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In plain English, with a checklist

The aim of the spiritual path is to transform ourselves by transforming our minds. - Matthieu Ricard

According to Google, transformation is (1) marked change in form, nature of appearance; (2) a process by which one figure, expression, or function is converted into another one of similar value.

According to Wikipedia, spiritual transformation involves a fundamental change in a person's sacred or spiritual life... within the context of an individual's meaning system.

Regardless of the context in which transformation is explained, it's described as marked and fundamental change. So how does this change happen in people?

True story about laid back people

Some years ago a good friend, a seemingly athletic and healthy guy in his late 30s, worked at his desk at home - and he worked in telecommunications, remotely, at home and many hours a day - so he sat at his desk and suddenly collapsed. His wife called an ambulance. The ambulance told my friend that sitting at the desk for hours and years without much exercises started showing and would only get worse. The ambulance gave my friend some kind of drug, then something of a diagnosis and was insisting on physical exercise. Not necessarily lots of exercise, but regular daily exercise. Or else.

I remember thinking at the time that silly people learn from their own mistakes and smart people learn from other people's mistakes, especially from obvious mistakes like total lack of physical exercise. I was convinced I was a smart person.

Nothing happens until the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change. - Arthur Burt

So I was somewhat taken by surprise when earlier this year, in the middle of the night, I was walking in the corridor and collapsed. My spine refused to hold me upright (quite a terrifying feeling by the way), I was on the floor and thinking two things in parallel: firstly, which way to crawl - to my husband's bedroom or my son's bedroom, and secondly, that obviously I wasn't as smart as I thought. Then I realised that the slightest movement caused terrible pain, so crawling wasn't an option. As I was contemplating calling for help (I never call for help, you see), I heard two people running to me in the dark corridor. Husband and son - in panic and not thinking to turn the light on - started pulling me in different directions, and that's when I screamed and passed out for a moment.

Then we did all the stuff one is doing in that kind of situation: calling 111, talking to the nurse, taking drugs, visiting doctors and starting regular exercise which came with pain and tears. I also heard many interesting things about me being laid back, over-confident and selfish, not thinking about my family and all this kind of thing. Physical exercise is now part of my daily routine, under husband's strict supervision.

This story is about some (many) people, like me, who don't happily and readily embrace change until they receive a strong push and are left with no other options.

Changing my daily routine to fit regular physical exercise was a marked change for me. It required a more thoughtful approach to planning my day, setting different priorities and putting aside my natural laziness. Also putting aside my ego and overinflated self-confidence.

So, what about transformation?

Severe and long-term physical illness (not to mention terminal illness) changes people's perspective on life. Surprisingly, severe and long-term emotional pain can be very dramatic, too, and is definitely changing our attitudes and thought patterns. Both physical and emotional pain may cause spiritual transformation, which is about change in personal values and biases. That's what spiritual transformation is.

Essentially, spiritual transformation isn't just about changing your attitude to a particular situation or a particular person, or changing your daily routine. Spiritual transformation is about changing your underlying values, beliefs and biases on a particular topic or in a particular sphere of life. It's almost like becoming a new person - not totally new, but just in one part of your life.

The difference between a physical change (e.g. change in routine), or a change in emotional reactions (e.g. developing self-control) and a change in personal values is immense. Physical changes are like constant minor repairs to a second-hand car. A change in personal values is replacing the engine in the car. A change in personal values changes our motivation and our mindset, which, in turn, changes our emotional and physical reactions, in specific situations.

Why transform?

There are .. kinds of emotional pain that emerge from our own mistaken thinking. As we surrender that pain, we are inviting into our thought system a guide who will lead us to different thoughts. It's like the song 'Amazing Grace': I was blind and now I see. - Marianne Williamson

I love this: 'mistaken thinking'. It's our unhealthy thought patterns, unconscious biases and outdated beliefs. How do we know they are outdated and unhealthy? Because they don't serve us well any more, in fact, they cause us harm. How do we know that? Through life situations which bring us emotional pain. The more severe and longer the pain, the more deeply ingrained unhealthy thought patterns we have and the more we resist letting them go (hello, ego).

Not only our ego resists change and transformation, it narrows our vision (through narrowing unhealthy biases). The narrower our vision the less we see and understand. It's like having a tunnel vision. What makes our vision narrower?

Limited emotional experience

We can't relate to someone's fear, regret, love and so on if we never experienced these emotions and feelings. Not only that, we'll struggle identifying these feelings in other people or will mistake these feelings for something else that fits nicely into our current thought system.

Even worse than that, we'll struggle identifying these emerging feelings in ourselves. Ever heard stories about people who feel something is wrong with them, not knowing exactly what and going down the negative spiral of depression? Or people who understand they were actually in love years after the relationship went dead? Yes, these are true stories unfortunately.

Unhealthy biases and thought patterns

All men cheat, all women are bad drivers, old people are grumpy, employees only come to work for money and so on. On a bigger scale: life is unfair, people are hostile, bad things happen to me all the time, no one loves me because I don't deserve love, earning money is hard work and no joy.

The reality is that - like it or not - we organise our lives according to our beliefs. Good if we do it consciously. Most people do it unconsciously but do it anyway. If we genuinely believe that all people are hostile, we'll perceive everyone as a threat and fiercely protect our personal boundaries, even when this is unnecessary. This will drive people crazy, the more balanced people will fade away from our lives (no one likes interacting with assholes), and the more aggressive will stay. That will reinforce our unhealthy bias - all people (in my own little world) are indeed hostile.

The greater our emotional experience and the more we question our own biases, the more our vision expands. The problem is that we don't know which of our thought patterns, biases and limitations are actually a problem for us. How many happy people will spend their days evaluating their personal values and questioning their biases and beliefs? The very few with a very high level of self-awareness and constantly focused on transformation. Very very few.

