Feel like all hell is breaking loose? You might be experiencing a radical transformation that could change your life for the better.
Step by Step
These are the seven steps of radical transformation.
The Wake-Up Call
You realize that something needs to change.
You search for methods to help you change, explore teachings and avenues, all the while being willing to live with the insecurity of being in a process of identity-shifting.
Asking for Help
You approach teachers and mentors, and you strongly appeal to the power of grace itself.
Grace, Insight, and Awakening
Grace opens the situation, creating a breakthrough, inner shift, which may manifest as new gifts or insights.
Enjoying the new situation, you live in the breakthrough. It may feel like being in love.
The Fall From Grace
You lose touch with the new gifts, experience the consequences of over-confidence, and a sense of dryness or loss of contact with your Source.
You bring insight to bear on the contractions that have caused you to lose contact with grace, you apply spiritual insights to the nitty-gritty actions of life, and you experience the ripening of your breakthroughs over time.
Doug went on his first yoga retreat because he hoped to do some firsthand research into the effects of yoga on stress. But one morning on that retreat, he came out of meditation knowing beyond reason that something in his life had to change. “Everything I was doing felt utterly inauthentic,” he told me. His medical practice had gone dead for him, and it had been years since he felt a real connection with his wife.
A few days later, Doug confided his new insight to his wife, telling her that he needed some time out to contemplate his path. His wife thought he had gone crazy; soon the fault-lines in their 20-year marriage had cracked irrevocably. Now they are proceeding towards divorce, while Doug studies yoga therapeutics and spends hours every day meditating and writing. His children won’t speak to him. He tells me that he cries several times a week, and feels as if he were swimming in a fast hot river of emotions—his own and other people’s. Even more unsettling is the fact that he doesn’t know where all this is taking him.
We often don’t realize, when we enter a transformational process, exactly how much upheaval we may be letting ourselves in for—and how radical the uncertainty we may feel along the way. In one of Rumi’s poems, a boiling chickpea speaks up from out of the stew pot, complaining about the heat of the fire and the blows of the cook’s spoon. The cook tells him, “Just let yourself be cooked! In the end, you’ll be a delicious morsel!” Over the years, when the fire of yoga has felt especially hot, I’ve often turned to that poem, It describes so well the psychic cooking that goes on during certain phases of transformation. Transformation, after all, is a process where you literally allow yourself to be softened, opened, even broken apart, in order to expand your sense of who you are. When you are in the midst of the process, you might feel like that overheated chickpea, or like cookie dough—raw and untogether. It’s hard to keep your cool, or even to convene the different pieces of your personality. You say things that other people find weird or embarrassing. Even more dislocating, you don’t know exactly who you are. That uncertainty—the feeling that you’re caught between an old self and an unknown new one—is one of the signs that you’re in a true transformative process.
Transformation is different than spiritual awakening or enlightenment. The contemporary philosopher Yasuhiko Kimura defines transformation as a dance between Being and Becoming. ‘Being’ is the changeless source of all that is, the formless ground where words and categories dissolve, and which many of you have perhaps touched during meditation or Savasanana. ‘Becoming’ is the part of you that grows, changes, shifts. It is the realm where inspiration becomes actualized in the world. Being is your still center, your source; becoming is your personality, your body, and your interactions with the world.
When you have a spiritual awakening, or even a deep experience of stillness in meditation, you are returning to pure Being, immersing yourself in the love and freedom of undying essence. Transformation, on the other hand, is what happens when the insights and experiences that emerge out of pure Being meet your ‘ordinary’ human personality and your day-to-day reality and begin to infuse your choices and relationships.
Doug’s transformative process was actually a recognition that the insights he was touching in meditation were demanding to be lived. An old friend of mine described a similar moment in his life. He’d spent a month in retreat with his teacher, finding that his capacity for loving had increased exponentially in his teacher’s presence. Back in the stream of ordinary life, he’d watch the love evaporate under the daily pressure of making a living and dealing with the minutia of life.
