As much as we might like to think that a weekend seminar and a few breakthroughs will give us a new identity and outlook on life, that’s not the reality of how it happens. Transformation is a process that happens over time, and it isn’t always pretty. Here’s some truth, and a roadmap.
The Truth About the Transformational Journey
In October 2015, I discovered an article that spoke to me as I was emerging from the trying times of post-concussion syndrome. I wrote a piece to articulate how it resonated. And then it sat, languishing in my WordPress drafts. As I went through my unpublished drafts, I opened it and realized that not only is it still applicable; it is more applicable today.
I’ve updated it and edited it slightly but didn’t change too much. It’s time to share it.
The 3-Step Process of Transformation
Societies develop rituals to mark the transition from one state to the next – from childhood to adulthood, for example, or from being single to being married – and they involve three stages. The first is separation, a symbolic break with the past. The last is incorporation, re-entering society with a new identity. Between the two comes the crucial stage of transition when, having cast off one identity but not yet donned another, you are remade, reborn, refashioned.
This perfectly encapsulates my journey after my brain injury in 2015 as well as the bigger picture arc of the 3 years since then.
Where the journey starts
The journey starts with a shakeup that gives us reason to question who we are and why we are here.
For me, it began on that cold winter night in 2015, as I lay in the dark with a bleeding head.
I made no grand bargains to keep my life. I was at peace with what I had done in my life. I wasn’t perfect, and I hadn’t changed the world, but I knew I had made a difference in the lives of individuals. I left it in God’s hands. If it was my time, then I was ok with that.
I thought that night was the darkness. I thought that night was the test of my faith.
And then the morning came.
In the days and weeks and months following I began to wonder: why am I still here? What’s my purpose? What remains unfinished?
This is when the real darkness set in. And this was when I learned that faith can have no borders.
Stage 1: Separation + Personal Excavation
First, we need to separate from others. Not to be separate or apart, and not out of ego, but to become whole within ourselves first. To shed the layers of masks that have been obstructing our core, so that we can discover who we are and find our authentic voice.
I called the period of my post-concussion syndrome my period of “personal excavation” because it reminded me of what happens in the building process of a new building.
In my life in NYC, both as a resident and as a real estate broker, I see a lot of buildings get demolished and new buildings rise in their place. In 2011, I lived through this process as the building across the street from me was torn down and eventually rebuilt.
The Building Process
When a building is demolished, the ground underneath is excavated before the new building is built. Many of my clients get concerned about “construction noise,” but the truth is that the excavation noise is the worst. The destruction of the old building was painless. Then the excavation started.
For months, I could hardly be in my apartment because the jackhammers were blasting through the foundation and the bedrock. The excavation was the loudest and most disruptive part.
Only after the foundation was excavated could construction begin on the new building. Construction wasn’t loud or disruptive, it just took time.
This is what personal growth looks like
I’ve come to see the personal growth process as a mirror of the building process. Just like a building, to rebuild ourselves we first must excavate. You cannot build a new identity on a cracked or unstable foundation.
I realized in my process I needed to dig down—not just to the foundation but to the bedrock beneath. I needed to pull up every rock and slab of concrete and search for the cracks in the foundation of my identity.
Without this work, my new identity would be built on a damaged foundation; the new structure would be destined to crumble.
* * * * *
Stage 2: Transition + Rebirth
In our formative years. we are made and fashioned under the influences of our parents, teachers, communities, and culture. We are like the baby elephants being trained for the circus: tied to a stake and told we cannot break our chains. We inherit a set of beliefs, fears, and desires that may not even belong to us.
The path of spiritual and personal growth offers us the opportunity to reshape our identity — to rebirth ourselves — without those influences. We can choose new beliefs and desires. We can alchemize fears and doubts.
This requires us to dampen the forces that seek to influence us. This is often difficult and often scary. It triggers fears of missing out, of not knowing, of being “out of touch” (both literally and metaphorically), of being disconnected from others in order to connect to ourselves.
