For most people the idea of transformation is totally compelling: in the blink of an eye the startlingly beautiful butterfly will emerge from the dull cocoon, finally free from all that has held her back and contained her, ready at last to live a new, radiant life.
Somehow we know that the possibility of transformation exists and yet we’re often caught in a ‘not quite yet’ place, frustrated because we’re unable to change as we’d like and yet hopeful that change could be open to us, could be real and lasting.
Surely this is partly why New Year matters to us, why the prospect of making and keeping resolutions and having the opportunity for a new start and a clean slate feel so exciting: a glimpse of our new, transformed self shimmers before us and we are simultaneously hopeful and helpless as we long to reach out towards it.
Certainly the aspiring minimalist in me feels like this at New Year (and the aspiring thin person!). This could be the year that I start living in an immaculate, clutter-free house (where my size 8 clothes hang neatly in their colour-coded wardrobe), but is it really going to happen? Oh, but it could…Oh, but it probably won’t… but it could…
The Magic Wand
We all fantasise about how we can change, grow and develop and long for this change to be instantaneous. We hope for some magic wand – the new miracle diet / decluttering programme / organisational approach – which will enable us to transform today, or at least this month. It’s not that we don’t want to make any effort at all – indeed we may make efforts over and over again to change ourselves – but we’re still suckers for the line that change can and should be quick, can be easy and can be bought.
The Bad News
Although it is of course possible to change many things about yourself, this is not necessarily real transformation. You can lose 75 pounds if you want to, you can get fitter and you can change your style. These things may well make you feel happier, healthier and more confident about yourself once you achieve them – and they are certainly worth putting effort into – but they are still largely surface things and not what deep, real transformation is about.
If you – the you that is inside this shiny new body – still feel insecure, still feel that your value is dependent on how you’re perceived by other people, then there is still far more important stuff waiting to be transformed. (I’m speaking to myself here. Certainly the biggest insecurity I have about starting a blog is that others will change the way they perceive me, that I won’t express myself clearly and will be misunderstood.)
The problems with taking the magic wand approach to transformation (as is often demonstrated in fairy tales when people are granted a wish or three and end up in no better a situation at the end of it) are these:
- We often choose poorly what we wish to change
- We believe that transformation is quick and all or nothing
- We focus on changing external things, but we remain the same – with the same weaknesses, fallibilities and strategies for approaching life
So What Needs Transforming?
You may already have very clear ideas about which aspects of yourself you want to work on, but if not you might find this a helpful exercise. On paper, spend some time jotting down a few thoughts in response to these questions:
- If you could transform how you feel about yourself, what things would you change?
- If you could transform some of your fundamental beliefs about the world and other people, what would make the biggest difference to you?
- Which aspects of your character do you constantly battle with?
- Which deep-rooted attitudes, biases and preferences might it be a relief to let go of?
- Which skills, abilities and qualities would you love to develop?
- Which skills, abilities and qualities do you have already but are too scared to show the world?
- In your wildest, liveliest dreams, what do you want to be when you grow up?
- If you were lying on your deathbed, how would you be most likely to complete the sentence, ‘I wish I….’?
Keep your notes in a safe place, read them through every so often and see which one or two issues feel the most important to work on. We will return to them in a later post.
Two Painted Chairs
Imagine finding a beautiful wooden chair in a junk shop. It’s the perfect size for your room, it’s the right height, it’s really comfortable, it has gorgeous carved detailing on it and, what’s more, it’s a total bargain! Of course you must have it. The only problem is that it’s covered in layers and layers of old paint and it’s going to take a bit of work to fix it.
Option One is the DIY equivalent of trying to use the magic wand: Hey! I want to get on with this thing! I won’t bother with any preparation other than deciding which colour paint to use. Slap it on… The old paint is a bit flaky here so I’ll just gloop it on a bit more thickly… This really is taking ages to dry – where’s my hairdryer?
The results of this kind of transformation are pretty rubbish: the paint doesn’t adhere properly and ripples or peels off; the more paint you bung on, the less you can see the beautiful, carved detailing underneath and although it might look better for a bit, your changes won’t last very long.
Option Two is harder work:
- Gently strip away all the old layers of paint, not using anything so caustic that it damages the wood underneath
- Decide whether or not the chair needs repainting or whether it is best to leave the natural wood visible
- Build up a thin layer of paint or wax
- Leave it to dry completely
- Build up another thin layer
- Leave it it dry
Although this option is harder and more time consuming, the results are so much better.
When we are working on transforming ourselves we can learn a lot from the two painted chairs. It is so easy to take the first approach: throw yourself into a new fitness regime, make an extreme change to your diet, sign up for a course on a whim because it offers the hope of changing your life in just 10 days; but the results of that kind of approach are likely to be short-lived. The new habits will break down quickly and it won’t be long before the old habits break through. You are back where you started, but with a new layer of despair, hopelessness and lethargy painted over the top.
Real, lasting transformation requires an approach much more like the second painted chair:
- You need to see your current position clearly. You require a totally realistic picture of who you are now with all your strengths and weaknesses.
- You have to decide what is currently working for you and what needs transforming.
- You need to decide whether or not you are willing to commit to the work that will be necessary.
- Next you have to gently strip away some of the layers. These may be habits, attitudes, beliefs about yourself and other people – anything which you’ve taken on board and which stands in your way of being the person you truly are.
- Once you’ve got to the stage of having stripped away some of the old stuff, you need to re-evaluate. Perhaps what you find underneath isn’t what you expected. Perhaps the fundamentals don’t need to change very much after all. Perhaps you need to work on protecting and strengthening what you find and work out how to show that deep, inner beauty to the world.
- If you need to build new habits, attitudes, beliefs and skills you have to work at it slowly, remembering that sometimes the long pause while the new thing ‘sets hard’ is important. There may be many periods where you seem to be sitting still and not a lot appears to be happening, but that time may be one of the most important as it helps the change to be long lasting, not peel off in a week or two.
Perhaps the place where this analogy most quickly falls apart is that when you set out to transform a chair it is hopefully a one-off job: you strip off all the paint and then move on to the next step. In the journey of transformation many stages can be happening at once in different aspects, or layers, of your being: it may be that changes you made to your diet six months ago are at the setting hard stage; you are still working at stripping away your tendency to procrastinate; at the same time you are only just becoming aware of your habit of belittling other people as a way of defending yourself from feeling insecure and inadequate.
As well as realising that all of these processes can be happening at once, it is also necessary to know that transformation is cyclical, or more accurately, like a spiral. The changes you make can be real, significant and important, but with deep-rooted issues in your life you are likely to revisit them many times over, each time at a deeper level. It can be demoralising as we realise, ‘Here I am again! Still dealing with my anger!’ but each time we revisit something on a deeper level, the transformation also has greater depth.
Be Being Transformed
I’m not a great one for throwing out bible verses at people, but one I’ve always liked says, ‘Be transformed by the renewing of your mind’. I was once told that a more accurate translation would be, ‘Be being transformed’. I find this really helpful as it highlights that this journey of transformation is a process. It need not be demoralising that it takes time to change, that often we feel like we are failing and not living the kind of life we long for. The important thing is that we are on the journey at all and that we are moving in the right direction. We may be moving slowly, falteringly, and may feel that some of the scenery is all too familiar, but the journey of transformation has begun.
Getting On With The Journey
This has been a longer first post than I had intended! Thank you for reading it and I hope you will check in again some time soon, or subscribe. Over the next few weeks I will be writing posts about a range of creative and spiritual exercises which you can use to help you on your own journey of transformation.