Torn Open by Life: The Transformative Journey
There comes a time in the life of many, when we are torn open by life. Into our life plan or established patterns arrives a tearing, that upends most of what we know and how we are in the world. The vehicle for this tearing is often unexpected and sudden, although it can also arrive as a slow dissolution.
From teenagerhood, we set about making a life…going to school, trying a variety of jobs, creating adult friends, embarking on a chosen job or profession, supporting ourselves, overcoming childhood traumas, finding/creating a home, running a household, perhaps searching for and making a life with a partner, adding other family members like pets and perhaps children depending on circumstances and beliefs, contributing to the community, and so forth. Each of these adulting tasks have endless permutations from which we choose, and unique challenges we work through.
This life-making can take decades to establish. Sometimes we are not sure of the pathway, the destination, or even if there is a destination. Sometimes, we feel we have not “arrived” yet… feeling like arrival is taking too long. Or we can see some glimpses of elements gelling, just over the horizon. Or challenges emerge that complicate the pathway, draining our energy or shifting our expectations.
Later in life, or underneath this, we are vaguely discontented, feeling there must be something more. We get so busy though, it is easily brushed away. Sometimes we “achieve” all these life-making tasks according to the dominant cultural script. We feel like we did what we were supposed to do, yet arrive to a feeling of emptiness, even a sense of purposeless. We ask: Is that all there is? Is there more?
Into these scenarios, something may happen…often a major loss: death of someone close, a (threatened) separation or divorce, a life-threatening or debilitating illness of self or someone close, an accident of yourself or someone close, a violent crime by an intimate or stranger, a major natural event, job loss, depression or burnout or other mental and psychological distress, addictions, unacknowledged trauma, a significant financial turn, or the need for migration from war or economic decline. Sometimes there are multiple losses that leave us reeling.
A frenetic work pace or work change with its signature exhaustion, stress, and anxiety can create its own kind of crisis, mentally or psychologically, with physical impacts. We can feel fragmented across too many priorities. I have heard folks express feeling strangled or overwhelmed by responsibilities, with a feeling of sacrificing oneself, of losing vitality, of being spread too thin. We may become disillusioned with the work world and/or our personal world. We may have sworn that this would not be where we end up, but here we are.
Suddenly, through one of these pathways, our assumptions about what is good and worthy and how to live, are in question. In transformative learning theory, this is called a “disorienting dilemma” where we cannot find our bearings. The old framework of meaning making is no longer working. We may keep trying to apply our old ideas or valiantly put one foot in front of the other just to survive. Yet, we start to realize that what we thought we knew no longer applies. The fabric that we have woven into a life, often a good life, is suddenly rent, torn… with a rip so wide it cannot be stitched with the materials we have at hand.
I have experienced this unbidden process several times. It is always hard…in fact, it gets harder each time. Profound life questions come to the fore: maybe the foundations we use to make all our decisions are faulty; maybe the values we use or the way we implement them no longer holds; maybe there are burdens, messaging, or roles from our origin families that consciously, but more importantly unconsciously, have been shaping our lives in deleterious ways; maybe the goals we set are not the path we should be on; maybe we are not who we think we are. Yet, into this rending, light can permeate...
Without realizing it, we begin a search, a quest. This may be a quest for health, for wholeness, or for balance. Some may call it a search for happiness, others fulfillment, still others life purpose or even deeper, a spiritual purpose. Some encapsulate all of it as healing. This quest may be only in one or two areas of our lives. But, in the deepest kind of transformation, this quest happens across multiple depths and areas of our lives. In these cases, we do not come out on the other side as the same person. In fact, we may not even look like our old self.
You can choose NOT to embrace this transformative opportunity. Often this is out of fear, worried about losing even more. Some retrench into rigidity where they vociferously defend their existing thought and behaviour patterns, a needed solidity. They may feel unable to unlearn perspectives or let go of illusions, fearing dissolution of self. Some may feel initial resistance, but eventually travel the path. As one person explained to me, if you do not engage the first time the opportunity arrives, life may hit you again and again until you are listening.
When we are finally listening, we enter liminal space, the space betwixt and between. We feel a need to withdraw, even while going through the motions. This can be a form of emotional, physical, psychic, or mental isolation or a combination. If trauma is present, there may be disassociation — a feeling of detachment from self, emotions, or regular reality.
