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True transformation is a radical process. Here’s how to navigate the shift gracefully.
During a meditation last year, Doug, a longtime yoga student, had a profound spiritual awakening that was accompanied by the recognition that there was something inauthentic about the life he was leading. Among other things, he saw that his medical practice had gone dead and that he desperately needed to take a sabbatical to contemplate his path in life. His wife didn’t agree, and Doug’s decision to follow his heart quickly exposed the many fault lines in their 20-year marriage.
Now they’re discussing divorce, while Doug studies yoga therapeutics and spends hours every day meditating and writing. He tells me that he cries several times a week and feels as though 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.
Doug’s experience of radical uncertainty is typical for someone who’s deep inside a transformational process. In one of Rumi’s poems, a boiling chickpea speaks up from out of the stewpot, complaining about the heat of the fire and the blows of the cook’s spoon. The cook basically tells the chickpea, “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 reread that poem and appreciated how well it describes the psychic cooking that takes place during certain phases of transformation—a process in which 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 unformed. It’s hard to keep your cool. You say things that other people find weird or embarrassing. Even more dislocating, you don’t know exactly who you are. Yet that uncertainty—the feeling that you’re in between an old self and an unknown new one—is a sign that you’re in a true transformative process.
What is transformation?
Transformation is different from spiritual awakening or enlightenment. The contemporary philosopher Yasuhiko Kimura defines transformation as a dance between Being and Becoming. By Being, Kimura means the changeless Source of all that is—the formless ground where words and categories dissolve, a ground that you may have touched while practicing meditation or Savasana. 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, an immersion 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 began when he realized that the insight he’d had in meditation was 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 and found that his capacity for loving had increased exponentially. But back in the stream of ordinary life, he’d watched 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 previous self. It’s that tension that births change. In fact, the tension is part of the process—a sign that transformation is imminent or in development. There are also other signs that you can learn to recognize, because, for most of us, real transformation happens in stages that can be tracked.
It starts with a 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. But just as often a wake-up call comes as the result of an unexpected external crisis. Francesco, a young actor, says that his transformative journey began when a director fired him from a film, saying that he didn’t know how to express “real” emotions. 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 heartbreaking—it shattered not only the external framework of these people’s lives but their very beliefs about themselves and their path.
Evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris has written that stress is what creates evolution in nature: Plants grow through pruning, and 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 the situation, seek guidance and answers, practice what we’ve learned, and eventually take a leap out of our comfort zone into a higher level of awareness.
Live in uncertainty and stress
For most of us the stress is uncomfortable and disturbing. But in science and in spiritual life, important breakthroughs are often preceded by a period of intense frustration or impasse. The scientist has assembled his data and performed innumerable experiments, but he is unable to crack the problem; the answers aren’t coming. His passionate quest for answers and his frustration about not receiving them build to a white-hot intensity. In this impasse, frequently while he 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 steadfast 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 and change, and of intense effort and practice. The stress of the questioning, combined with the effort of practice, creates tapas, or transformative heat, which in turn creates 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 and patience. 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 the Source is necessary, because true shifts of consciousness emerge from Being itself. I’ve found that the most direct way to ask for help from Being is through prayer.
Some may dismiss prayer as 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, 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 about being in control, because I’ve found the most effective form of prayer to be the kind in which 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’s exhilarating and often 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, and she is the one who gives you the insight that helps change your entire psychic structure. You hear yourself saying exactly the right thing to a friend and yet 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 Kabbalah teacher named Marc Gafni, who has himself experienced many cycles of transformation, says that it 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, or 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 about or hearing of for years suddenly becomes an actual realization, not just a useful teaching. You hear yourself saying, “Oh my god—I’m really NOT my thoughts!” or “Love is real!” or “Wow, I can change my experience by changing my perception!” Everything feels different, and you know that the world will never be the same again.
The Honeymoon Phase
The phase that begins with the ascent of grace, with its synchronicities and seemingly 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 gone. 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, that sense creates a subtle (or not so subtle) feeling of spiritual superiority—a feeling that you’re being guided or shown the way, along with 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 to quit your day job and open a yoga studio. Sometimes that is the right decision. Sometimes, it isn’t.
The danger of the honeymoon period is having overconfidence. In the euphoria of your love affair with transformation, you can overstep boundaries and 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, the honeymoon of grace will almost inevitably be followed by some kind of fall, or at least by 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 mistake professionally; 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&madsh;during which time 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 quite 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, my friend saw a beautiful golden light inside herself and realized that many of her beliefs about herself—her feelings of guilt, unworthiness, emptiness—were completely unreal. “More than seeing a light,” she said, “I saw my own beauty and goodness.” The experience left her in a state of almost operatic bliss, accompanied by a new gift of psychic insight that convinced her she was being guided from within. Following both the bliss and the guidance, she left her professional career and went to study and practice at the teacher’s ashram.
She began to practice with great discipline, while following 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 a while, 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 she was exhibiting all the symptoms of anorexia and 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 was to find some sort of balance in her physical body and her 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 entails 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 underscores the need for integration and initiates the integrative process.
In the integration phase, you may find yourself, like Doug, managing contradictions. Your inner developmental process may seem to demand radical freedom to practice, travel, or renegotiate the terms of your life. At the same time, you are still called on to honor commitments to a family or career, not to mention to the realities of survival in the 21st-century world.
Integrating spiritual change happens only 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 goods and services, and shifts in your inner attitudes. The integration process is what grounds your transformative experiences, making them real ways of living and 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 the way you think, act, and feel in every situation. That means 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 longtime practitioner friend of mine went through a deep process of inner and outer shifting. For several years she had longed for intimate connection, which was missing in her life. Then, her world was blown apart by a sudden love affair, which seemed to embody the intimate communion she’d yearned for. The relationship was too intense to last, and when it ended she found herself in a period of confusion and uncertainty much like Doug’s. Yet she knew enough not to try to make any quick decisions, but rather to sit in the uncertainty and let the situation unfold. She committed herself to working with a therapist and began to meditate for long periods each day.
As the insights of therapy meshed with the insights of meditation, she started to experience 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 were informed by her growing sense of the shared energy of life. Very naturally, 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 already, and would always be, 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 those who are truly intimate with their own hearts.
Staying on the path of transformation
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 of the world and her 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 start 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 rather are invitations to recognize where work is necessary. We begin to welcome 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.
Sally Kempton, also known as Durgananda, is an author, a meditation teacher, and the founder of the Dharana Institute.