Comprehending something means transforming. Learning means becoming something or someone else.
-Andreas Weber, Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology
What a wild time to be alive friends! As I am tracking—and feeling—the relentless social and political upheaval, I am managing to stay rooted in hope and possibility (at least most of the time). I can’t help but notice how what is happening out there, in the world, mirrors our inner processes of transformation. We are in a process of growing up as a nation and civilization. Growth is a messy, painful and chaotic process. And this process can also be rapturous, liberating and awe-inducing. We can shut down and close in when change comes for us. Or, we can surrender and open.
I think of the contractions of childbirth. The alternating waves of pressure and peace that come with a birthing. The thin line between intensity and pain.
I remember the first time I encountered Piaget’s term, cognitive disequilibrium. I was studying to be a secondary education teacher in 2004 and the lesson was that a state of cognitive disequilibrium is essential to our learning and development. I loved this term as it described something I had certainly felt many times, a sense that the world turned upside down, that things were not making sense any more, that I was grasping in the dark. One of the most punctuated moments of cognitive disequilibrium in my life was the sudden death of my first, and long time love, in a car accident when I was 20. When I received that call at 8 o’clock on an April morning my legs literally collapsed underneath me as I crumbled to the ground. All that I recall is the the chaotic sounds of city traffic on the Boston streets outside of my apartment. I literally felt my world—or everything that I understood about the world—shatter.
There are also less punctuated, more gradual periods of change. Sometimes we are initiated by an obvious external event. Sometimes the shift is more subtle, internal and occurs over time—like the new lenses through which I see after two years in graduate school. Transformative learning theorist, Jack Mezirow uses the term, disorienting dilemma to describe the first, necessary ingredient for learning that changes us.
There are more spiritual orientations to describe how we transform as well. Ancient mythologies the world over had stories about the underworld, the territory of trial, darkness and death. The underworld journey describes the descent of soul into the unconscious; the disorienting, uncomfortable and fearful unknown. Inanna, Persephone, Odysseus all traveled to the underworld and emerged with new strengths, wisdom and personal power. In the 16th century Christian mystic, St. John of the Cross, wrote of The Dark Night of the Soul in his poetry:
My soul is detached
From every thing created,
And raised above itself
Into a life delicious,
Of God alone supported.
And therefore I will say,
That what I most esteem
Is that my soul is now
Without support, and with support.
St. John described the disorienting depths as the place where we commune with god, where we are both without support and with support, where we lose everything in order to find something else. Whether cognitive disequilibrium, a disorienting dilemma, an underworld journey or a dark night part of us is sacrificed—an identity, a belief, a way of making meaning—for the becoming of something new.
There are also times where we anchor more fully into our developmental stage. These are times when we hit our stride for a while and things feel relatively more stable and steady. Here we become empowered in what we know and confident in who we are.
Currently the United States is traveling through the in between place, the chaotic unknown of the underworld. We are facing the shadows of our collective unconscious. We are being tested: where do our values align with our actions and where do they not? We are being invited into integrity. I have previously written about this as both a reckoning and a revolution. It is also an opportunity for reconciliation. Most days the news induces a disorienting dilemma. What new truth is being revealed? Where do we source from when everything we have previously been bolstered by is falling away?
There is a quickening occurring both out there and within. It is collective and personal. We are never separate from the systems and ecosystems in which we live. In practical terms, it is key to have, and practice, tools for self-care and self-regulation during these uncertain times. And to remember that we do this change work in relationship. Metamorphosis occurs within a cocoon. Sometimes called a container or a holding environment, transformation requires a culture that encourages us in our growth via a community or a trusted guide like a therapist or coach.
We are being asked to grow up individually and together. The way to weather the process is to trust it—to give ourselves fully to it even as parts of us are resisting. We have to know that we can’t see exactly where we are going or how to get there but we can lean into the belief that on the other side we will once again reach a triumphant plateau.
As I was writing I remembered this poem that I had scribbled into a notebook on an airplane during the winter:
In the center of my heart
a thick black moth
flutters her wings
sending ripples of grief
through my chest
beautiful, sweet, aching grief
rapturous, glorious grief
as I receive my death
and my life
all at once.
Hope means to steward a dream of something more whole, more beautiful, more resilient, more just and more generative—something that it is well worth coming undone for.