“Self-improvement is masturbation. Now self destruction…” – Tyler Durden in Fight Club
“Waking up is an endless losing what you think you know, like a wave of destruction that leaves nothing but what is true.” – Unmani
Transformation – Our New Buzzword:
We love to talk about transformation. We put it in ads for weight loss commercials. We insert the word in conversations about our career aspirations. We use it when we describe changing the furniture around in our homes. We put it in the blank spot of paint-by-number journals that ask us what our life goals are.
And why wouldn’t we want to transform? To be enlightened? To be free? To be fully alive? Who…when faced between the option of remaining a caterpillar or fluttering away on the wings of a butterfly…WHO, I ask, would choose to remain anchored to the ground?
It turns out…just about everyone.
Because here is what many (if not most) motivational speakers and self-help authors and so-called spiritual gurus frequently avoid mentioning.
Transformation is painful. It is confusing. It is counter-intuitive. It is HARD.
As infants, we come into the world pliable. We judge nothing. We know nothing. We are awed by everything entering into our awareness. Even awareness that there is an “I” capable of being aware is undeveloped. Open.
The world teaches us to become a “Me.” I learn that I am “Leah.” Through some combination of nature (how my system is wired) and nurture (the experiences I engage in that inform how to survive) my concept of “Leah” becomes more defined.
Now I’m not just “Leah” but I’m…
“Leah the health coach.”
“Leah, daughter of my mother, friend to my friends, lover to my beloved…”
“Leah, the highly sensitive introvert”
“Leah, the Gemini with a Scorpio moon”
“Leah, the INFJ”
“Leah, the 2 with a 1 wing…or was it 1 with a 2 wing?…”
Make no mistake about it – these layers can be incredibly gratifying. You can try telling me all day long that you itch when you have to wear clothing, and that you prefer the liberating sensation of being naked. But talk to me in the winter time and you’ll probably agree with me when I argue that clothing was a pretty nifty invention.
Creating an ego with layers of identity attached can work very similarly. They can insulate us from the cold possibility that we may just be insignificant. Irrelevant. Unnecessary. Superfluous. Inconsequential.
Ouch! Please wrap me in another layer of “Leah” please!
Being human, however, we have a tendency to take this a bit too far. We get wrapped up in and attached to our “clothing.”
When Patterning Becomes Obstructive:
Have you ever seen the movie “A Christmas Story?” I’ll be honest, I wasn’t crazy about the film. But there are some pretty iconic visuals in it (even I have to admit).
If you have seen the movie…do you remember when the mother wraps up little brother in layer upon layer of winter gear to protect him from the cold? It’s a beautiful example of a mother’s attempt at insulating her son from harm…gone too far.
As the boy ventures off into the world…tot-tottering along…we, the audience, are rendered helpless with the giggles as we watch this poor kid try and walk. His limbs are stiff. His gate is awkward. At one point, another boy pushes him to the ground (or does his slip? I can’t remember). He rolls around, desperately trying to find purchase and get back on his feet. But it’s all in vain.
For those of us who become interested in the concept of transformation…this is often what we come to realize…
We start life with no clear sense of self. We are utterly and completely open. Through trial and error (and after having felt the vicious cold and hard surfaces of life), we start to try on and ultimately begin to wear layers of identity. At first, we find these layers to be fabulously useful. We find we can brave the elements of life while wrapped up in our new ideas about who we are. When we stumble and fall, there is some cushion between ourselves and the hard concrete. But over time, without realizing it, we amass so many layers of patterning that we grow less effective in the world. We move less gracefully. We are less nimble.
But who cares? So long as I am safe, all is well, yes?
Then…life knocks us down. A relationship we thought would last forever…falls apart. The job we used to define who we are becomes obsolete. The money we amassed to protect us from poverty dissolves in a stock market crash. Our sense of invincibility surrenders to the blow of a diagnosis.
Bam! We slip. We fall.
Upon hitting the ground, we wriggle and squirm and struggle to get back up. But…nothing. Life has forced us to realize that all that “protective” gear is now just weighing us down. Rendering us immobile.
Some of us stay there for the rest of our lives. We add “victim” to the list of selves we have collected and resolve to stay put.
Some of us cry out for help long enough that someone reaches down and helps us up…and we go stumbling along until our next fall. Destined to continue the cycle of waddle-waddle-waddle…crash!…wait for someone or something to pick me up…waddle-waddle-waddle…crash! and so on.
But some of us decide to try something radical. We decide to begin the long and arduous process of finding our true Self buried underneath all of those big label collections of cloth. We wonder if maybe…just maybe…we could navigate the world with a little more discernment. Perhaps we don’t need quite so many of these layers?
A Radical Change Begins…
Having made the decision to start stripping down, most of us find we need help. Our hands are in mittens that don’t allow our fingers to zip or unzip. Our arms are stiffened by the coats we wear.
So we cry out.
“Hey! Anyone out there?”
And…if we are fortunate, someone strolls by and takes pity on us. They recognize we aren’t able to get up by ourselves. They reach out their hand, and they lift us up.
“Good.” We decide (and after expressing a fair amount of gratitude for the person who helped get you off the ground) we say…
“Now…to find someone to help me with these damn mittens.”
We go to therapists. Counselors. Coaches. Motivational speakers. Meditation instructors. Spiritual guides. To each person we say “excuse me, would you mind helping me peel one of these layers off?”
If we are lucky, the person we ask is happy to help. We hold out one hand. They slowly start to pull on a mitten. As they pull, we pull. Together, we accomplish a victory. One mitten…now two…now three…is freed. After doing this for a while, we may finally discover what our hand looks like.
