What is Transformation?

Posted by Karim Hirani, Friday 23rd October, 2015

I recall working with a coaching client some years back. She had been suffering from high levels of worry, both personally and professionally. The symptoms were a constant level of anxiety and her mind was in over-drive through most of her waking state, worrying about things that she needed to watch out for that could go wrong.

We explored the underlying fear of failing that drove her worry. Despite being a very accomplished and successful leader of a government institution, she was unable to see beyond her fear of failing. This was the reality in which she lived, and clearly it had played a significant role in her success. But she had now reached a point, nearing her retirement, where this fear was no longer serving her. As her coach, it felt like a potent time for a transformation in her consciousness.

I asked my client to imagine herself during her retirement, and asked her about the qualities she would like to see if she was supporting someone through a difficult time. She described her future self as wise, compassionate and with a capacity to see other alternatives. She called this aspect her ‘Sage’., and then, as the Sage, I asked her to imagine how the Sage might respond to some of the worries and fears she experienced in her present reality.

At first, she struggled to identify with the Sage and I found her reverting back to justifying her worries and fears: ‘well of course if I don’t hit my target my stakeholders will think I am not doing my job well’. So, I invited her to tell me more about the Sage, describing her as if she was in front of us and asked my client to talk to her directly e.g. ‘You are a wise person…’ We gained a clear picture of this Sage in this moment. I then asked her to sit in the place where she saw her Sage, and to experientially imagine herself as being the future Sage and that I would play her worrying aspect.

Break through!

A profound shift occurred. She responded to me from the Sage with profound wisdom: ‘there is no need to worry, if you don’t hit your target, there are many factors that contribute. It is not just you. You have not failed! You have done an amazing job getting to where you have. If something goes wrong, then you can learn. It does not mean you are a failure. The need to proving your worth is in your mind. Your stakeholders don’t see it that way. They trust you immensely, so much so that you have been given the lead role in this organisation’ We had cracked open a new possibility in her awareness, a profound shift in the way she saw the world that lead to her challenging some key assumptions about her life that had accompanied her throughout her career. The work in the coaching was now about continuing to bring her Sage to life, with cycles of relapse and growth that would continue after the coaching ended. She felt more free with a new found possibility of choice in her life.

I share this example as a means to introduce:

Two perspectives on Transformation

Perspective 1

One of the most profound examples of transformation occurs in nature: the caterpillar that transforms into a butterfly. There are three key phases in this process:

  1. Separation: as soon as the caterpillar is done growing and has reached their full weight and length, they form themselves into a pupa . The caterpillar begins to separate from its old identity and begins the process of putrification where the old structures dissolve – the caterpillar breaks down. Catalysed by sunlight, water, food and in the container of the pupa, the caterpillar is now beginning to make space for something new to emerge
  2. Metamorphosis/transformation/change of identity – the caterpillar now starts to grow tissues and organs of its new identity as the butterfly. The identity has transformed from caterpillar to butterfly, and breaks through the pupa
  3. Integration – the adult butterfly now learns to apply its new found structures and gifts, as it synthesises its possibilities with its new identity

My client had gone through a similar process: she had identified with the worrier for long enough, and was ready to move on. Through the container of the coaching relationship, breaking down the structure of the worrier to see the underlying fear of failure, the old structures started to make space for a new structure: from worrier to her Sage. She had transformed identity in our coaching session. The integration process continued through conscious practice in her life as a leader, just as the butterfly learns to flap its new found wings in its outer environment.

We see this same process outlined in our myths, stories and fairy tales: the Lion King is the story of Simba, a lion cub, who forgets his identity as the king of the jungle, having been lead to believe that he was to blame for his father’s death. The metamorphosis occurs in the moment where he sees his own reflection in the water, and hears the words of his father from the heavens reminding him of who he is, whereupon he embraces the realisation of his identity has the Lion King.

In a similar way, Cinderella transforms into the Princess, the ugly duckling to the beautiful swan, and more modern, Neo, in ‘The Matrix’, from machine to the ‘One’. Their worlds are seen from a whole new level of reality, a more truthful level of reality, that lies in their potential and makes way for a new set of behaviours, attitudes and experiences.

This process of change from one identity to a more evolved identify has been written throughout history. In fact the first texts recorded are over 4000 years old where the process is described as alchemy. It is known in the West as changing base metal or lead into gold. However, the original alchemists were talking esoterically – that the transformation from lead to gold was actually referring to the transformation of human beings: transforming one’s identity to another, more evolved one.

So, this is one way of seeing transformation: separating from one identity, transforming to a new identity, which finally follows a period of integration of the newly transformed identity: trans-form.

Perspective 2

The second perspective draws on Ken Wilber’s ‘3-2-1’ process, which he uses in the context of integrating our shadow aspects (the disowned aspects of our psyche) and applies well to transformation more generally. The process is about integrating new aspects into our consciousness by moving this new aspect from position 3 to 2 to 1.

At first the new aspect is in the ‘3’ or ‘it’ position, in 3rd person: when my client talked to me about her future Sage, she was describing ‘it’ to me as if it was somehow still outside of her personal consciousness (‘it/she is wise…’.

The ‘2’ position, the ‘you’ or 2nd person, is where we create a relationship with this new aspect. When my client imagined her Sage in front of her, describing the Sage while talking to her, we were now bringing the aspect into the 2 position (‘you are wise…’). A deeper and more real relationship was being formed with her Sage, bringing it closer into our personal consciousness. In our session, I could feel that she was creating the possibility of bringing this aspect to life for herself. There was a palpable energy in the room as she talked to and described her Sage.

Finally, when I invited my client to imagine herself as the Sage, she was in the ‘1’ or ‘I’ position, in 1st person. She was talking as if she was the Sage (‘I am wise…’), and this where the break through occurred as she separated from the worrier. She had realised this new aspect fully in her consciousness. She had transformed by moving from third to second to first person perspective with this new aspect. Her body language had completely changed, sitting up with her back straight, talking with a resonance, power and certainty in her voice, and with depth and clarity in her perception. Something had clearly changed in her.

The two perspectives on transformation are linked. The first describes the process starting from the old and moving to new identity. The second describes how the new is embraced into and transforms the old identify. Two ways of describing the same process.

And finally…

What is key to both perspectives is that transformation is not something that depends on the outside world changing: something changes inside and then the view of the outer world is changed. My client’s external reality had not changed when she disidentified from her worrier and identified with her Sage. However, her whole world view had been transformed because the lens through which she saw was now different.

My passion as a coach and psychotherapist is to support such shifts in transformation: working through the patterns that keep us identified with our old structures, thus inviting the possibility of new aspects to enter into consciousness. Transformation can lead in profound ways to fresh meaning, greater freedom and increased choice in the way we navigate our experience.

I would like to end with a question, which may form the title of a future article: what are some of the progressive transformations that human beings go through in their evolution?

© 2012 Karim Hirani


Karim Hirani

Global Head of L&D, Leadership Coach and Facilitator, Author

Karim Hirani is Global Head of Learning and Development, and also works as a coach, trainer, leadership development workshop facilitator and supervisor. He has completed an MA in Integral Psychology and is a trained mindfulness teacher. He has authored and co-authored several books in mathematics.

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