Many people are fearful of change, both the expected and unexpected they need to experience in order to live life with greater freedom and happiness. Like the acorn that has to die in order to be reborn as an oak tree, we are all in the midst of being transformed. With that transformation, we can become more compassionate, caring people who offer our unique gifts in the service of a larger whole. Change offers us the possibility of growing beyond our perceived limitations to the fullness of our divine potential.
The mysteries of change are known in every world wisdom tradition and provide us with an archetypal map for spiritual growth. In the book Saying Yes to Change: Essential Wisdom for Your Journey, my husband and coauthor Gordon Dveirin and I outline the three classical stages of change that constitute a rite of passage—for instance, from the acorn to the oak or from the caterpillar to the butterfly.
First, change entails separation from the old life; second, it ushers in a threshold period of not knowing what’s next; and finally, it paves the way for a return to the world strengthened and transformed. So if you’re in the midst of an unwanted change, rather than thinking of yourself as an unwilling victim, think of yourself as an initiate of the journey of the soul, which will bring you solace as well as wisdom.
The Three Stages of Transformation
1. Separation: The Journey Begins. When I directed a mind/body clinic at a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, patients often told me that the day they were diagnosed with cancer or AIDS, they died to who they were. They felt as if they were falling into an abyss.
When illness, job loss, financial reversal, betrayal, divorce, or death of a loved one disrupts our world, our ego identity shatters and we are separated from what was. The human response is fear. At a deeper level, however, a spiritual process is beginning to unfold. The shell of ego cracks, and its habitual way of constructing the world falters. Deprived of familiar frameworks, we are invited to enter the ritual process of transformation.
2. Dwelling at the Threshold: Surrendering to the Unknown. The late anthropologist Victor Turner, who identified the three stages of transformation, termed the second “the time between no longer and not yet.” We have died to who we were, but are not yet reborn to who we might become. We are at the doorway, the threshold of new potential.
When the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt—which in Hebrew means “the narrow place”—they had to wander in the desert for forty years. We all go through narrow places where we’re challenged to let go of old beliefs and habit patterns that limit us. It may take time for them to surface and for us to let go of them in order to heal. The journey across this desert is not one in which we hurry. This is the great unknown where ordeals are faced, allies appear, and the gifts of trusting in and surrendering to a larger divine reality are claimed.
3. The Return: Transformation and Rebirth. The caterpillar who died to itself in the phase of separation—then dwelled at the threshold in its chrysalis—is finally reborn as a butterfly that can spread beauty and inspiration with its very presence.
Our spiritual transformation entails dying to the false-self with its fears, attachments, and need to control. With the rebirth to our true nature, or God-self, we are in alignment with a larger whole and truly support the inner freedom and well-being of all. The strengths discovered in the second phase of our transformation are powerful gifts that we bring back for the good of family, community, and the world.
Whether it’s an unwanted circumstance that happens to us or something that we initiate voluntarily, change is an invitation to actualize the wisdom and compassion that make us both fully human and evident manifestations of the divine. Life, after all, is a journey into the unknown where change is constant. The challenge is to pay attention, heal what needs healing, and grieve what we’ve lost as a testimony to how precious it has been.
Staying faithful to the certainty that we live in a spiritually meaningful reality, we are called by change to authentic trust and surrender. Answering that call, we live in peace, joy, and service right now in this beautiful and holy world.