For him, the process of transformation arose from the tension between the love and wisdom of pure Being that he experienced while on retreat, and the real life habits and feelings that characterized his ‘old’ self. It’s that tension that actually births change. In fact, the tension is part of the process, a sign that transformation is immanent or in development. There are other signs that you can learn to recognize too, because for most of us, real transformation happens in stages that can be tracked.
The Wake Up Call
Every transformative process starts with a wake-up call. For some, the wake up arrives like Doug’s, as a sudden intuitive recognition. Just as often, your wake up call comes through an external crisis. Francesco, a young actor, says that his transformative journey began when a director fired him from a film, telling him that he didn’t know how to express real emotion. For Dale, the triggering event was the early death of her husband. Andrew, a teacher of yoga and spirituality, heard the alarm bell when a student left him, saying that Andrew’s life didn’t reflect what he was teaching. Each event was literally heart breaking—not only did it shatter the external framework of these people’s lives, it shattered their beliefs about themselves. In other words, it demanded transformation.
Evolutionary biologists believe that stress is what creates evolution in nature: Plants grow through pruning. Human beings grow the same way. When we’re faced with a situation that we can’t control or change with our current level of understanding and skill, evolutionary stress arises. The stress impels us to question, seek, practice, and eventually to take a leap out of our comfort zone into a higher level of awareness.
Living with that sort of stress is uncomfortable and disturbing. But there’s a power in stress. In science, art and spiritual life, important breakthroughs are often preceded by a period of intense frustration or impasse. The scientist has assembled his data, performed innumerable experiments, but can’t crack the problem. The answers aren’t coming. His passionate quest for answers and his frustration about not receiving them builds to a white-hot intensity. In this impasse, often while the scientist is resting or taking a walk, the answer emerges from his momentarily still mind. Often, it takes the form of an insight, like a download from the Source.
Spiritual breakthroughs may follow a similar pattern. You search for answers with intense curiosity and intention. The great teachers on the path of self-inquiry, Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, sought the answer to the question, ‘Who am I really?” For Doug, the question is, “How should I live?”
The period following a wake-up call often involves letting yourself live in the stress of unanswered questions and unsolved problems. It’s a time of longing for wisdom, for change, and of intense effort and practice. The stress of the questioning combined with the effort of practice constitute tapas, or transformative heat. creating an alchemical cauldron that allows you to refine your vessel and open the psyche for revelation and insight.
Asking for Help
This questing stage of the transformative journey requires practice. Spiritual effort is crucial—without it, most people won’t develop a vessel to hold the shift or insight.. But it isn’t enough to practice. You also need the help of a teacher or counselor, and the help of grace, which one of my teachers defined as “that which returns things to the Source.” Returning to source is necessary because true shifts of consciousness emerge from Being itself. The most direct way to ask for help from Being is, essentially prayer.
A lot of practitioners, especially in Buddhism,dismiss prayer as basically wimpy—a confession that your practice is weak or that you lack self-reliance. It could also be said that all you need to do is practice intensely and aspire passionately, and breakthrough will come on its own. While that may be true for some people, I’ve always found that most of my major breakthroughs have followed intense prayer. Depending on the mood of the moment, I pray to God, to the field of consciousness, to my own higher self. I believe that it’s important to pray only for things that will benefit others as well as oneself. But I also know that any transformation in an individual’s consciousness is beneficial to all, so I have no hesitation about asking for help when I come across inner obstructions. Praying also helps me let go of my pride at being in control, because I’ve found the most effective form of prayer to be the kind where you start by saying, “I can’t do this myself. Grace will have to help me.” There’s something about the conviction of our essential helplessness that seems to attract grace.
Grace, Insight, and Awakening
You can always tell when grace has rushed in. For one thing, it feels exhilarating and often actually miraculous. You read a book, and the exact words you need to hear leap out at you. You’re drawn to take a class with a particular teacher, who gives you the insight that helps change your entire psychic structure. You hear yourself saying exactly the right thing to a friend, and know that ‘you’ didn’t say it. Often at this stage, your life seems filled with synchronicities, meaningful coincidences, inspirations that carry you forward almost effortlessly.
