Yoga and the Quest for the True Self

The power of transformational space

BY: Stephen Cope


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4. They are organized around "transitional objects" that are constant and reliable

During the process of transformation, certain people, places, or things become highly charged with meaning, and for a time become symbols of transformation itself. These "transitional objects" are present in different forms at every critical stage of human maturation, from the humblest comforts of childhood to the most sublime consolations of old age.

The classic transitional object of childhood is the favorite blanket or special stuffed animal. As adults, we have different developmental challenges, but we still need transitional objects in order to negotiate them.

Marti, a friend in my seminary days, clung to her copy of "The Cloud of Unknowing" for an entire year, reading and rereading it, and practicing the techniques described in it. This extraordinary 14th-century mystical text was a constant, reliable mirror for Marti, in which she could see aspects of herself that had previously been invisible. So subtle and tenuous were these newly emerging qualities, however, that she had to go back to the book, and the practices, again and again. Eventually she began to relax her grip a bit. The teachings were inside her. The little frayed paperback, like a bridge, had taken her where she needed to go. It still comes with her in her moves around the country. But it is more inside now than outside.

5. They do not deify these transitional objects, or themselves.

The best transformational spaces recognize that the practices and symbols of transformation only serve to set into motion and support the normal development of the human being. The glory, as it were, is given to human nature or to God or the soul, and not to the transformational environment itself (or to its idiosyncratic transitional objects).

It is of utmost importance that teachers not be deified. Nothing undermines the potential of an environment to be truly transformational more than a teacher who is seen to be perfect, all knowing, or "the ultimate authority." In the best transformational spaces, even brilliant, charismatic, or truly enlightened teachers are understood to be exemplars and guides, not gods. They may for a time become highly charged presence. This is quite normal. But even these powerful guides are understood to be transitional. They must, finally, set us free to be ourselves.

6. They provide us with a way of finding out who we are.

The best transformational environments avoid telling us who we are. Rather, they support us in finding out who we are for ourselves. They do this by providing techniques and practices that give us full, direct, and immediate experiences of ourselves--experiences not necessarily mediated by an preconceived belief or faith. These transformational spaces are concerned with truth and clear seeing and promulgate not doctrines or beliefs, but ways of exploring reality directly.

7. They do not have to be perfect.

As the great English psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott taught, a good-enough mother will do." So, too, a good-enough therapist, a good-enough spiritual practice, a good-enough school will do. The most effective transformational environments make explicit the view that they are only supporting and facilitating an internal developmental thrust that is completely natural and that only needs to be encouraged in order to manifest.

Indeed, when a group, path, teacher, practice, or community begin to see themselves as having "the perfect way," it is a sure sign that reality testing has been impaired. Though the language of these groups can be infused with a kind of intoxicating idealism, they actually promote delusion and a kind of grandiosity that is counterproductive to the maturing personality. They do not make room for limitations, vulnerabilities, or the dark side of us all.

8. They are open to, and support, other paths to development.

Therapists and spiritual teachers alike often demand that we limit ourselves to one practice. But the best transformational environments support any other learning or self-expressive processes in which we're already engaged, helping musicians make better music, enhancing psychotherapy patients' skills for connecting with self and other, deepening one's faith in one's own religion. We should be wary of any transformational space that claims exclusive right to our time, energy, or money.

From YOGA AND THE QUEST FOR THE TRUE SELF by Stephen Cope "A Bantam Book" Copyright c2000 by Stephen Cope. Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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