Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Change: Interview with Ronald Alexander, PhD
Today I’m really happy to bring to you Ronald Alexander, Ph.D., who is a licensed psychotherapist in Santa Monica, Ca, practicing mindfulness-based psychotherapy, Director of the Open Mind Training Institute, adjunct faculty at Pepperdine University and Pacifica Graduate Institute, and author of the very interesting new book Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose & Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss & Change. I’ve actually been waiting for a book that weaves mindfulness practice with uncovering our well of creativity with a sense of purpose.
Question: What is the 3-step mindfulness approach to help us navigate difficult changes in our lives while opening up to our creativity in everyday life?
Ron: In my new book, Wise Mind, Open Mind I discuss a three step process that combines mindfulness meditation, creative thinking and positive psychology to help readers to let go of their past; tune into the present and their core creativity; and move forward with passion and purpose. This approach allows one to focus on the building of their “mindstrength” — the ability to very quickly and easily shift out of a reactive mode and become fully present in the moment, experiencing the full force of your emotions even as you recognize that they are temporary and will soon dissipate.
Question: In your book you have a wonderful discussion of something we can all relate to…resistance. Can you tell us a bit about the “payoffs of resistance” to us?
Ron: I believe there are five basic payoffs of resistance. First by resisting change, we can avoid the unknown. What’s familiar may not be terribly comfortable, but sometimes it seems that the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know. We fear that venturing into the unknown will cause us to discover painful secrets about the world and ourselves that have been hidden from us. Secondly we can avoid being judged as “strange.” When parents are frightened by their child’s differentness, labeling them as “strange,” they’ll usually try to stifle his creativity. The child, sensing their disapproval and fearing abandonment, can shut down his creative flow and then either tries to conform to his parents’ expectations or acts out, claiming not to care what anyone thinks of him.
Another payoff is that we can avoid failure. When we fear failure, we tend to overestimate the risk we’re taking and imagine the worst possible scenario-the emotional equivalent of our parents deserting us as children. The fourth one is we can avoid success. Strange though it may seem, a fear of success can cause as much resistance to change as a fear of failure can. While you may consciously long for a promotion or hope that your romantic relationship will result in marriage, unconsciously you may be afraid of what will happen if these changes occur. The last payoff is that we can avoid feeling guilty. If we take a risk and make a change, we may feel guilty because we’re contradicting what others think we should or shouldn’t be doing with our lives.
Question: How can we move beyond our resistance and access our “core creativity?”
Ron: I list many ways to access one’s core creativity in my book. One of the most effective ways though is through mindfulness practice. Mindfulness allows us to listen and pay attention to what we might otherwise overlook-whether it’s a fresh idea or a new way of perceiving a situation-enhancing our creativity and letting go of our obstacles to innovation. I also encourage my patients to dabble in the Arts. Simply dabbling in the fine arts, with no specific goals or intentions, awakens our ability to approach life with greater openness and curiosity. If you feel that you simply have no creative abilities, consider your dreams. Most nights, your mind generates at least a few fantastical images that you can recall upon waking if you slowly bring yourself back into consciousness with the intent of remembering your dreams. I often ask my clients to work with the images of their dreams by meditating on them, writing about them, and exploring them to see what ideas and insights they have to offer.
Another way to access your core creativity is through Mindful Movement. Disciplines such as martial arts, tai chi, and yoga are the most well-known ways of quieting the rational mind and opening up to the intuitive mind and its connection to the numinous creative force. Any physical activity that involves discipline and a slowing down of thoughts, from skiing to dance, actually creates new neural pathways in your brain that become roads to innovation. Finally you need to trust in the creative process. Artists are often seen as flighty, but in my experience the most successful ones are extremely disciplined. When blocked, they aren’t afraid to shift gears, to take a walk or a long retreat, to pick up a pen instead of a guitar, to break the formula of how they’ve always chosen to connect to their creativity by trying something entirely different. Trusting that they’ll tap into that flow, they persevere long past the point when others would give up.
Question: One of the five hindrances to making change is restlessness. I see this over and over again with the people I work with. Can you explain this a bit and also how to move through it?
Ron: Well on the surface, restlessness may seem like a positive state, because it inspires you to keep moving instead of becoming stagnant. Creative artists talk about having an “itch” or urge to get back into their music or art studio. What they’re describing is a form of creative motivation that’s quite different from restlessness. Most often restlessness is simply undirected, unproductive action, such as puttering or flitting about from one activity to the next, never completing a task. In Buddhist psychology, we refer to this affliction of mind as “monkey mind.”
The hindrance of restlessness can be remedied with comfort and relaxation. Mindfulness meditation can uncover the source of restlessness so that it can be addressed. It is likely to bring up to the surface of the water the churning thoughts and emotions that have been causing a disturbance from underneath, but after you’ve dealt with them, you can meditate on the remedy of comfort. Generating a feeling of comfort allows the mind’s frenzied activity to slow down, and triggers the sympathetic nervous system to begin releasing calming hormones into the body and slow your heart rate and breathing. In my book I describe the Comfort Meditation that can be used as an antidote at any time.
Question: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was struggling with bringing out their wise and open mind, what advice would you give to them?
Ron: Whether you know you’re ready to change or sense that you should, whether you’re struggling to accept that your circumstances have shifted or you’re feeling stuck or blocked by an unknown force and unable to move forward, it’s important to recognize that change is unavoidable. Life is continually in flux, and even that which seems immutable can be destroyed or altered in an instant. The Buddhists refer to this as the law of impermanence. Nothing stays the same, not even the rocks and the mountains, which rain, snow, and rivers sculpt over time. Each day, millions of your body’s cells die while millions more are born. Stasis is an illusion our egos create to fend off the fear of change.
When change is not your choice, you can’t avoid suffering, but you can choose to view the change as an avenue to personal evolution. You can push aside your perceived limitations and let go of the habits that have provided you with comfort, familiarity, and a false sense of safety, and go forth with fear in check, using creativity to illuminate new paths. You can break out of the dynamic of push and pull, of desire for change and resistance to it, and step past the boundaries of the known. You can recognize that while you may attain some comfort from the habit of trying to control the flow of your life, clinging to the familiar also breeds boredom and discontent. It prevents you from fully inhabiting your life and keeps you mired in regret. It keeps you small.
The secret to successful reinvention is knowing that you don’t have to greet change with apprehension and resistance, focusing on the potential for suffering, because if you take that route, you experience the very suffering you’d hoped to avoid. When it’s time for change, whether you’re losing a loved one, your perfect health, the job you loved, or the lifestyle you enjoyed, you have the opportunity to make your life even better than it is, as unfathomable as that may seem at first.
Thank you Ron!
Please share your thoughts, stories, and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us to benefit from.
Goldstein, E. (2009). Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Change: Interview with Ronald Alexander, PhD. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindfulness/2009/11/finding-purpose-and-meaning-in-times-of-change-interview-with-ronald-alexander-phd/