By David Brenner
People sometimes smile when I tell them that I work as a transformational coach. I think I understand why the notion of trying to facilitate transformation might seem laughable. If such things as eating less or exercising more are as notoriously difficult as most of us realize, what hope could there ever be for the sort of quantum change that is implied by the notion of transformation? Perhaps the cynicism of the fable of the frog and the scorpion is justified.
One day, a scorpion wanted to cross a river. However, he couldn’t swim. Seeing a frog sitting on the bank, he asked the frog to carry him across the river on his back. The frog refused. “I don’t trust you,” he said. “I know how dangerous scorpions are. If you get on my back, you’ll sting and kill me.” The scorpion answered, “Why would I do that? If I sting you, we’ll both drown.” “But how do I know you won’t kill me when we get to the other side?” asked the frog. The scorpion replied, “I would never do that because I will be too grateful for your help to ever sting you.” After thinking about this for a minute, the frog agreed to let the scorpion get on his back. He began swimming, gradually feeling safer and safer, even starting to think he had been silly to worry. But, halfway across the river, the scorpion suddenly stung the frog. “You fool,” croaked the frog, “Now we will both die! Why did you do that?” The scorpion answered, “Because I’m a scorpion. It’s my nature to sting.”
The possibility of changing human nature seems equally unrealistic, as does the possibility of changing the basic framework of our personality. We all go through life dealing with a small number of very personal struggles, vulnerabilities, and besetting predispositions, and nothing short of death seems to fully deliver us from them.
Transformation occurs at a quite different level of our being. The seat of transformational change is consciousness. Fortunately, profound changes in consciousness subsequently lead to profound changes in identity, which then tend to ripple out into other dimensions of our being. Changing the platform from which we view and experience life is very powerful and that is the reason consciousness lies at the heart of transformation.
Normal Waking Consciousness
To understand the way in which we can facilitate the transformation of consciousness, we must first briefly consider normal waking consciousness. We can get a snapshot by noticing what is going on within us as we prepare to fall asleep. Most people first become aware of thoughts: of the present and recent days, about upcoming events, about their feelings, about their bodies, and much more. Thoughts keep us awake at night and also, paradoxically, keep us from truly awakening. In both cases, this reflects our attachment, not so much to specific thoughts as to normal waking consciousness.
Paying attention to the contents of consciousness might, of course, make us aware of other things beyond thoughts. We might, for example, notice a song or fragment of music that is part of our waking consciousness, or perhaps it is pain or anxiety that lurks on the edges of awareness. But, once we notice these sorts of things, we tend to create thoughts about them. Consequently, thoughts remain central to waking consciousness for most people.
But notice I speak of becoming aware of thoughts and other things. Thoughts are not awareness. They arise from awareness. Awareness is presence to what is. Thoughts are what the mind creates to express what seems to be. They are our judgments about the things that arise in awareness. This is why thoughts create duality. Awareness is non-dual, like the ocean. Thoughts are like the ocean’s waves—ripples on the surface of the whole.
Thoughts are mental construals that point toward reality. Sadly, however, we easily confuse them with reality. All thoughts and words are but fingers pointing to the moon. Unfortunately, most people confuse the moon with the finger and never get around to directly experiencing the reality behind the words. This is why meditation offers tremendously important help in cultivating ways of softening our attachment to thoughts, something that is essential if we are to experience authentic transformation.
The Transformation of Consciousness
Transformation of consciousness involves much more than the mere production of an altered state of consciousness. That is relatively easy to do since we cycle through such states on a daily basis. By transformation, I mean an enduring expansion of consciousness that expresses itself in increased awareness; a broader, more inclusive identity; and a larger framework for meaning-making. Together, these things result in a changed way of experiencing and being in the world. This is what I would call really deep change.
Make no mistake about it: Transformation is a serious threat to institutional religion—Christianity certainly included. The release of control that is essential if a community is to genuinely support—not just talk about—transformation is seriously subversive to the maintenance of communities built around belief and belonging. Transformation does require communal support, but that support must be free of constraint. This is why, as Richard Rohr notes, most religion is more tribal than transformational.
