When any of us gets ready to "hatch out" into the next developmental expression of self, we begin looking for the cocoons that will hold us through the rebirth process. I like to call these cocoons transformational spaces--environments made up of webs of special kinds of relationships, safety, freedom, and challenge. We intuitively search for these spaces at those times in life when we're attempting to align with an internal developmental thrust. At these times of growth, we seek out "training environments"--schools, college, the army, a mentor, a psychotherapist, or a spiritual community. The transformational spaces we choose have certain qualities that are essential to work of development. Without them we truly cannot find ourselves. Effective transformational spaces create the conditions for our growth and make growth all be inevitable. Once we find them and commit to them, transformation is pretty much a "done deal." But here's the rub. Many environments proclaim themselves to be transformational spaces. But many of these fail to provide the real conditions needed for maturation. Effective transformational spaces do not have to be explicitly spiritual or explicitly psychological. Authenticity may require that we discover a completely nonspiritual, nonpsychological language to facilitate our "hatching out." But whether spiritual, psychological, or otherwise, really effective transformational spaces have certain qualities in common.
1. They create a quality of refugeThese environments are temporary safe havens from the ordinary demand that we must know what we're doing, or who we are. We are allowed and even encouraged to have "don't know mind." As Socrates taught, "the beginning of wisdom is the acknowledgment of our own ignorance." We are encouraged to empty ourselves of our posturing, of being the "one who knows," so that we can fill up with a new kind of knowing. Those all too ubiquitous training grounds that encourage "don't know mind" only to impose a whole new system of beliefs do not qualify. They only complicate the process--or worse.
2. They create safety through constancy in relationship.In these environments, a special relationship is created between a mentor or teacher and a student, in which the mentor is constant, reliable, and nonreactive to the student. In this safe relationship, the student, patient, trainee is allowed to reveal and experience not only the parts of herself that are already owned and acknowledged, but also the parts that are currently hidden and disowned. The mentor provides a reliable and constant emotional homebase for the student, and as new aspects of the true self emerge in the safety of this relationship, it is the profound intimacy in the sharing of these discoveries that promotes maturation.
3. They encourage creativity and experimentation.These environments promote "out of the box" thinking. Trying on new ways of being, recombining and reorganizing parts of the self, and experiencing intense feelings and sensations previously denied to the self are encouraged. The daily activities of life are seen as a stage on which to act out the drama of human development and maturation. Attachment to the outcome of these activities is less important than the process. In spite of this, the products of these training environments are often well produced as well as remarkably innovative.
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.