This part of the transformation cycle can be incredibly exciting, often because it feels as though you’re learning how to open to the wisdom that comes from Being itself. A Kabballist wisdom teacher, Marc Gafni, who has himself experienced many cycles of transformation, says that true personal transformation requires rewriting our source code, the deep internal programming that determines the way we experience the situations in our lives. Since we don’t know how to get to the source code on our own, that deep shifting has to come from insight, the intuitive awareness that arises from within Being itself.
One sign that you’re truly experiencing that level of insight is when a truth you’ve been reading or hearing for years suddenly become an actual realization, not just an abstract teaching. You hear yourself saying, “Omigod, I’m really NOT my thoughts!” or “Wow, I can change my experience by changing my perception!” Often the insight is something you already knew, or thought you knew, but in this realization, everything feels different, and you know that the world will never be the same again.
The phase that begins with the descent of grace, with its synchronicities and ‘miraculous’ realizations, is like falling in love and discovering that your beloved loves you too. It’s often called the honeymoon phase of the inner life, and it can last for years. When you’re in that Honeymoon phase, it can feel as though all of your struggles are over. Spiritual power runs through you—sometimes so strongly that others catch it. You may feel a euphoria that comes from your sense of the presence of grace. For many people this creates a subtle or not so subtle feeling of spiritual superiority, a feeling that you’re being guided or shown the way, and a slight disdain for people who haven’t yet gotten it. This is often the moment when you decide to leave your old life behind and go off to India, or quit your day job and open a yoga studio. Sometimes this is the right decision. Sometimes, it isn’t.
The danger of the honeymoon period is over-confidence. In the euphoria of your love affair with transformation, you can overstep boundaries, make the kind of professional mistakes that come from the belief that you can do no wrong, or from blindly following intuitive guidance without discernment.
The Fall From Grace
For this reason, almost inevitably, the Honeymoon of grace will be followed by some kind of fall, or at least a feeling of having fallen. Sometimes this feels like dryness, as though you are being cut off from the flow that you’d experienced. The fall might happen as a result of your own missteps. In the euphoria or confidence of the Honeymoon period, you might make a big professional ‘mistake,’ fall in love with someone inappropriate, quarrel with your best friend, your family or your teacher, ditch your marriage, or become discouraged by the complications involved in making a significant life change. Just as often, what feels like a fall is actually a deep purification, an emotional detox, during which psychological issues and vulnerabilities that you may not have processed, emerge to be looked at and worked through.
Why does this happen? Usually because our psychological vessel is not strong enough to hold the power of our spiritual insight. Here’s an example. Years ago, a friend of mine attended a meditation retreat with a prominent teacher from India. During one of the meditation sessions, she saw inside herself a beautiful golden light, and realized that many of her beliefs about herself—her feelings of guilt, of unworthiness, her feeling of lack—were completely unreal. “More than seeing a light,” she said, “I saw my own beauty and goodness.” she said. The experience left her in a state of almost operatic bliss, accompanied by a new gift of psychic insight that convinced her that she was being guided from within. Following both the bliss and the guidance, she left her professional career to go off to the teacher’s ashram.
She began to practice with great discipline. One of her disciplines was to follow the intuitive ‘hits’ that came from inside. She used to say, with unmistakable pride, “I’m so fortunate: I never have to worry about what to do because I always have this internal knowing.” After awhile, her intuition began guiding her food choices. More often than not, the guidance would tell her to eat little, often less than a handful of food at meals. She began losing weight. Her teacher told her she was too thin, and strongly warned her to eat more. But since her inner guidance was telling her otherwise, she kept on eating less and less. It was only when her weight got extremely low that it became clear that she was exhibiting all the symptoms of anorexia, and that she clearly had some psychological issues that needed attention.
She left India, got a job and a therapist, worked through her eating disorder, and came back to her practice on a much firmer footing. But for a long time she believed that she had failed on the spiritual path, fallen from grace, and been counted out of the game. In fact, what she had needed to find some sort of balance in her body and psychological world before she could move forward in her inner life.
