As human beings, we each view ourselves-in-life through a particular lens, or interpretative frame of reference, which gives rise to a personal horizon of meaning. Are we locked into a particular horizon of meaning? Or is it possible to go beyond, to transcend our current horizon? Is it possible to experience transformative shifts in our view? In response to such questions, this page offers an overview of the art of transformative living.
In a nutshell: The art of transformative living is not to pursue transformation. Rather, the art of transformative living is to seek authenticity in daily life. Authenticity here means, the experience of inner freedom as we each seek to live daily life in accord with our values. As we seek to live authentically, transformative shifts will emerge within our view, as and when appropriate.
How do we experience authenticity in daily living? The rock image symbolizes something of what authenticity looks like, in that the colors are vibrant, well defined, and actually draw out the unique shape of the rock. In a similar manner, when we engage in the art of transformative living, the unique colors of our Selfhood are not refined into one wish-washy, murky lifeless state. Rather, the vibrant colors of our Selfhood remain . . . drawing out the overall shape of our uniqueness. Therefore, authenticity does not involve conformity. Authenticity involves Self understanding.
The art of transformative living involves the following four elements:
1. Formation and transformation ~ the ongoing dance of life
Fundamental to the nature of personal transformation is formation. Without formation there can be no transformation. They are in rhythm with each other in the dance of life.
What is formation?
Formation refers to our unique view of ourselves-in-our-world. Authentic formation is like going about the usual business of life (whatever that means for each person) with a sense of identity, purpose and belonging. Furthermore, authentic formation is like being at home in our world, where we experience personal wholeness, communal responsibility, and a joyful humility and reverence for the mystery of being human within a living universe.
Our formation is shaped by our horizon of meaning. Meaning here refers to: a clear sense of identity, purpose, and experience of belonging in the world. As mentioned previously, we all view life through a particular lens, or horizon of meaning. According to Lonergan, our horizon:
“filters all that we see and hear and know and what does not fit into our horizon will not be seen or heard, or if it is, it will be viewed as irrelevant.”
As such, our personal horizon encompasses both the boundary of our view and the lens through we each view our Self-in-the-world.
Personal horizons are not formed within a vacuum. Personal horizons are both formed and limited by the norms, knowledge, beliefs, and values of our families of origin, our local communities, our cultures, and religious/spiritual traditions. Added to those factors are our personality types and traits and ongoing lived experience. Each of the aforementioned elements form and limit the way we receive and interpret information about our world, which in turn shapes the way we take our place within it. Such elements are rarely spoken, so we are unaware that we are viewing life through a particular horizon. We simply go about our daily living. And yet, our horizon of meaning is always operating within us; filtering all that we see, hear, and know.
In line with the above understanding, we humans do not passively receive meaning through our lived experience. Rather, we give meaning to our lived experience through the interpretive framework of our current personal horizon. Without a personal horizon, there is no foundation from which to live meaningfully. When our personal horizon is coherent with our current knowledge, beliefs, values, and lived experience, it offers meaning. Conversely, when our personal horizon is not coherent with our life understandings, our experience of Selfhood is confined and we no longer live with authenticity.
What is transformation?
Transformation involves going beyond, or breaking through and transcending, the limitations of our current formation. Transformation is not to be confused with personal development. Personal development, in the words of Anne Hillman, “is like changing clothes.” Personal transformation on the other hand, cuts to the very core of who we currently know ourselves-to-be-in-our-world.
Personal transformation is, in the words of David Whyte: “the opening of eyes.” The opening of our inner eyes to notice and integrate shifts in our view of Selfhood. What are our inner eyes opening to? Again in the words of Whyte, we are opening our inner eyes to the “revelations of the world.” The phrase revelations of the world signifies our ongoing lived experience. As such personal transformation draws from and flows back into daily life.
Also, in terms of transformation, David Whyte declares:
It is lovely to have a home, habits, etc. but when that beautiful home becomes a prison, when you can’t really see anything out of the windows any more, or anything beyond the establishment you have made for yourself, then it is time to walk out of the door or listen for the knock on the door.
So we humans live with a paradox. Our formation can be both our home and a prison. When our formation becomes more like a prison, are we stuck in that place? No, we are not stuck within a particular formation, for as Bernard Lonergan argues:
Transformation is an intrinsic, ongoing dynamic within human consciousness.
The term given to such an experience of transformation is: self transcendence. Because transformation is intrinsic to human consciousness, self transcendence is available to all. At the same time, because we each view life through our personal horizon of meaning, we will each experience transformation (self transcendence) in our own time and in our own unique way.
Transformation can be experienced as an expansion of our horizon of meaning, in the form of: seeing with a new perspective. Also, there can be pivotal moments within the dance of life which restructure our view of Selfhood. When such a restructuring occurs, it is as if we were: seeing with new eyes; seeing a completely new view. While such pivotal moments may seem like ends in themselves, they are also beginnings; the beginnings of re-formation, as new views are integrated into daily life. Such integration then becomes the basis of our current formation. So continues the ongoing dance of formation and transformation.
2. Personal transformation is beyond our control
Even though we choose to engage in the practice of personal transformation, we cannot control or force the process. We simply choose to remain open to the possibility of a shift in our view of Selfhood; we remain open to the invitation, if and when it arises within us.
How do we remain open? Firstly with an attitude of innocence. The poet, David Whyte writes of such innocence this way:
“innocence is not a state which is meant to be replaced by experience. Rather a kind of faculty, a way of paying attention whereby the revelations of the world are allowed to be heard in their own voice and we are allowed to be transformed by them. It is the ability to be found by the world.”
