These days, people are tossing the word transformation around and pasting it on everything from baby diapers to “How to Write a Budget” workshops as the latest hypnotic marketing voodoo. The same tired products and ineffectual programs are becoming “transformative” this and “transformational” that, hoping to gain the allure of freshly brushed pearly whites just by adding that oh-so-enticing gleaming star of transformation. The result is that in most cases in which we talk about transformation, we’re actually opting for a hyped-up variation on change, or worse yet, a dull and impotent rendition of it. This wouldn’t matter so much except for the fact that actual transformation–otherwise known as “deep change”–happens to be what we really need.
Owing to my own transitions and subsequent learning in the past year, I’ve been carrying two recurring themes everywhere I go. (1) The need for a clear articulation of the difference between “change” and “transformation” and, (2) distinguishing what is required to have the latter. I point to the metamorphoses of caterpillar-to-butterfly and nymph-to-dragonfly to illuminate both the path of transformation and some of the lessons we can take from their journeys to light our own Way.
As one of the oldest insects existing, the near-mystical dragonfly once darted where dinosaurs roamed at ten times it’s current size. But that was when trees were towering and provided more nutrients, cover and oxygen. Since then, dragonflies have downsized from wingspans as great as 20-30 inches to the more nimble 2-3 inches of today. Though dragonflies almost never walk, they’ve reduced their symbolic and consumptive footprint to a tenth of what it once was in response to the decrease in resources. We have much to learn.
Just as unique as their ancient friends, butterflies capture our imagination as embodiments of beauty and freedom. Their youth as caterpillars are spent doing nothing but consuming everything they can. Their voracious appetites cause them to shed their skin repeatedly, but they just end up bigger, stronger, faster caterpillars. That’s change. In order to complete the metamorphosis into butterflies, caterpillars must create and enter the darkness of the chrysalis where they break down into a kind of genetic goop. Special cells, unsurprisingly called “formative,” direct the actual process of becoming a butterfly. Both the seed and evolutionary inclination to transform exists within. Before that happens though, caterpillars must literally experience partial death and a destruction of their current form as they know it. That’s transformation.
Like majestic Monarchs, if we really intend to achieve the beauty, power and freedom that is our birthright as a movement of people that seek justice for all, we need to go beyond ,or TRANScend, our current FORM as we know it.
Six Ways to Know Transformation
Here are six key points to help you recognize (and influence) when change becomes deep change…when it is transformation:
1. it can’t be undone: it can’t be undone: Unlike change, which can be undone with a shift in context or the swipe of a presidential pen, there’s no going back on transformation. The depth of change that takes place is so deep, rooted and resounding, that the former way of being is no longer possible. Though our prison system may suggest otherwise, the truth is that our current society can no longer bear slavery as we know it. Likewise, while institutional racism abounds, pre-Civil Rights segregation is essentially socially unacceptable. Our society has moved beyond these once common fundamental injustices.
2. it is neutral: As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, the reality is that we can have transformations, social and otherwise, that are neither life-affirming nor progressive. Think war-crime worthy Nazi Germany or occupation & bombing of Palestine. the transformation of those societies to allow heinous injustice to other human beings to be widely and popularly acceptable exemplifies transformation’s inherent neutrality. While transformation can’t be undone, a dangerous new can take the place of what came before without clear intention. The decisive question we must ask is “Transformation towards what?” If we want positive transformative outcomes, we must intentionalize and work toward them.
3. it is rigorous: To the naked eye, transformation often takes place at such a slow rate and on such a subterranean level, it is nearly imperceptible until you’re on the other side of it. But further investigation reveals a consistency and rigor to the process that is undeniable. Deep change requires deep practice. Simply put, we have to stay with it in order to see transformation through.
4. it is whole: Transformation must take place at all levels in order to be achieved. It isn’t enough to transform only ourselves as a slew of self-help and navel-gazing spiritual teachings may profess. People form organizations, organizations become institutions, institutions inform cultures, cultures give rise to whole societies. Through and through, we must weave the fabric of our movement culture with ways of being, knowing and doing that embody precisely how we want to see society transformed: into an equitable, sustainable and just place for all.
5. it always unfolds in the present: Transformation is both path and goal. While it appears that transformation has a beginning and end, we are always somewhere in the process of one cycle of transformation or another. But our current shape, where we are along the way, shows up in the NOW.Not in the past, not in the future: How we are showing up right now is the state of our transformation.
6. we don’t know what it looks like: This does not mean without intention. As affirmed earlier, a strong, aligned intention is not only desired but critical to affecting the overall direction of the process. However, if you can imagine the exact outcome, it’s more likely to be change than transformation because our vision is necessarily limited by our current perspective and conditions. At the point at which we surrender to the process of transforming, even our vision for desired outcomes dissolves into the “goop” which makes room for those formative aspects to direct our emergence into what we will become. So you want transformation, but are hell-bent on control? Um, not so much.
What’s In A Name? Ideally Everything
Finally, I submit that in naming and framing the new social movement that burgeons just beneath the surface of our everyday work for justice from Ithaca to Istanbul, we need a descriptor that embodies the principles of such a movement into the very name itself. More than any other movement that has come before, this one must embody it’s principles at all levels…including in it’s name. Thus we need an expression that is as much the path as it is the goal. A name that is now, not later. One that calls for us to be active, rather than passive; generative rather than prescriptive; a verb (action from inside) rather than adverb (qualified from the outside). The theory and ideas might be transformatIONAL, but the movement and its practice must be transformatIVE.
And more than political, it must be social. Yes, our politics (ways of governance of people,) systems, structures must undergo change–they must be brought into alignment with the values of our heart’s yearning, not our fear’s recoiling. Indeed, our government must be aligned with our deep need for connection rather than our contempt for difference.
But the reason for shifting the political landscape must be in service to the greater goal of shifting our social landscape (ways of being with people,) so that we can change the fundamental nature of our relationship to one another, to the planet, to the world and to life itself through the vehicle of a deep change in relationship to ourselves. In our society and in our hearts, we are still willing to use force–to bomb people into peace–thus empowering our government to do so. This, we must transform ourselves to no longer be able to bear.
I often muse that if the aquatic larva knew that it would one day leave its known realm to take to the sky, it would never, ever go, and transformation would be averted. But it is birthright that calls. In this Way, we have to allow ourselves to hear and respond to the evolutionary and revolutionary call that pulls us inexorably forward into becoming our newly formed selves–personally, politically, organizationally, institutionally, across all society–making room for a vision yet to be seen.
Right now, we must actively, generatively, take rigorous, intentional action towards wholly being that which we envision, and surrender to what we cannot. We must be so that we can become.
In it’s new form, the dragonfly can dive breathtakingly into a precipitous vertical drop, become a mere blur as it darts about at breakneck speeds, only to come to an apparent dead stop, hovering magically in mid-air. For the most part, it’s the sun that dragon and butterflies need to fly…but they need the dark to grow their magic wings. So do we. It is only once we emerge from the darkness that we will dare cast off our hardened shells to truly take flight.
Let’s do the darkness so that we can all fly together.
With gratitude to Robert, Staci, Steven, Adrienne, Zulayka, Claudia, Marie, the New Dharma Community and all my transformative teachers, mentors, students and friends–aKw
copyright MMIX. angel Kyodo williams
angel Kyodo williams is a maverick teacher, author, social visionary
and founder of Center for Transformative Change. she posts, tweets &
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