Self-transformation is not just about changing yourself. It means shifting yourself to a completely new dimension of experience and perception. - Jaggi Vasudev

Physical, emotional or mental change, any change can be either forced or willingly embraced before the change has turned into a tsunami where we have little control and not too many options.

Forced transformation

It's like having broken lights in the house which annoyingly work at a whim but we forget to fix them. One night the lights go dark in the moment we need them most; we fall over, break a bone and have an a-ha moment.

Forced transformation comes 'unexpectedly' and hits us like a train. It comes from outside - redundancy, serious illness, divorce, betrayal. We pretend that we never saw it coming, we were too busy or too complacent to see the subtle signs and ignored our inner voice. Our ego told us not to worry, the troubles would go away, the toxic people would magically self-improve and circumstances would put themselves right. If not, surely we would just luckily get away with everything and out of anything.

Forced transformation always brings emotional pain which is strong and long lasting - deep sadness, regret, anger, helplessness. The longer we ignored the signs of the change, the more painful the experience. The more we resist the experience, the harder it becomes. We can pretend the emotional pain isn't there, but it keeps re-surfacing more often until we collapse into our new reality.

The most important spiritual growth doesn't happen when you're meditating or on a yoga mat. It happens in the midst of conflict. When you're frustrated, angry, or scared and you're doing the same old thing, and then you suddenly realise that you have a choice to do it differently. - Najwa Zebian

People who experienced extremely strong painful emotional experiences will tell you how hard it is, nearly impossible, to re-evaluate anything at all, or even think clearly, in this state of mind. You need to live through painful emotions first, experience them to the point where you're sick and tired and fed up. Then bring some balance back into your state of mind before you can do evaluation.

Voluntary transformation

Voluntary transformation is about watching out for the early signs of potential change. Not the kind of change like a natural disaster that just happens and there's nothing we can do to prevent it. But certain patterns and tendencies in our little world that relate to our behaviour and choices in life. The subtle signs of things not going quite right: various people around us are getting more hostile and toxic, dating partners regularly disappearing into the night, spouses not treating us right. Work bringing less and less satisfaction with the impending prospect of becoming toxic in a couple of years. Opportunities get blocked and doors close where we used to have green light.

Voluntary transformation is about recognising that we unconsciously attract people and circumstances that fit our existing unhealthy mental biases and push away those who don't fit. So voluntary transformation is about examining and questioning our biases at the slightest signs of repeating unhealthy situation patterns.

It's not about everything being our fault; it's about making a conscious informed choice - do we want the drama in our life or do we want balance? Not the kind of balance when we make peace with everyone. The kind of balance when we reshape our reactions to the world and therefore reshape our reality.

Voluntary transformation is less painful, more subtle and more sustainable in the longer term, because it's been shaped and driven - in more controlled circumstances, with no emotional dramas - by the person who decided to transform.

Direction is important

It's not just about questioning the existing thought patterns, but deciding on the new ones we want to have. It's not a mechanical process where someone tells us the right and wrong; it's about us being creative and shaping what we want to experience in life.

Do we want more trust? More competition? More love? More adrenalin? It's not about wanting a particular physical 'thing', but instead asking what emotional experience we want in life, what gives us personal satisfaction. Not just dreaming about a career, or a house, or a family. Do we want a noisy friendly chaotic family with honest conversations and laughter? Or do we want a structure d strict hierarchical family where our authority isn't threatened? Or is it a type of family where both partners live almost separate lives and privacy is key?

What is it that we want? Remembering that we change and we're allowed to change our mind on what we want in life. It's healthier and safer to have minor controlled gradual changes instead of plunging into an emotional drama when we forget about control and think about survival.

Transformation checklist

So how do we know if we're indeed going through transformation, or if we're just having a bad year? I say 'year' because transformation is a long process regardless of being forced or voluntary. We can't transform in a week. It can take months and months depending on how much resistance we put on.

You know you've transformed if:

  • You see a particular situation (person) differently. In fact, so differently that you start wondering how could you not see that before. Maybe you were blind?

  • A particular situation (person) that used to cause an extreme emotional reaction (negative or positive), doesn't cause the same old emotional reaction. Moreover, similar situations and people don't cause the same emotional reaction. Particular toxic people stopped being toxic, and some toxic people fade away from your life.

  • You aren't locked anymore in the ongoing mental debate with yourself about why you should or shouldn't do something. You simply do or don't do it without much thought - not because you haven't put thought into it, but because your rational mind now works on a new bias/value which doesn't cause mental conflict.

  • Your appearance may change, not so much because you lost weight, have a new makeup routine or bought a new shirt (although there's nothing wrong with that, too). You now radiate a different energy because part of your identity changed, e.g. how you identify in the world and how you relate to other people.

  • New people start appearing in your life, seemingly out of nowhere. People who are very different from the people who used to be around you. New people with different values and interests, different behaviour patterns, people who treat you differently.

  • You start seeing opportunities in places, things and people that you would never think of before. You become a bit more creative, a bit luckier, with more options. More importantly, your approach to taking these opportunities changes. People notice your new behaviour and you'll often hear that 'you changed'.

Will people notice the new you? Absolutely. Will everyone like the new you? Absolutely not. People who benefited in some shape or form from the old you, won't like the change. People who don't like changing will see your change as a threat to their emotional stability. Will you care? Once you've transformed, probably not so much. Transformation is an irreversible process, a butterfly - once out of the cocoon - can't fit back into it.

Be prepared to meet a new version of yourself every time you shed another layer of old trauma/conditioning/hurt. As you let go, your likes, dislikes, perspectives and interests will shift. Transformation is natural as you travel the road to greater self-awareness, happiness and peace. - Yung Pueblo

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