Secondly, we remain open by paying attention to and reflecting upon our present moment lived experience. Such a practice is in line with Bernard Lonergan’s understanding of intentional consciousness which encompasses the following:
- being attentive ~ to our experience of reality
- being intelligent ~ seeking understanding
- being reasonable ~ making sound judgments
- being responsible ~ making decisions and acting responsibly in our world from a place of inner freedom
We engage in such a practice with the intention of waiting patiently for inner wisdom’s revelation; revelation which is usually perceived like a whisper. To perceive such a primordial whisper we need to be quiet, still and metaphorically lean in towards it.
So we cannot control personal transformation, we simply remain open to the invitation.
3. The pathless path
The art of transformative living takes us on a journey; an inner journey. On such an inner journey there is no predetermined path, for we each create our own unique pathway. Therefore, personal transformation is known through the metaphor of the pathless path. When we consciously engage in the art of transformative living, we cannot see the path ahead. We can however, see where the path has led. We can see the path in the rear view.
How do we find our way on the pathless path? Fortunately many people have travelled this way before. What they have found is that engaging in contemplative practices which assist us to continue to grow in compassionate Self knowledge is, in the words of Anne Hillman:
“like a lamp that lights the way.”
Or in the words of Bernard Lonergan:
“like the internal compass that orientates our inner being.”
So within the imagery of the pathless path, growing in compassionate Self knowledge in response to everyday living is the path of transformative living.
4. Embrace and surrender
There are two particular human qualities which allow us to engage in the art of transformative living. They are the qualities of embrace and surrender: embracing our current formation; surrendering our attachment to our current formation. Embracing and surrendering are connected to the ego, but perhaps not in the manner that one might expect. There has been a shift in the western cultural understanding of the ego.
Transformation (self transcendence), within western culture, was formerly equated with surrendering the ego. Surrender took the form of an individual metaphorically beating their ego into submission through self denial. At the same time the individual would try to embrace egolessness, for within the former western understanding, ego and egolessness were viewed as dualistic opposites.
Contrary to the former western dualistic thinking on the ego, the art of transformative living does not seek to erase the ego, i.e., our unique Self-in-relationship. The intention of surrender within this context is not to disappear. Rather, the intention of surrender is to relinquish our attachment to, and protection of, a wholly separate, solid, non-changing, fixed identity.
So within daily life there is a paradox: we are both a unique Self-in-relationship (an ego) and an impermanent self which is part of an unfolding life process (egolessness). Such a paradox necessitates that we cultivate a robust Selfhood from which to surrender our attachment to a fixed identity. Therefore, we need an ego to transcend the ego!
The human qualities of embrace and surrender allow us to live daily life with both ego and egolessness. However it is not so much about finding the balance between embrace and surrender. Rather it is about recognizing which season we are in:
1. Are we in a season where our current formation holds true? We feel at home in our world, experiencing personal wholeness and the inner freedom to live authentically. If so, we embrace that. We truly live it.
2. Are we in a season where cracks are appearing? Perhaps some new life experience is clashing with a long-held belief, giving rise to a certain disharmony within our inner being. If so, with an attitude of innocence and compassionate curiosity, we may ask ourselves the open ended question: “am I being invited to surrender some attachment?”
3. Are we in a season where our Selfhood is breaking open, giving rise to inner disorientation? Such a season is not one for surrender or embrace. Rather, this is a season to rediscover and reclaim our unique Selfhood.
Therefore, in the art of transformative living we do not strive to find a balance between embrace and surrender. We simply seek to recognize which season we are in.
Cultivating our inner ground
Foundational to the practice of transformative living is our capacity to pose open ended questions within the light of our present moment affective experience. According to Lonergan our affective experience is the “drive and power” behind authentic Self knowledge and open ended questions are at the heart of transformation.
What constitutes an affective experience?
Our affective experience is what happens within us in response to a specific circumstance. Therefore, our affective experience includes that which is taking place within our bodies, our emotions, and our thinking, in response to a present moment lived experience. For example: say I am driving to an important meeting and the traffic seems heavier and slower than usual. In response I realize that I might be late for the meeting. Then my thinking takes flight with statements like, “I knew I should have left earlier!” “If I am late it will make a bad impression!” “Why me, why today?” Perhaps then my body starts to tighten and I feel edgy. I act out of such edginess by impatiently tapping on the steering wheel of the car.
Open ended questions
Even though we pose our open ended questions within the context of our current interpretive framework, open ended questions can give rise to responses that help us to see from a different perspective. As such, open ended questions allow the light of transformational shifts in our view to break through.
The tone of our questioning is important. We can pose a question with a tone of “I need to nail this down so I can get on with life.” Such a tone is not helpful in terms of transformational living. Or, we can pose questions with a tone and desire to gently open out and deepen our Self-understanding. For example: in response to the above example of noticing an affective experience we could pose a closed question with a tone of judgment like, “Why can’t I stay calm when I think I am going to be late?” Or we could pose an open ended question with a tone of gentle curiosity like, “I wonder why it is that I react so intensely when I think I am going to be late?” Then, rather than rushing towards a response, we simply remain mindful of the question as we go about our daily living; waiting for a response to emerge within us.
Of course such an approach of posing open ended questions requires an attitude of patience, for the response may take some time to emerge; sometimes even years. The poet Rilke writes of open ended questions:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
For one method of noticing our affective experience and posing open ended questions see: Contemplative practices/Compassionate Self enquiry
Anne Hillman, Awakening the Energies of Love: discovering fire for the second time
Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology
Kaye Twining, A Beginners Guide to Bernard Lonergan’s Method in Theology
Rosemary Haughton, Transformation of Man: a Study of Conversion and Community
David Whyte, CD: A Great Invitation: the Path of Risk and Revelation
Susan P. Plummer, Ph,D., Deep Change: Befriending the Unknown
Pema Chodron, The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Lovingkindness