What Is Personal Transformation?
Mark Thurston, PhD,
We all have voices in our head. Sometimes they shout; sometimes they whisper. Sometimes they make unreasonable demands; sometimes they offer sage advice. One frequent voice says, "You need to change. You need to do better." Maybe that call-to-change makes you feel guilty or uncomfortable, or maybe it inspires you.
The first challenge when you hear an inner voice calling for change is to listen deeply and recognize what kind of personal change would be required. Is it a call to "self-improvement" or a call to "personal transformation"? In order to tell the difference you need to remember that there are two different aspects of yourself: the personality and the individuality. The personality is your familiar identity. It’s made up of your habit patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting. It’s the self that you show to the world—your persona—and it operates most of the time on automatic pilot. At best, the personality will be interested only in self-improvement, little adjustments that don’t really alter your life in a very meaningful way.
On the other hand, the individuality is your deeper, more authentic self. At its core it’s your spiritual ideal. What’s more, the individuality is the seat of your freedom; it’s the home of your free will. Rather than being controlled by habit and routine, the individuality is capable of transformative change. And its call is an invitation to a remarkable new way of living.
Here are two metaphors for personal transformation that I have found helpful. The first is "Building a cube rather than just improving a square." In this analogy, think of your personality as a square—that is, a two-dimension figure. You might even imagine drawing a square on the surface of a tabletop. There are ways to change that square—for it to experience "self-improvement," so to speak—by making rather superficial adjustments. You might make the borderline of the square more colorful or thicker. It could become a nicer or more attractive square, but it’s still a square. On the other hand, the square could undergo a transformative change if it grew into a cube. That means adding a dimension by going up and breaking out of the tabletop. That’s transformational change. The original square is still there, but now it is just one part of something profoundly enriched. Something just like that is possible for your life!
The second analogy comes from physics. It illustrates the principle I call "Transformative change takes an investment, and it takes patience." Consider how water can go through changes as it is heated—changes of state in which H2O can move from being solid ice to liquid water to gaseous water vapor. When a change of state occurs, we have a good analogy for a transformational change. But look what is required. If we start with ice-cold water (32o F), it takes a certain amount of heat to warm that water to boiling hot, but still liquid, H2O at 212 degrees. But to get that water to transformationally change into steam, we have to add five times more energy than we invested getting it from 32 to 212 degrees. That extra investment of energy can remind us of an important fact. Sometimes we have to expend a lot of energy in transformational work before we experience results. And that takes patient, consistent effort. Nevertheless, something is happening even when it’s not apparent.
Perhaps those two analogies are helpful, but the work of personal transformation is still complex and not easy to understand. It’s truly a lifetime adventure. Here are two features of personal transformation that I believe are crucial. It’s issues like these that I will be exploring in future columns.
Values and ideals are the starting point of any personal transformation process. We continually need a point of reference when we embark on deep work with the psyche and the body. Nothing is more important than to have a clear sense of one’s core values, or better yet, a statement of one’s personal spiritual ideal. It needs to be something that really means something to us; it needs to evoke feelings of hope, inspiration, and vitality when we are reminded of it. Then we have a powerful force of orientation when we are moving through the inevitable tests and challenges of personal transformation.
Personal transformation is nurtured by social support. We need each other if we are going to change in a profound way that fulfills the aspirations of the individuality self. Certainly there can be value in times alone or personal retreat. But transformational work depends on making deep, authentic connections—within ourselves and (most importantly) with others.
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Mark Thurston, PhD, is an author, psychologist, and educator who worked at A.R.E. and Atlantic University from 1973 through 2008. He is now a faculty member at George Mason University's Center for the Advancement of Well-Being where he teaches courses about consciousness, meaning, mindfulness, and spirituality. More about his work can be found at markthurston.com