Before looking at how we can genuinely support transformation, let us go back for just a moment to normal waking consciousness. Recall the central place thoughts have in it. This is why it is common to describe the default level of consciousness as mental. The primary contents of consciousness—thoughts—are products of the mind. But also, noticing how self-referential most of these thoughts typically are tells us how egoic this level of consciousness-development is. Our background preoccupation reflects our small ego-self. We may talk, think, write, and teach about the larger horizons of the unfolding self, but it is deceptively easy to do so from the egoic, mental stage of consciousness development.
Thankfully, this is not the only way in which consciousness can be organized. Consciousness can be transformed and its deep center can shift from our minds to our hearts. There is much more involved in transformation, but this shift from our heads to our hearts brings us to the heart of the process.
In the wisdom tradition, the heart is understood as the fullness of the mind. Its resources include, but are never limited to, the mind. It contains a range of other subtle, usually underdeveloped faculties such as imagination, intuition, and symbolic communication. The heart senses wholes, “gets” poetry and art, and gives us our expansiveness—stretching out beyond our individuality to connect us to the very heart of the universe. Unlike ego, the heart doesn’t perceive by differentiation, but by means of its inherent resonance with alignment, oneness, harmony, proportion, and beauty. The egoic mind creates and thrives on dualism. The heart throbs with resonance to the integral wholeness that exists in and beyond itself, and to which it calls us.
Heartful Ways of Facilitating Transformation
Nothing arising from within the egoic self can be of much help in facilitating transformation. No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. This is the limitation of trying to facilitate transformation through books and lectures that primarily engage the mind. No matter how much you speak of the heart, if you are speaking to the mind it will never be received in a truly transformational way. Speaking to the mind simply reinforces attachment to the mind and normal waking consciousness.
Awakening always starts with the heart. The mind may experience insights but, unless this leads to the awakening of the heart, insights will never be truly transformational. Responding to an awakening with openness and emptiness is a heartful expression of consent to the transformational action of Spirit within our depths.
A Sufi story succinctly describes the role of awakening in transformation:
Disciple: What can I do to make myself enlightened?
Teacher: As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.
Disciple: Then of what use are spiritual practices?
Teacher: They help ensure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.
There is nothing we can do to engineer either the awakening or transformation. Our role is simply to respond with consent to the invitations to awakening that life brings us. We offer this consent through our openness and emptiness. This seems totally counter-intuitive to the egoic mind, which focuses on creating and maintaining fullness as a defense against the unbearable lightness and emptiness of being. But it is the path to transformation. The heart thrives in the spaciousness of emptiness and invites us to let go of all the things that fill us up and weigh us down.
Silent retreats have played an important role in Christian spiritual formation and transformation for two millennia. We see this prizing of silence in Jesus’ proclivity for regular times of wilderness retreat, and in the Desert Fathers and Mothers followed him into the deserts of Egypt and Syria a couple of centuries later. Many of us have followed this call to embrace silence and discover the disruptive way in which it forces us out of normal waking consciousness. It is not uncommon for this level of disruptiveness to reach such intolerable levels among first-time retreatants that some feel forced to escape the distress by leaving the retreat. Those who stay differ from them, not by an absence of the disruption, but by their consent to the invitation of Spirit to step into the liminal space that silence evokes.
Sadly, silent retreats have increasingly given way to teaching retreats with blocks of silence, and these have then given way to teaching conferences with pauses to stretch your legs so you can continue to fill yourself up with content. Silence should not be seen as emptying that is intended to make you more available for subsequent filling. Silence is emptying. Only this prepares you for transformation. Engaging silence in this way requires skillful accompaniment. This is the important role of a spiritual guide in a directed retreat.
