Sunday, July 15, 2007

Change as a Calling

[image by Alex Gray]

I've posted several articles on change over the past months -- this is a continuation of that series (which I thought I had finished). In general, I have posited that change can often been seen as a process similar to ritual and that change has an internal structure even though it may seem totally chaotic.

The call to change often presents itself in the aftermath of an unpleasant life event -- the end of a relationship, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, moving to a new city, and nearly any other event that serves to unseat us from the comfort of who we thought we were. When these things happen, the soul can join forces with spirit to exploit the opening these events create in order to propel us toward a deeper and more expansive vision of who we might be.

Just to clarify, I posted recently on my definition of soul and spirit:

Soul seeks communion, interconnectedness, experience, inclusion, and darkness. This is what Jung called the anima, which is the original Greek word for soul.

Spirit seeks agency, autonomy, knowledge, distinctions, and light. This is what Jung called the animus, the original Greek word for spirit.

When I use these words, I am not doing so within the context of religion -- I use these words as signifiers for elements in the psyche that are generally only recognized within the Jungian and transpersonal models of psychology. However, I do not recognize the gendered usage of these words that is found in Jungian circles.

So then, when a traumatic life event occurs, we sometimes experience an opening, a kind of liminal space in which we are receptive to the call of soul and spirit to create meaning. We feel caught in-between, no longer the person we were, but somehow not yet what we might become. It is from this space that the call to change can arise in us and set us on new course in our lives.

At first, it may feel easy to embrace that call and respond openly to this opportunity to grow and evolve, to heal old wounds or explore newly discovered parts of ourselves. We may feel free to redefine our sense of self, filled with possibility and hope for a different way of living.

But it is not enough to simply make external changes in our lives -- we must also do the inner work that can sustain the call, that can create the interior framework needed to restructure our lives. We must engage with our shadow selves to reintegrate the parts of ourselves that have been split off as subpersonalities.

If we fail to do this, sooner or later we will revert to our old ways of living. Familiar subpersonalities will reassert their control over us and we will fall back into unhealthy patterns.

Worse yet, we might be confronted with the fear and anxiety that living in liminal space can create. For many of us, this can be overwhelming if we do not have a framework for understanding what is happening. Without the context to know that these feelings are a natural part of the process, we will do anything we can to stop the pain. We might use drugs or alcohol; we might work ourselves ragged to avoid having time to feel anything; we might simply try to ignore the situation and distract ourselves in the hope that the feelings will go away. All of these are forms of rejecting the call, and none of them will work for very long.

In shamanic cultures, a person who rejected the call would often become sick and maybe even die. The call was seen as so powerful that to refuse it is to risk annihilation. We no longer view the world through this magical-mythic lens, but modern psychology still recognizes that when we refuse the call to change, we might suffer psychosomatic illness, depression, anxiety attacks, and so on. We can refuse the call, or simply ignore it, but what isn't faced and integrated will continue to reappear in different ways, demanding our attention until we finally accept that call.

Once we experience that opening, however temporary it might be, we can no longer pretend that we are the same person ever again. At some level, whether we accept the call or not, we now know the truth -- that we are more expansive and have more depth than we had ever known. Beneath all the emotional wounding, beneath all the cultural conditioning, someplace deep within us is a being of pure love and compassion. No matter what we do, that knowledge of who we really are will haunt us until we actively seek to make a connection with it.

In essence, the call to change is a joint effort of soul and spirit to help us engage with our true selves, what the Buddhists call our Buddha-nature and what some transpersonal psychologies and spiritual teachers refer to as our authentic self.

But doing this work requires that we understand the context of what is happening to us. In our early history, it was the shaman who could guide a person through this process. Now we seek help from clergy or therapists, or even friends who have been through it before us. As I mentioned in Eight Behaviors for Coping with Change, one of the crucial behaviors is seeking out someone to guide us through the liminal space that change creates.

Two other behaviors that I mentioned in that post are also important -- having an observer self and seeing one's life as a narrative:

The second important behavior is dependent on the first – the individual must be able to see his/her life as a long narrative, and recognize that the individual scenes and chapters are not the whole story. The phrase “unable to see the forest for the trees” encapsulates the cliché version of this behavior. A person going through change can get so caught up in assaulting the barriers, or seeking internal resolution, or any number of other coping strategies, that the story is lost within the scene.

Having an observer self allows the individual to take a step back from the struggles of transition and see that the process is in service of the greater story of her/his life. Being able to hold the perspective that “this too shall pass” makes the process a little easier, but it also reframes the struggle within the context of a meaningful initiation, allowing that the process serves a higher purpose.

However we choose to cope with change, we must allow it to work its magic on us, no matter how disconcerting it may be while it is happening. If we can see it as a calling, not unlike the calling to vocation, we have a better context for getting through change and coming out the other side as a healthier and more whole person.

1 comment:

Arlene said...

Sunday, July 15, 2007
Change as a Calling

I'm going through this calling now. iMy friend and I at the same time. She in AZ and I'm in MA.