Divorcing from the Outside Influences
In 2015, as I struggled with post-concussion syndrome, I took a 4-month hiatus from all social media. This break changed my relationship with technology and outside influences. In the time away, I could see more clearly just how much my life was influenced by social media. Even when I wasn’t posting online or checking my feeds, I was thinking about what I would say, composing status updates in my head. I noticed how much it prevented me from being in my actual experience.
That 4-month break primed me for full year break I took from Facebook. Even after rejoining the online world, my participation online had changed. A friend’s sudden death and the impending election were key factors in my decision to retreat. I needed more time away to divorce the external influences.
Removing myself from the influences of “fake news” — not just the actual fake news articles, but the fake news of friends’ status updates and projected images —allowed me to find the path to return to myself.
The transition takes time
We tend to think that when we find ourselves lost and wandering in the desert of our lives, we are adrift. It’s actually the opposite: this is where the transformation happens.
The Jews were wandering the desert for 40 years before God brought them into Israel. They had to learn to have faith. And they had to summon that faith in their darkest moments.
We, too, must accept that we may—and likely will—get lost on the way to finding our path. We will be wandering in our metaphorical desert. This time of wandering is not laziness or slacking, it is necessary to growth. This is where the rebirth will happen.
As Sacks writes,
The desert was the space that made transition and transformation possible. There, in no-man’s-land, the Israelites, alone with God and with one another, could cast off one identity and assume another. There they could be reborn, no longer slaves to Pharaoh, instead servants of God, summoned to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Through this lens, the wilderness is central to the concept of transformation and being reborn. The desert is not where you are drifting and lost; it is where you are creating space to hear the guidance that will give you direction.
In the desert, there is no nature. Instead there is emptiness and silence, a silence in which one can hear the unearthly voice of the One-beyond-the-world. As Edmond Jabès put it: “The word cannot dwell except in the silence of other words. To speak is, accordingly, to lean on a metaphor of the desert.”
When I had to shut off my screens in the weeks after sustaining a concussion, I was in a desert.
No email. No social media. No books. No podcasts. No music. Just me and the deafening silence.
In the past, I had moments when all I wanted was to find some peace and quiet. Suddenly I had it, and I wanted to run from it.
Be careful what you wish for.
We must steel ourselves through faith.
Faith that the Divine will give us insight into our purpose in this world, and direct us to where we need to be.
With that faith comes the mandate to listen for the Divine call and take action as necessary.
To listen requires creating space.
We must get comfortable to be in the silence, in full presence.
It is not enough to hear the sounds; we must actually listen for the whispers that call our name and deliver the messages.
Listening happens not in the mind and not with the ears, but in the heart.
To sit alone in the silence and be with myself was scary. The space, rather than feeling open and inviting, felt like a dark abyss. It was uncomfortable.
Once I had space, I realized why I was always too busy to create space for myself. To be alone with your thoughts in the space is not enjoyable. It’s terrifying. When you create space, your shadows, fears, and doubts come in to join you.
It takes time to adjust to this space and to learn to be with the fears, to be in empty presence. Only when you get comfortable in the space can you open up to hear the voice of wisdom emanating from your own heart.
That’s when the rebirth begins, and you can form your new identity.
* * * * *
Stage 3: Incorporation + Re-entry
The last stage is where I emerge in 2018. Reentering society with a new identity and new beliefs. The “goal” here is to lead with love over dignity.
When love defeats dignity, faith is alive and well.
Dignity carries the weight of the ego. It’s something we try to preserve. Dignity is about appearances.
Faith is not defined by our ability to cling to pre-conceived notions of what is normal behavior. This is not what allows us to represent ourselves in a way that is congruent with our values. Rather, it is our unabashed love and our expression of that love that truly represents who we are. That expression of love often looks undignified to the untrained eye.
It’s the ability to truly act from love and put aside the appearance of dignity that allows us to be fully present in the moment, to hear the call, and to serve in our greatest capacity in our truth.