I still remember the first time that I consciously chose to shift a pattern.

The pattern that (badly) needed shifting was to be controlling, reactionary, judgmental, blaming.

The challenge: sometimes, knowing that we want to shift something isn’t enough to actually get it to shift.

I was angry with Andy and he was just completely calm, looking at me and saying, “Look, this was an unforeseen circumstance. I did what I could with what I knew. That’s it.”

The mental chatter in my head was running its usual tracks in the mud–He should have paid more attention, or How could he have missed that? or He never wants to take responsibility for his stuff; all he does is make excuses; I’m so sick of arguing over all of this.

But something in me stopped.

I think it was all the zazen–Zen sitting meditation–which I was pretty ravenous about at the time. Somehow, I slowed down enough to notice that those thoughts were the same thoughts I had any time I was upset. I carried a lot of anger, and I was thinking these same sorts of thoughts about drivers who didn’t use turn signals, friends who flaked on get-together plans, students who didn’t turn in homework.

I remember having this sudden flash of, “Do this differently.” I remember holding onto the ledge of this antique dresser that I owned at the time, trying to focus on my breath. My eyes filled with tears but the energy I felt in my body was pure anger, and in fact it was intensifying as I breathed.

Finally, I could speak. “Everything in me wants to say that you’re wrong,” I finally said to him. “I’m just… so… angry.”

We stood there together for several minutes, and as I remember it, I repeated that statement a few more times. It was astonishing to me that I had this strong, intense emotion coursing through my body, and the thought patterns that went with it were there, and instead of running the same old pattern, I was just…staying…still…

It was both life preserver and paralysis.

Connecting to my breath, using what I’d learned from zazen, was keeping me from reacting, blaming, and creating a fight in my relationship. But without knowing what the next step was–without yet having good tools for communicating my feelings of upset, without yet being aware that my anger was my armor and that by changing my pattern, I was stripping myself naked and that’s why it felt so difficult–all I could do was stay still, paralyzed and not knowing what to do next.

The moment passed. I could breathe again. I knew that that was my first “lily pad,” my first step.

I had just learned something vital–that when I was in the midst of a pattern and didn’t know what to do, I could stop, pay attention to my thoughts, not act based on them, connect to my breath, and let that pass until clear thinking came.

Once clear thinking came, it was so completely and totally obvious that Andy was absolutely stating a truth in our argument: he’d just had some unforeseen circumstance come up. That’s all. Had I reacted and yelled or blamed, I would have had a shame hangover, later. I would have probably heard my inner critic yammering in my ear, telling me things like I should have paid more attention and How could I have missed that? and I never want to take responsibility for my stuff; all I ever do is make excuses; I’m so sick of dealing with this…

(Sound familiar?)

Sometimes I read about someone’s experience of transforming something that has been difficult for them, and it’s all the clouds parting and the sun shining through. I applaud those experiences and invite more of them into my life, while at the same time sharing with all of you that it has not been my experience that change usually works that way. In my experience, shifting a pattern, especially one that’s about your armor, your defenses in the world, is meeting yourself at your core. It’s warrior-work. It takes courage–feeling the fear, diving in anyway, and transforming.

It takes courage again, and again, and again, and again, and yet again, and each time another little lily pad presents itself. For months after that initial experience of not running my usual pattern, I clung to the thought that “If I could do it that time, I can do it this time, too.” Unfortunately, it was not true 100% of the time (nor is it always true, now) that when I’m triggered, I get present and listen to my thoughts without reacting and connect to the breath and then consciously choose to shift.

But I will say this–it happens a hell of a lot more often. Even better? It’s a lot easier. It doesn’t usually involve gripping dressers and paralysis. I leap from one lily pad to the next, not necessarily always seeing the long view, but seeing enough of the next step to find my way.