Last year, during a meditation, Doug had a profound spiritual awakening, accompanied by the recognition that there was something inauthentic about the life he was leading. Among other things, he felt that his 20-year marriage had gone dead, and needed to end. Unfortunately for him, his wife didn't agree. The divorce has been prolonged and messy. Doug sometimes feels as if he were swimming in a fast, hot river of emotions -- his own and those of others. What is most unsettling is 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 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 re-read that poem, and smiled at how well it describes the psychic cooking that takes place during certain phases of transformation. Transformation is, after all, 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 chickpea, or like cookie dough -- raw and untogether. 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 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. By Being, he means the changeless source of all that is, the formless ground where words and categories dissolve. Becoming is everything else. On the deepest level, Becoming is the dynamic, ever-evolving quality inherent in life. In Being, everything comes to rest and is renewed. In Becoming, everything is always shifting, moving through a never-ending process of change, growth, and dissolution. Being is our still center, our source. Becoming is our personality, our world, our life.
When we have a spiritual awakening, or even a deep experience of stillness in meditation, we are experiencing a return 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 our 'ordinary' human personality and begin to inform our choices and relationships. Doug's transformative process began as he realized that the insight he'd had in meditation was demanding to be lived, even at the cost of his marriage.
Another old friend of mine, after spending a month in retreat with his teacher, found that his capacity for loving increased exponentially by being in his teacher's presence. Back in the stream of ordinary life, he'd watch the love evaporate under the ordinary daily pressure of dented fenders and kid's homework.
"The general irritability and disconnection that had seemed normal now felt almost monstrous," he told me. In the end, it was the tension between his experience of being in a state of love, and his 'normal' experience that inspired him to find out how to make his experience more constant.
For him, the process of transformation arose from the tension between the love and wisdom of pure Being that he experienced in retreat, and the real life habits of being and feeling that characterized his 'old' self. It's the experience of that tension that actually births change. For most of us, real transformation happens in recognizable stages, as the dance between Being and Becoming moves from one pole to another.
As a veteran of several major transformative cycles, I'd like to offer a personal map of the process, as I've experienced it. The stages I'll talk about are informed by the writings of several important modern writers, particularly Evelyn Underhill in her book Mysticism, and Joseph Campbell's description of the mythological hero's journey. Different writers give us different names to the stages of a spiritual transformation process. Here are mine: the Wake Up Call, Holding Uncertainty, Getting Help, the Descent of Grace, or the Honeymoon, Falling from Grace, Integration.
Wake-Up Call: You realize that something needs to change.
Sitting in Uncertainty: You look for methods of changing, 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, but along with the human help you strongly appeal to the power of grace itself.