Clearly there is great potential value in teaching, with or without silence. But information broadcasting is not in itself transformational and new information is far from necessary to make use of silence. In fact, information usually contaminates the field by being, at best, a distraction and, at worst, diminishing the transformational potential by reinforcing ordinary waking consciousness. Silence and solitude prepare us for transformation by opening access to the heart that simply is not available in normal waking consciousness.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family and church that introduced me to the importance of daily periods of silence before God and regular periods of more extended retreat. Unfortunately, however, I quickly found a way to defend against their transformational potential. Because my attachment to my thoughts was so strong, I was very happy to use silence as time for thinking. This, of course, simply strengthened my egoic self.
I am sure I also could have successfully sabotaged my engagement with the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, but it was the central role of the imagination that made it such a turning point in my life. I was aware of the potential disruptiveness of work with the imagination and, because of this, had resisted engaging with the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises for many years—even after my wife, Juliet, completed her training as an Ignatian spiritual director. I told her that I suspected I’d fail at anything that put so much emphasis on the imagination. She smiled and told me that was precisely why I needed to engage them—when I was ready!
When I was ready, by far the most powerful part of the experience was the daily imaginal conversations I had with Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and other figures in the Gospel stories. It was during a conversation with the young child Jesus that I had the most powerful awakening of my life. In the midst of our conversation, I suddenly heard three words: “Withdraw from love.” The words had nothing to do with the conversation I was having with Jesus, nor with anything I had been consciously thinking about, but instantly I knew what they meant.
They pointed to resentment I had first felt at age four when I suddenly had to share my mother with a new baby brother—a resentment of which I had no previous awareness, despite years of dream- and other forms of soul-work and personal psychotherapy. They also nailed my way of defending against my resentment by withdrawing from my mother’s freely given love, choosing instead to work toward earning her respect. This wasn’t merely an insight.
It moved quickly from my mind to my heart in an awakening that eventually led to profound changes in my consciousness and life.
Ignatian spirituality is not the only Christian tradition that makes use of the imagination. Nor is the imagination the only way to get out of the mind and into the deeper regions of the heart. Anything that causes even momentary disruption to ordinary waking consciousness has the potential to be a portal through which a person may receive invitations to awaken.
One feature of the heart that makes it particularly threatening to the mind is its subjectivity. From the perspective of the egoic mind, the heart is a messy soup of fuzzy-mindedness that cannot be trusted because it can’t be engaged with objectivity. Nowhere is this felt to be truer than with intuition.
All of us know something of our intuitive capacities, but most of us have been sufficiently discouraged from trusting them that they remain seriously underdeveloped. Yet the value of intuition lies precisely in the fact that it is so different from reason. It should never be expected to replace careful thought. But, when disciplined by deepening connections between head and heart and engaged with discernment, intuition offers a tremendously important way to access deep wisdom.
One of the ways I teach people to engage with and eventually trust their intuition is by encouraging them to pay attention to their subjectivity. Usually, when I address groups, I suggest that, instead of listening primarily to my words, they should attend principally to the movements within their hearts as their minds process what I have to share. Some people refuse to do this because they are afraid they will miss something important.
It is just too hard to believe that what they most need in the moment will be heard without effort, and that paying primary attention to their subjective experience will add immeasurably to the value of what is heard because it will deepen their engagement with it. I used to regularly do the same in psychotherapy and spiritual direction, and now make it a routine part of my transformational coaching conversations. I also take my own advice. This means that, in dialogue, each of us is attending both to the other and to our own deep self. And, of course, in listening to our own deep self, we are attending to the One who is with us, and whose presence makes our presence to each other possible.
These are a few of the many available means to move out of our minds and into our hearts. The use of music, dance, and other creative expressions should also be included in any list of such ways. For many years, my wife and I have led silent retreats built around guided engagement with art and poetry. The people who are the most deeply impacted are always the ones who protest that they don’t “get” either art or poetry. That doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they allow those things to open their hearts.
All it takes to facilitate our awakening and transformation is to avoid reinforcing the ways we typically defend against awakening. For those of us who seek to facilitate these things in others what this means is that we must avoid engaging them primarily through their default level of consciousness. Whenever we help people open their hearts, not simply their minds, we bring them to the threshold of awakening and deep change. With that, we have done all we can do.