This is an extreme example, for sure, but it illustrates one of the laws of the inner life. Even when you’re given a glimpse of who you can be, it usually takes work to bring the separate strands of your being into alignment with the awakening vision. Some of this is basically fine-tuning, but some of it can be quite radical, especially when shadowy aspects of your personality surface. During this part of the process, you may feel the kind of confusion that Doug reports, as you oscillate between the ‘new’ self and the old.
However, the Fall is actually an important part of the journey, not only because it is humbling, but because it both underscores the need for integration and initiates the integrative process.
In the Integration phase, your may find yourself, like Doug, negotiating contradictions. Your inner developmental process may seem to demand radical freedom to practice, travel, or change the terms of your life. At the same time, you have commitments to a family or career, not to mention to the realities of survival in the 21st century world. Integrating spiritual change only happens when you take the insights or inner experiences of your awakenings and radically apply them to your life, allowing them to percolate within you and change the way you express yourself in your actions and relationships. It’s one thing, for instance, to recognize in yoga class that you are one with the earth. It’s quite another to alter your life to bring it in line with that recognition. It may involve modifications in your diet, changes in the way you use your body or consume of goods and services, and shifts in your inner attitudes. The integration process is what grounds your transformative experiences, making them actual, lived ways of moving in the world.
The process of Integration demands that you make efforts to consciously bring insights into action. Yet—and here is the inherent mystery in the process of transformation—the Integration stage of the transformative process also happens beneath the surface of your consciousness. True transformation is a natural process that affects they way you think, act,, and feel in every situation. This means that you cannot control the pace of transformation any more than you can control the process by which an apple tree flowers and bears fruit. Ripening must take place, both in fruit trees and in human beings.
Recently, a long-time practitioner friend of mine has been going through a deep process of inner and outer shifting. For several years she had been longing for intimate connection, which seemed to be missing in her life. Then, her world was blown apart by a sudden love affair, which seemed to embody the intimate communion she’d longed for. The relationship was too intense to last, and when it ended, it sent her into a period of confusion and uncertainty much like Doug’s. But she knew enough not to try and make any quick decisions, but to sit in the uncertainty and let the situation unfold. She committed herself to working with a therapist, and also began to meditate for long periods each day. As the insights of therapy meshed with the insights of meditation, she began to have experiences of her kinship with the living energy in the natural world. Over a period of months, as though she’d stepped through a kind of threshold, more and more of her encounters with others began to be informed by her growing sense of the shared energy of life. In a very natural way, her ways of relating to other people began to deepen. She stopped needing to fill silences with social chatter. She stopped feeling anxious about connecting with others. Instead, she ‘knew’ that the connections were always, already present. She had integrated her longing for intimacy, so that instead of feeling driven to play it out in a passionate relationship, she could recognize that intimacy is always available to someone who is truly intimate with her own heart.
Listening to her, and remembering conversations we’d had over the years, I realized that she was modeling the stages of real transformation. She had been willing to inhabit uncertainty, to remain on the threshold where she didn’t know what the outcome of her journey would be. She had practiced, dipping again and again into pure Being, asking for help, and bringing her insights into her encounters with others. And at some point, the mysterious energy of Being had created a shift, a change in her source code that then shifted her perceptions and sense of self. Deep inner and outer change had taken place.
And here’s the point: When we enter the gates of the transformative process—and yoga is, in its essence, a vortex for transformation—we can never predict how the journey will go. What we can say is that it will involve a dance between insight and application, between practice and grace, between Being and Becoming. After we’ve been through a few transformative cycles, we begin to be able to navigate. We can recognize a period of insight and awakening and enjoy the honeymoon stage. We can remember that our falls are not signs of failure, but invitations to recognize where work is necessary. We begin to welcome our opportunities to integrate our highest, deepest levels of awareness with the untransformed parts of ourselves. And we celebrate the process even during times when it seems difficult, because we know that it is a process.
© Copyright 2009. Sally Kempton/Dharana Institute. All Rights Reserved.
Date Last Modified: 8/19/09