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It’s an age-old question: Can people change? The reality is, yes, in fact, you can’t stop yourself from changing. You are continually transforming, moment to moment, day to day, no matter what you do. Change is inevitable. Once you accept this truth, perhaps the bigger questions are: Why should you change? What should you change? When should you change? And how should you change?
Change through action and effort
Tapas, the third of Patanjali’s niyamas—activities that are part of healthy, fulfilling living—is derived from the Sanskrit verb tap, “to burn.” It refers to the discipline of burning away impurities. This makes it sound like there is something wrong with you. There isn’t. But if you’re in tune with your feelings, they can signal when you need to slough off the outer layer of yourself. Next time you’re feeling insecure, defensive, or apathetic, some tapas is likely in order.
But why—why change? On some level, it doesn’t matter because you cannot help but to change. So a better question then is how can you change in a way that serves you?
Through internal activism—the process of activating your inner world and acknowledging your feelings—you can change in an expansive way. If you instead deny and bury your feelings, you will change by contracting. But you are meant to expand. When you work against expansion and contract, you may feel grey, self-doubt, the desire to cut off from other people and ultimately yourself. Your actions (the how you change) and reactions to your feelings (the what you change) are, together, what establish the direction of your transformation.
The collaborative process of change
Change then is a collaborative process between you and whatever allows you to have faith that you can change. This could be a Higher Power, inner strength, self-knowledge, or simply trust.
Admittedly, change doesn’t always begin with choice, though. Sometimes life serves up circumstances you do not choose. I’ve been in situations where I’ve thought, I don’t really want to be taught any more hard lessons. I’m sick of suffering. I would prefer a happy or even neutral stagnation. Well, I don’t think life works like that for anyone. You can make choices to make your life low drama, decrease the swing of your ups and downs. But the bittersweet news is that you never stop changing. It is up to you whether you stop learning from your life or continue expanding.
There is a difference between inertia and surrender. Inertia, literally speaking, means remaining unchanged unless an external force interferes. Inertia hopes for continuity for continuity’s sake. In the context of internal growth, inertia is failing to make a choice that facilitates expansion. It can either keep you where you are or facilitate contraction.
In contrast, being in a state of surrender is being open to the type of change that is spurred by an internal stirring, the type of change that expands. To facilitate transformation, I recommend the process of action and effort that I like to call “act and release.” The idea is not to become emotionally attached to the outcome of any action. In practice, it works like this:
- You feel something.
- You notice your feeling and perhaps name it.
- You decide if any action needs to be taken.
- Then you release any expectation of how others will react to your actions or what ripple effects it might have.
For example, say, you find out a friend’s partner is cheating on her. You notice you are mad at the partner and anxious because telling her might jeopardize your friendship. Reasonable minds could differ about whether to share this information with the friend or not. You might take some time to weigh variables like the closeness of your friendship, the friend’s openness, the extent of the infidelity, and so on. Ultimately, whether you decide to tell her or not, either choice is an action.
No matter how you “act,” there will be a result. (“Consequence” sounds ominous, so we’ll set that word aside.) You must “release,” no matter the result. This is detachment. When you can remain emotionally unattached to the result of your actions, you become more secure in them. That doesn’t mean you have to turn a blind eye if you make a choice that has a harmful result, despite your thoughtfulness. In fact, it helps to notice so you can correct course and—you guessed it—change your direction if a similar situation presents itself again.
5 Steps to Apply Tapas for Self-Transformation
The process of transformation is not linear but there are some steps that can guide you through change when you have an inkling it is necessary or you are ready to practice your tapas:
- Ask yourself: What do I desire?
- Then ask: Do I have any blocks that pop up when I imagine what I desire? If so, then that is your work—what you “should” change. It’s that simple. Now you know what you need to change. The path to setting an intention is through these blocks toward what you desire.
- Set your intention. At this point, do not burden yourself with figuring out the how and when. Start with the intention and you will get there.
- Make a choice to honor your intention and to take actions in alignment with it.
- Acknowledge that your choice and supporting actions will spur change. Congratulate yourself for a willingness to go through change and continue.
Know that change may or may not happen on the timeline you think it will. It probably won’t be linear. It might happen counterclockwise, or spill over entirely. And while effortful action is essential to expansion, there is a limit to the control you have over this process. This is because there is a magical component to change—the transformational element. This element, once it appears, does not always look as we intended it to. This might sound scary initially or discouraging. Why try to change if you can’t know the outcome? Because it can be better, bigger than you ever dreamed. When you meet challenging circumstances with internal activism, you can move through change without fear.
About Our Expert
Laura Riley is a writer, yoga teacher, and social justice attorney based in Los Angeles. This article is adapted from her manuscript Internal Activism.