The Edge Where Change Happens

Change happens in a narrow zone between chaos and rigid structure. In psychotherapy and analysis where we hope to find help for better ways of dealing with our problems in living, the good therapist or analyst unsettles us enough to move us out of our stuck places (the inflexible status quo), but doesn’t plunge us into intolerable confusion (structure-less chaos). When we are able to stay long enough in that uncomfortable, disorganized emotional zone between inflexible form and panicked anarchy, some better way of dealing with our problem begins to emerge.

Human consciousness is psychologically conservative: whatever our emotional and behavioral habits may be, a part of us wants to preserve them. Whether wild or tame, whether our habits serve us well or ill, the prospect of change – even the vision of change “for the better” – means altering our patterns. The pious “I’d like it to be different” means very little if we cannot face the short-term discomfort that comes with entering the zone of change.

What signals the need for change in our lives? Obviously, when we have “hit bottom” and can’t stand what we are, we may be ready to face what we have been trying to avoid, medicate away, or blame on others. Of course there are less emphatic signals that all is not well with the organism that each of us is. Physical ailments for which our physician can find no organic or metabolic cause suggest that the body is trying to tell us something we have not otherwise noticed. Since the body does not tell lies about itself, yet we suffer physically for no medically identifiable cause, we need seriously to consider that we have been consistently missing or misreading other signals: for example, enduring situations, conditions and / or relationships that do not suit us; engaging in activities that regularly leave us feeling dissatisfied, depleted, or exploited; neglecting to explore repeated unsettling dreams; and innate potentials that are calling for attention and cultivation.

In earlier editions of the Ommani Jewel I have written wrote about adaptation. Adaptation, I have pointed out, means finding the optimal fit in two ways. “Outer adaptation” means finding the optimal manner to live in the world where we actually are. This involves the people we live and work with, the community we reside in, as well as the mood and tenor of the larger society.

“Inner adaptation” calls attention to what we actually are and potentially can become: our physical constitution and body, our life-long likes and dislikes, the abilities and skills we have developed, those that are now calling for our attention, and even more. This is where inner adaptation becomes more of a challenge. That “more” embraces the emotions, fantasies, day-dreams and night dreams, and the thoughts – all that comes unbidden into our consciousness. 

The challenge is a balancing act: what is optimal in terms of adapting to the world and what is optimal in terms of adapting to what I actually am and to what intrudes on my waking consciousness? And this puts us in that a narrow zone between chaos and rigid structure. There are two additional pieces of information we need to know to make sense of this balancing act.

  • First, the psyche-body that each of us is attempts to maintain a dynamic balance among all the systems and levels of systems. We know this at the physical level, for example, in terms of thirst as the signal that the organism needs hydration, or sleepiness telling us that we need rest. An upset GI tract may be informing us that we ingested something unsuitable and noxious. Dreams can address many dimensions of our existence, offering information that is important in maintaining or restoring a balance that we have lost. 
  • Second, each of us is, so to speak, a seed that is programmed to develop into a full-grown plant. Each of us comes into this world gifted with a variety of talents or endowments that press for actualization. We may have a hunch or an inner image of what we could be if we could grow to full stature. We recognize these innate gifts as inclinations, interests and fascinations. Part of inner adaptation means developing these potentials. The world around us may embrace and celebrate some of our innate gifts and support our developing them. However, some of our gifts do not look like gifts to the people we grow up with or later live with. This marks the threshold where we may enter the narrow zone between chaos and rigid structure. 

How vigorously do we press on? Where do we call a halt? To whom do we defer? And for how long? How much can we stand to be at odds with the world around us (in terms of our outer adaptation), and how much of what’s urging and pressing and nagging “from inside” do we stifle (our inner adaptation)? What balance works for us? And at what price?

Here we stand at the edge where change happens. Or doesn’t happen. Here we make our choices – not necessarily the best choices we know but the best we are capable of making at the time. And we live with the consequences until we feel or are pushed again to that edge where change can happen. 

Every innate potential in us can be a gift to the world if we have the courage to develop it. With every step in development we challenge our status quo and timidly or boldly step into that zone between rigid structure and structure-less chaos where change happens.

In a book I have recently been reading, the author writes about the value of pain. He writes, “There is nothing to prompt learning like pain and necessity ….”* The pain comes when new information we had not taken into account or even been aware of stretches our consciousness (which never encompasses all that already exists in some form somewhere). This pain offers the possibility for change and, potentially, more adequate adaptation to the world outside us and / or the world inside us. 

We don’t have to invite pain. Life takes care of that. But when we can discover how our pain is attempting to stretch and “grow” us, we are on the edge where change happens.

* Principles, by Ray Dalio