Having been through considerable transformation in my own life, working as a coach and in the field of sustainable development, I enjoy reading widely – albeit judiciously – about transformative work. Whether through social media, books, academia, or listening to quirky YouTube excerpts, I am interested in learning about different approaches to transformation. After all, if we are to achieve sustainable wellbeing, there is a lot that has to change.
Transformation is deeply part of the spiritual and psychological milieu, and is quite logically a strong theme in most coaching approaches. It is also increasingly evident that sustainability requires a wrenching transformation in our economic and social systems.
There is however a language trend that concerns me in some transformation writings: the ubiquitous repetition (pun intended) of three words in particular – simply, just, and transcend. Motivational writing is littered with phrases like “simply step out of yourself”; “simply be what you want to be”; “just let go of your past”; “just align with your true calling”; “transcend the mundane”; “transcend your limitations”. Some consciousness literature even refers to eradicating the shadow side, or doing away with the inner critic. Simple implies easy and effortless. Just suggests immediate, and simple! Transcend can carry connotations of exceeding or beating something. These words can trivialise the work required to transform.
When injudiciously used, simply, just and transcend can be tragically disempowering. Intended to give hope and inspiration, these words can lead to hopelessness; a feeling in people that they are somehow lacking because despite all their effort, they can’t ‘simply just’ do these things. Encouraging someone to believe that they have to eradicate a part of themselves – such as the inner critic, or the ego – can suggest that there are parts of people that must be destroyed, which can lead to further disillusion, excessive self-criticism or self-doubt.
I believe, have experienced first-hand, and seen in others that every aspect of us – shadow, light, critic, lover, frightened child, wicked gossip and powerful seeker – is entirely part of who we are. What is important is not to eradicate or ignore any of these facets of ourselves, but to learn to work with them; acknowledge them, thank them for their role (which may now be less important than it once was), call on them when needed, choose how much attention you give them, and fundamentally, integrate them into the whole being that is uniquely us. Our ego included. To deny our ego is to deny our humanity. We are entirely and simultaneously human beings and spiritual beings. To require that transformation involves somehow sidestepping any part of either of these is to dis-integrate our identity.
A more useful message might be to seek to understand when our ego is taking over, which can be defensive and unhelpful. To learn to discern when a particular character – say our inner critic – is being triggered unnecessarily, with potentially negative behavioural responses. To identify how much we hurt ourselves or others when we operate from a part of ourselves that we don’t actually want to be like. More encouraging would be to promote practices that help us to observe ourselves, in our entirety – that delightful ‘detachment’ that is often bandied about, but that in no way requires us to disown any part of who we are, human and spirit. I don’t think we ‘rise above’ (transcend) our ego without first wading through its messy, narrow view of the world, and thereby assimilate its perspective.
This journey towards reflexive wholeness is not simple, not easy, nor just doable. It takes courage, persistence, facing and working with our fears, possibly re-scripting our identities, and most of all, it takes time. The more we practice the easier it gets. I get the sense that those who demonstrate deep emotional or spiritual intelligence are people who have mastered this undying work of profound integration and acceptance.
We stimulate hope when we are honest and realistic about the transformation journey – and it is an ongoing journey, not a destination. This does not mean that there cannot be step-changes in awareness. Depending on one’s worldview, these step-changes may be experienced as mystic ecstasy, or psychological peak experiences. Or they may (simply?) be an Ah-Ha moment: that instant of insight when something within suddenly becomes crystal clear. However we experience these moments, they are moments of true integration, of cementing our identity, not cracking it asunder to throw the ‘unacceptable’ parts of it away.
I revel in the attitude that was conveyed by Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign – let’s get on with it, stop looking for excuses, MOVE! There is nonetheless a balance. In encouraging transformation of any kind, our language should not sell illusion but stimulate creativity and imagination.
Honouring the long path, validating the awesome power of faith, intention and belief, walking with people where they are, acknowledging the collective effects of individual efforts, celebrating all progress and inspiring extravagant hope without crafting unrealistic expectations is how I think we can genuinely transform ourselves, and our world.