What are the mechanisms of change?
Do we have to be running around randomly lunging ourselves into the next “transformative experience”, the next “transformative yoga class”, only to find ourselves with yet another powerful memory but the same mind-set as we started out with? Catching glimpses of the future or of our potentials is not enough to release into them, to step into that future, to fully express it. So what is?
This is the main theme and question of Integral Alchemy.
In psychological circles the main catalyst for growth is said to be “optimum challenge”or optimum confrontation, confronting a person with a situation in which they are permanently aware of a need to change something. There is a mis-match between the required complexity to smoothly navigate the situation and the present complexity in the person; and the required expansion in complexity is conceivable, within reach of the individual.
Additionally bringing awareness (beyond the stimuli of the challenge) to this mis-match by conceptualizing and contemplating it and then envisioning the required more-complex-self needed to create smoothness between self and reality again, can accelerate the process.
But there is something incredibly mysterious about growth: for some individuals the optimum confrontation is something that for other people doesn’t even register on their radar as an irritation. Some individuals grow incredibly fast, seemingly spontaneously, while others take time, tediously working their way forwards, and others again stagnate and retreat from all additional challenges that are beyond their current capacity.
The nature of growth or evolutionary change can be summed up as “transcend and include”, “differentiate and integrate” or “turn subject into object”. That which a person identifies with is a lens they look through but can’t look at. A young child for example is the ego but can’t see the ego and thus can’t conceive of someone else as having one – therefor they hide in plain sight covering only their eyes, unaware that others can see them perfectly well. As the child grows it becomes aware of its self and thus can understand the existence of a self in others as well. While this initial stage is considered “ego-centric” it actually means the child is incapable of thinking about the ego. Once the ego becomes an object that the child can look upon, saying, I have an ego, I have a self, then it is no longer looking through that lens, and all the world suddenly is full of different selves/egos that the child had previously been incapable of seeing clearly.
And this type of change happens again and again. And can continue happening well beyond adolescence, into maturity. Sometimes it happens in a flash, during a profound insight of an extreme and “transformative” experience like a near-death experience where all values and all attachments are questioned, and sometimes it happens during a period of change where little by little the individual rubs themselves against a challenge, revealing the hidden structure of their self and thus turning subject into object.
And sometimes the transformation of a “transformative experience” stays out even though it was intense and harrowing. The truth is, the combination has to be the right one – the right intensity of experience, and the right ground-work before. The right conditions so to speak, in order to make a reaction happen. And sometimes the transformation ins’t what we thought it would be. We might not even recognize it at first, especially if we have a strong preference for (mental) activities that lie below our new potential, coupled with an environment in which the type of growth we are going through is not acknowledged.
The latter is particularly the case in almost any culture for any type of growth process that happens after adolescence. Even though for more than 30 years we know about things like neural plasticity and the baffling adaptability of our brain well into maturity, and for thousands of years occasional humans have surpassed all in compassion, understanding and wisdom, most still cling to the idea that stagnancy, rather than growth, is the natural state of the adult.
It isn’t. It’s just that growth after adolescence is more subtle, not as evident, and often deviates from the cultural collective – especially if that collective is conformist (a perfectly well defined stage of development vastly represented across/within all global cultures and many sub-cultures). So the collective has motive to doubt and shun growth.
But so does the self. The current self will become far less central, once a new self takes its place. So it will naturally sell you the story of how it’s the end-of-the-line, how it’s the one! It’s the best version of you that you can be.
Recognizing this as story, rather than truth, apart from bringing awareness to the self-as-is, trying to uncover its hidden structure, are two important techniques to propel our own growth. Only in combination with this ground-work, with this inquiry into self and into core beliefs, does it makes sense to seek out transformative experiences for real growth, rather than just glimpses – whether that be psychedelics, extreme sports, travel, fasting, retreats, breath-work or any other powerful, spiritual adventure. And while they can be interesting for many reasons, with this ground-work and a few other internal technologies these experiences can become entirely unnecessary.
Accelerating our growth doesn’t necessarily mean flinging ourselves up the ladder. We can learn how to climb more efficiently by gaining a better and better understanding of how change really happens, what prevents it, what it looks like when it has happened etc. and getting a better understanding of the reality that this evolutionary change is either a part of or creates – depending on how you want to look at it.
I hope these few paragraphs have given you a bit of each.