I need some days: a big wind storm in my life.


    1. Hi, Janet!
      This has been a rainy summer for us–in a way, performing much as your wind storm–the saturated ground often gives up these great Live Oaks. I am always saddened for these trees often witness hundreds of years to simply fall over but such is transformation. Yet, the green of this summer has been extraordinary, and life has taken hold wherever possible. Thanks, Janet!


  2. Karen,
    I sense a gratitude towards impermanence in your posts recently. What a wonderful thing to be grateful for. It reminds me of the two responses to chaos/post-modern lack–Rousseauistic Nostalgia or Nietzchian Affirmation. That is grad school speak for clutching for the past or accepting the present. If we can affirm or embrace impermanence, how wonderful our lives becomes.
    I also love the idea of refrain. I will put it into practice immediately. {{{hugs}}} Kozo


    1. Hello, Kozo!
      What interesting terms, Rousseauistic Nostalgia and Nietzchian Affirmation. Wow! Actually, my heart has always belonged to the 19th century, in particular the transcendentalists, and for years, I labeled myself as a 19th century romantic. As you say, embracing impermanence is key, and I believe that is what the Buddha meant when he said “I teach suffering and the end (or cessation) of suffering,” meaning pain is part of living but accepting that it passes will keep us from suffering. Perhaps refraining helps is yet another tool. Great to have you back on the blogosphere!


    1. Hello, Athena!
      As you say, meeting these patterns in whatever disguise they present is not easy but when we do, we are rewarded. It is good to see you here, and know you are in my thoughts.


  3. Great post, Karen! I have found that many of my patterns are actually chain reaction processes. As I work on transforming those patterns, I learn to refrain earlier and earlier in the process over time (and with practice). The earlier in the chain reaction I am able to refrain, the easier it becomes. So I think I may adopt your title of this post as a mantra to remind me of that experience! Thanks for sharing!


    1. Thanks so much, Kenetha! The title is yours, and you are correct in that it is not a bad mantra! Glad to hear that refraining has helped you, as I just ran across the idea this past week, and it bears more than a second look. In particular, I am fascinated by the idea of patterns or behaviors masking themselves. So glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for the thoughtful comment.


  4. Great post Karen and so thought provoking for my Sunday morning 🙂 It reminds me of wearing the elastic band around your wrist and snapping it to break the cycle. I guess the trick lies in being able to recognize the cycle; something I still struggle with most days. Love the pictures of the trees and hope you are doing well my friend.


    1. Hi, Stephanie!
      Just as you say, recognizing the cycle is the key for it presents in various ways. Most of the time I am well on my way into an old behavior before it seems familiar. I think refraining may just help me recognize sooner. We’ll see. I am doing all right and just this morning, found the working title for my book; now, I have to begin rearranging the pieces. Thanks, Stephanie!


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