We are distracted, as in the background we are examining core beliefs as well as looking around for alternatives. Symbolically, we move into a descent that involves an ongoing grieving of loss, including the death of some of our illusions. One can cycle through despair, anger, and instability, sometimes lashing out. Slowly, a cleansing occurs of unhealthy meanings and response patterns. It is a deeply reflective time. At the same time, we become receptive to new ideas and possibilities. We may “try on” alternative beliefs, values, assumptions, habits, and identities.
This tumultuous time is made more difficult when it occurs around major holiday times. At this time of year with so many different cultural and religious celebrations, it usually means gathering with family and extended family. This can be a very tender and bittersweet time, gently holding one’s relations, if illness is involved. However, the judgement and advice offered by family members cannot only be annoying but can take a destructive turn when one is in such a vulnerable place. Those we love overstep boundaries or leave no room for our questions or suffering. When one part of a family system is undergoing change, it can be deeply threatening for others, especially if the questioning challenges the status quo, understands reality differently, stretches beliefs, or questions identity. Family will try hard to restore the normal and predictable, even acting betrayed. One needs to find ways to maintain strong boundaries and self protection while holding compassion for the fear behind this backlash.
As one goes deeper into the process, there is an unlearning, even disassembly, of meaning systems. This provides the spaciousness needed for something new to emerge. We come to a place where we need to give up control, surrendering to the process. We are no longer “managing” our life. We learn to hone our intuition, which reveals our inner guidance, rather than leaning on others for guidance or to help achieve emotional regulation.
At some point amid all the ups and downs, we reach the “dark night of the soul” where nothing makes sense. This is the point of maximum instability, where we lose our vitality, energy, and sense of direction. We may sink into depression, darkness, despair, nothingness. With all this stripping away, emptying, a symbolic death occurs. This is the most difficult aspect of the transformative process.
There are several ways out of this place. Some may retrench back to the familiar because fear dominates. Some emerge into a cynical, angry, bitter, mean, or disparaging way of being. Some remain in a distrustful, victim place. Some may do violence to themselves or others.
If one is able to wait patiently and just sit in the darkness, learning to dwell in the pain, we may learn to see in the dark. Space is created for the new to eventually show its face. As it does, we begin to rework our identity. There is a “cooking” process where we digest existing ways of being by breaking them down and reworking them, just like the alchemical changes of a caterpillar in the cocoon or food in a pot. The form changes but our consciousness remains. This can be a psychic dismemberment where a spiritual self is birthed. At the deepest level, there may be a dissolution of ego with all its attractions and appetites in the material world. We learn to trust ourselves. Dreams, visions, symbolic knowledge, synchronistic events, or hunches emerge with wisdom for us. Teachers may emerge, human or other-than-human. Through intuitive and imaginal leaps, we move past habitual patterns toward lifelong deeper intentions. We find our soul’s thread.
Eventually, over time, the new pieces of ourselves coagulate into a new form…transformation means that the form has transited into another form. Mind, body, emotion, psyche/soul, and spirit are refashioned into something more life-giving. Energy begins to flow again and the darkness begins to lift. Hope, vigor, and animation gradually return. We may experience a burst of creativity. There is more openness, flexibility, inclusiveness, and compassion…an emergence into a higher level of self-organization and dynamic balance. At this stage, we may “popcorn” or leap into additional awareness and discoveries. There is often a sense of belonging to a much deeper order, a cosmic order.
From here, we slowly spiral back and reintegrate into society. A growing sense of purposefulness and confidence now trumps fear. There is more fluidity to dance with the challenges, possibilities, and response-abilities. However, as I have found, it is not the end of the “tests” or initiations, constantly inviting us into a deepening throughout our life walk.
This is as it should be…and what myth, ritual, and ceremony have deliberately fostered in past times. Folks like Joseph Campbell and Clarissa Pinkola Estes are only two remembering these mythic stories that follow this pattern. Teachings are also offered through many other ancient stories relayed by Traditional storytellers. Societies who still understand this psychic and spiritual process train some to assist members by creating a safe container, ritualized passage-making, and mentoring.
This has been a traditional task for educators if we move into the deepest meaning of being an educator. The term educere means to evoke or lead out…helping the learner remember the knowledge that is embedded within. One could say the whole life walk is a process of Big Remembering. Education is not only shaping young people into current cultural patterns, although this is part of it. Now, a new educational imaginary is needed for transforming current mindsets and cultural patterns away from death-dealing ones toward life-giving ones.
In this darkest part of the year, can we dwell deeply? Can we wait for the gift of seeing in the dark? Can we embrace the not-knowingness of our future and this historical moment? Can we wait patiently through the dissolutions of self and society, awaiting new forms to emerge out of the darkness?