How to encompass in our minds the complexity of some lived moments of life? …You don’t do that with theories. You don’t do that with a system of ideas. You do it with a story. Robert Coles, The Call of Stories
My daughter showed up twenty-two minutes before six on a Thursday evening, two days before my thirty-second birthday. In my heart she arrived long before this. Not every new father experiences the birth of his child as such a world changing moment. I did. In this moment I was flooded with strangely conflicted emotions. I felt a deep a sense of awe, love, responsibility, devotion, and, at the same time the sense that I would absolutely end anyone who tried to do harm to her. I was not the same person I was when I woke up the morning before. I felt both, the most profound sense of nurturing capacity alongside an unfamiliarly strong protective instinct.
My time in the wilderness of my separation, divorce and journey into single parenting has transformed the trajectory of my life and the arc of my story. For a time, I refused to be cheered up; I wrestled in the dark. The depth I discovered within some relationships and the resources for relating that I now have access to because of this time is hard to give words to and I would not exchange it for much. Perhaps longer than I had hoped or intended, the experience of writing this work has in a similar way been transformative on a number of levels. I am a work in progress.
Fathering has continued to be a challenging and transformational experience for me. More than ever I have an understanding both of the importance of good fathering in the lives of children and the significant positive impact that the opportunity to father can have on the life of a father. Fathers matter, and men need for their own sake to think with their children, partners, ex-partners and the communities they find themselves in, toward the innumerable possibilities that might emerge in a more engaged and nurturing relationship.
In some of my work on understanding men and masculinity for example, we have done a lot of work around where and how we show up or or attend to this process of renegotiating identity but there are moments in our life where we are open to a different way of being in the world. This might be at different places along the lifecycle, significant experience of trauma or loss, a significant life change like becoming a father, losing a job or career or moving to a new phase of life like having your kids move out, retirement, loss of a long term partner etc. For everyone it can be different.
Life is full of complicated truths. Out of deep pain there is often potential for new life; Sometimes doing the wrong thing can lead to the right end where the right thing never would; Sometimes you lose weight when you stop watching what you eat, and practice doesn’t actually make anything perfect (’cause perfect isn’t a thing). Living out of our wholeness comes from embracing our brokenness and illuminating the darker parts of our selves.
If I asked you to share with me the most transformational experiences you had – how they happened and how you are different because of them – you probably wouldn’t tell me the mechanics of the change you experienced – you would likely tell me a story. And, I’m guessing, if I asked you five years from now, the story would be different – and so would the sense you make of it.
The thing with story is that the truth of it lies not in its accuracy but in its meaning…and its meaning is dependent on the other possible stories it generates.
When you reflect on your life, there are moments you can recall in detail and those that are obscured by time and distance. How you make sense of them now has far less to do with how you can recall the story – but the various ways you have remembered in the past, and all the ways you have let this retelling inform the rest of your life.
How you pay attention to the moments of your life – and the stories that flow out of them – makes a lot of difference in creating space for what is possible for you now.
Who I am now because I have been present to this experience and all the many invitations along this path has made all the difference. In my mind, a growth metaphor captures very little about these experiences – where I reflect now and see parts of myself I find profoundly hard to recognize.
If I were to approach my life with the same set of practices and values now as I did before these changes it would seem foolish – not only to me but to you as well. I think, act, and relate very differently than I did some years ago. As we grow and change, the approach that works and supports us also needs to change.
Expanding in our lives requires not thinking about our lives as though we are somehow able to view ourselves in an objective way. Thinking ‘with’ our lives is where we find the fertile soil for growth and change that moves beyond an improvement in our circumstance.
As we come into unfamiliar territory we don’t have the tools we need to think about how to relate to this part of our lives – maybe even where we are located within our own story. The character of the situation we are in is somehow unclear. Only when we are present to this new territory does its nature begin to be in focus – we can begin to understand the more practical meanings for us and how we should act in it.
An Invitation for Transformational Change Work
There are ideas in mythology and in religion and neuroscience and neurobiology about how change happens. Many of our models for how change happens are super helpful. Many have an idea that there are stages that we progress from pre-contemplative to contemplative to action stages and so on. Some have tried to articulate the universal aspects for growth or self-mastery. One thing is clear is that change is complex and transformational change is not linear or simple. But how is transformational change different from regular change work?
When we talk of transformational change, we are typically referring to:
- Substantially increased awareness
- A broader sense of self or a wider set of values we identify ourselves with
- A larger frame for meaning making
- A reorganization or significant reintegration of our pattern of interacting with our selves and others.
This is not about self-improvement or personal development in a strict sense. Both of these ways of thinking are in some way including a view of the self where our task is to just get better at the version of ourselves we are living…. Improving on the existing model. In other words if you have a particular belief and a corresponding practice, you are going to work at better articulating your belief and becoming more effective or efficient at your practice. Transformational change might mean that you now realize that belief had its place but no longer fits your view of the world, and the corresponding practice is self- or other-limiting in ways that you no longer wish to continue.
Unlike growth or development ( which are more linear and can be ordered more predictably into stages) transformation is about both new life and death. It is about unbecoming and becoming. Our practices create space for transformation – but they do not guarantee it.
A useful way of thinking about how our lives unfold is to think about the notes on a piano. Sometimes referred to as the law of seven in some wisdom traditions. This is about building our capacity to be be more present to the many invitations in relationships and circumstances to make the changes or moves that our soul so desperately longs for.
This well used metaphor for talking about the process of development or change is captured in Gurdjieff’s version of the law of seven. Think of the notes on a piano or the spacing of notes on a staff of music. In Western music our system of notes includes sharps and flats, half steps, whole steps and of course in other parts of the world this is even more true. The process of change it is not a process of moving from a whole note to whole note. The black keys require a different kind of movement the different kind of hand position. In the same way our development requires different things at different times to help us jump into these different places to play these sharps and flats. This idea shows up and in many different models of psycho-spiritual development where we understand that there may be some levels that we can progress through sometimes through education sometimes through relationship but that some bigger moves are needed some shocks to our system are needed to get us to move to that next place
To move to a different level of thinking, we often need something to shock ourselves into this new level of consciousness. Remembering yourself as these moments happen is one of the key lifelong practices that will open you up to this expansive world of change.
“It has been explained before that in the ordinary conditions of life we do not remember ourselves; we do not remember, that is, we do not feel ourselves, are not aware of ourselves at the moment of a perception, of an emotion, of a thought or of an action¹.”
What I’ve come to understand is that there is kind of co-creation that happens with the events in our life there is lots of work that we can do on our own to grow and change but often the big leaps require working with the things that have happened or are already happening to us. This is where our three elements of self observation self inquiry and self work come into play.
It is somewhere beyond self-awareness – but a kind of presence. Listen to what your life is telling you – and stay in conversation with the deepest parts of yourself. Here you will begin to know with your whole self.
We need, not only self-discipline and self awareness – but a willingness to remember ourselves as we are having the big experiences of our lives – and even the smaller more mundane ones. This is how you live your way into a new way of thinking about who you are and what you are here to do.
Ouspensky, P. D. (2001). In Search of the Miraculous. HMH, New York.