A few summers ago, I was depleted and broken. Work felt like I was trapped in a crucible where the conditions worsened daily. My marriage met an icy and abrupt end. My sons were either dissociated or delinquent. The despair was overwhelming and I was unable to address anything in my emotional and mental state. So, I prioritized self-care and unplugged for alone time, searching for way to survive these challenging conditions. I spent as much time outside as possible to be active, quiet, and open-minded. While hiking a well-worn trail, I saw a rock painted with the saying, “Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes.” It was a serendipitous find and this simple adage resonated with a belief I was overlooking amidst all my struggles.
I spent the five years leading up to that moment studying and practicing Buddhism, and the saying prompted me to recall my understanding of impermanence and emptiness. Nothing is permanent. Regardless if I am pleased or displeased by my circumstances, I should acknowledge it but do not cling to it, because it will change. Everything is changing all the time, and even the slightest, imperceptible change alters the circumstances.
In connecting the notion of “nothing changes if nothing changes” with impermanence, I realized two critical things. First, just as everything is changing, I do not need to – and cannot – change everything. My circumstances will change in their own time. However, if I want my suffering and sorrow to change – to end – then I must change my relationship to my circumstances and how I accept my circumstances. It’s simple yet powerful. Despite feeling as if my entire world was in ruins, I needed to stop grasping onto the old circumstances and accept the conditions for what they are. I needed to practice non-attachment and acceptance regarding the deterioration of the circumstances that I labeled “my life.”
Second, I realized that my perception of my circumstances is determined by what I put in myself. Although I was surrounded by loss and feeling suffering and sorrow, I did not need to fill myself with those feelings. I could choose to fill myself with perceptions and attitudes that will help me pass through the suffering and sorrow, instead of assimilating with them. This is the concept of emptiness and it led to the question: what does a depleted and broken person need to pass through great suffering and sorrow without getting attached to it? I would need to be resilient, self-assured, and focused on the horizon – the future – and not the present wasteland or the past.
For me, this perception and attitude translated into body posture. I am a kinesthetic person, and as my emotions influence my body, my body influences my emotions. The posture of my head and chest tells the world everything. When my eyes and chin are down and my shoulders are rounded forward, my thoughts and heart are burdened with suffering. I needed to fill myself with resilience and confidence which meant doing it with my body first. I focused on my posture; chin up, shoulders back, chest filled. This subtle change did not immediately flood me with new perceptions, but it stemmed the flow of suffering and sorrow and tipped over the first domino of change. Now that my eyes were up and I was looking ahead (and not down), I made more eye contact with other people. I was not wallowing in my head and heartache, but I was seeing and receiving the world. This posture of standing upright increased my sense of resilience, and without the constant suffering, I could see the opportunities in my circumstances. With this relief came a relaxed smile, which led to exchanging more polite greetings with people, and more interaction led to genuinely smiling with my eyes. Every little change was a domino falling, bolstering my confidence and setting off more changes in how I was relating to my circumstances. I was cultivating my resilience and confidence while moving through circumstances that caused suffering and sorrow, but I was not getting ensnared in those feelings and perceptions.
A seemingly ordinary hike revealed an extraordinary truth for me: if I want to change how I feel about my circumstances, I need to change to how I am relating to those circumstances. The circumstances will eventually change whether I want them to or not, but my feelings about those circumstances may not change unless I change how I perceive my connection to those circumstances. Nothing changes if nothing changes.