The best part about this process is that it starts to build a kind of momentum. At first, the layers are all compacted and tight around us. It’s hard to know where to even start. But as the layers come down, our capacity to move increases. We find that we need the “expert” assistance of all those guides less and less. We get to that exhilarating benchmark and find that we can peel off our own sweater. We can wriggle out of our own pants.
What. A. Delight!
Eventually, after what might be a lifetime of work, we find ourselves back, in some ways, where we started. We are naked. Our freedom of movement is absolute. We are nimble, again. Open. We can feel again. We are exposed and vulnerable and in direct relationship with everything in our environment. Oh the ecstasy!
At least…it’s ecstasy during the spring. Yes…during the spring of life, when things are going well and storms aren’t threatening us near the horizon, we cannot even fathom why we ever threw on so many layers. What were we thinking!?!
A New Season…
Then the seasons change. The elements become cold and brutal again. We start tripping and falling on the ice and now, with our bare knees exposed, we realize how much it flippin HURTS when we scrape against it.
When that happens, some of us…maybe most of us…revert back to our old ways. We start the process of re-applying layers so as to insulate us again. We do this unconsciously in many cases. The clothing might be different (maybe now we are armed with yoga pants from LeeLuu Orange or some such company rather than hand-me-down coats from our family). But ultimately, the process is the same.
A Special Kind of Crazy…
But some of us…some of us lean into these experiences with even more curiosity. We ask questions like “what is pain?” and “Who is in there feeling this pain?” Rather than re-apply clothing right away, we begin to wonder what kind of beast we are that we would need clothes. What does it really mean to be a human being on this earth?
To do that, my dear friends, requires a special kind of lunacy. It requires us to continue stripping down layers. Now our skin. Now our muscles. Now our bones. Now our thoughts. Now our emotions.
Until suddenly we find ourselves in no-mans land. We realize there is no there, there. All this pain and pleasure we insist we can feel is merely sensation brought forth from minds that are couched inside of our bodies like a baked Alaska pie.
And THEN…if one is very lucky …such a person might catch a glimpse of what it is to feel both at one with everything and utterly dissolved into nothing. Such a person will realize that fretting over the cold of winter and rejoicing in the heat of spring is all one and the same. None of us is alone. All of us is alone.
Morrie Schwartz wrote a story that describes this experience quite beautifully. A little wave is bobbing along in the sea. He’s enjoying the wind and the fresh air. Until he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the shore. “My God, this is terrible,” the wave says. “Look at what is going to happen to me!” A larger wave comes along and asks “little wave…why are you so sad?” The small wave responds “because we are all going to crash! We will all become nothing. Isn’t it terrible?” The second wave says “Oh sweet wave, you misunderstand. You are not a wave. You are the ocean.”
Another Thing to Let Go Of…
Imagine the relief and the joy of that little wave. THAT is what transformation can feel like. It is to become absolutely engrossed in this experience as a unique and valuable YOU while also knowing that you were never separate from anything. You, like that wave, are the ocean (or world…or universe…whatever you prefer).
Some of these fortunate few, having experienced a glimpse of that inner knowingness, will consider themselves complete. They will venture out into the world, excitedly reporting to anyone who will listen that if they only do as “I” have done, alllll pain and discomfort will recede. They can finally stop struggling. Phew!
But some will go even further, still. Having had a glimpse of something beautiful, such individuals will have the wisdom to know it was simply yet another thing to let go of. “So I am the ocean, eh?” They will ask. “Lovely. Now…to the laundry…”
Because at the of the day there is no end. REAL transformation is a process. It is an orientation. Not an outcome. It is a forever project that is unfolding. Our tendency to get attached to things doesn’t ever disintegrate. Our mind’s ability to think thoughts don’t ever disappear. You wouldn’t WANT them to.
Real transformation is a contact sport. It’s a sport that requires our constant attention and willingness to practice. It requires us to be willing to go out into the world and figure out when it is appropriate to put on some layers of clothing, and when it’s appropriate to strip down. It’s about knowing when we need to have freedom of motion and when we are better served having boundaries. When to be fluid, and when to be corporeal.
When the Desire to “Transform” Goes Too Far…
In the film Annihilation, staring Natalie Portman, she and a crew are aware of a pocket of space titled the “shimmer.” It’s a bubble that is extraterrestrial…and it originally only took up a small space. Now, it’s growing. No one who goes in seems to come back out. Their job is to find out why (and hopefully stop its progression).
What they discover is that this phenomenon…this “shimmer” isn’t so much killing everything as it is forcing rapid and unsustainable change. All who are in this space start evolving at a rapid fire pace. An alligator with shark teeth. A plant in the shape of a human. A man with organs that move within him like serpents.
We can use this as a kind of metaphor for transformation. If we venture off into the world constantly denying our humanity…our sense of identity…and stop engaging with life, we become unstable. We lose our ability to remain intact enough to be effective in the world. Such an existence might feel exquisite, but it can also create a kind of perpetual disconnection from life.
But if we cling too tightly to identities and patterning…we stop moving altogether. We are equally ineffective.
Where to Go From Here…
So, dear reader, if you decide you like the idea of transformation…of no-self. Of (gag) enlightenment…then what you will want to know is there is no end to it. It is a constant dance between self and no self. It is a forever experiment where you are tasked with knowing when to remain solid, and when to shapeshift into liquidity and spontaneity.
True masters in this area are those who have often come full circle (and more than once). They are brilliant enough to know how stupid they are. They are wise enough to know the value of foolery. They understand that our real goal, if you can even call it that, is to meet each moment exactly as we are insomuch as we can know. It is to greet the world with as much honesty and integrity as we have been able to muster at this point in our lives…and it is to endeavor to respond to the moment with precisely what each moment is calling forth from us.
Good luck with that.