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Real Growth is Scary as Hell
“Every transformation demands as its precondition ‘the ending of a world’ — the collapse of an old philosophy of life.” ― Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols
Personal growth is a funny thing. We want it to happen, but safely. We want to know where the journey will take us before setting sail. But real growth is a departure for the unknown. It is a jump into darkness, a shedding of old skin.
Consider the simplest form of growth, the slow climb up a curve through learning and practice.
Eventually, we reach a plateau. Grinding will not get us any further. In order to evolve, we need to shift the entire curve upwards. This happens when we ‘grok’ something, unlock a new perspective, or experience a eureka moment. Concepts we were wrestling with fall into place and previously hidden patterns reveal themselves. We’ve reached a higher level, though we remain on the same plane.
Consider a third kind of growth, neither improvement of skills nor an expansion of knowledge. Instead, I am talking about growth that moves us closer to our true self.
This kind of growth asks us to leave behind the comfort of our old identity. It makes no promises and offers no reassurances. It requires that we let go of things, of ideas and beliefs, even of people. By definition, we don’t know where the journey will take us or who we will turn out to be. It is simply not something we can anticipate from our current position.
In an old Buddhist story, a young apprentice stands on the bank of a river. As a teacher approaches, the apprentice asks, “Oh wise one, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?”
The teacher answers: “You are on the other side.”
This metaphor for enlightenment illustrates the discontinuity of this step. It is not growth upwards but across. We leave behind our old self and wake up on the other side, in a different world that looks like the old but isn’t. We don’t shift the curve, we lunge across, as if it were a river.
We don’t know where this process will lead us in the context of society. Will we end up higher or lower on the ladder, with more money and status or less? We have no control over what others will make of this new iteration of ourselves. Not only that, we cannot know how our own goals, dreams, and values will change. Maybe we will step off the ladder for good. What things that we currently hold dearly will burn away like mist in the morning sun? We have no idea. It would not be real growth if we did.
All we know is that this path will lead us closer to our true nature. We will burn more brightly, but we have no conception of what kind of flame we will turn out to be.
Another way to visualize this radical change in perspective and direction is to move from two to three dimensions. Suddenly aware of possibilities we couldn’t imagine, we break the frame that contained us. The outward symptoms can look perplexing to others. We change careers or countries, we blow up a business or start a new one, we go back to school or discard our degrees. We radically break with the old.
Depending on how comfortable and settled we are, this can be absolutely terrifying. Everything we have and are, our accomplishments, our relationships, our knowledge, and our belongings, every attachment and every shred of identity will create fear and resistance. Because they are all on the chopping block.
They won’t be taken away by force, they may simply cease to feel important or interesting. Our future self may walk away from things we hold most dearly without a second thought.
Like I said, scary as hell.
Door to another life
This kind of growth is a choice. It comes as an invitation to engage that we either accept or refuse. And there is nobody to make the decision for us.
The invitation starts with a tug on our attention, an undercurrent arising in our awareness. Our intuition tells us we face a chance to engage with the world and set in motion a process that will alter our path in ways we will only understand in hindsight.
This encounter can take many shapes. It can be a door leaning open or a path departing into the forest. It could be a book waiting to be opened, a song to be played, or a tool ready to be picked up. It can be a person glancing our way or a name or place we overhear. It can be anything that lingers in our attention.
It always requires a conscious decision to act. Step through the door. Call the number. Venture beyond the trees. Open the book. Turn the button. Sign up. Say hello to the stranger. Follow the white rabbit.
If we take action, we step into a river whose force will pull us along. Sometimes it demands our full attention. It tests us with rapids and waterfalls, throws us for a loop or two. Sometimes it works on us quietly, in the space beyond our awareness. At night, it slowly recodes our minds.
But once we touch the essence of real growth, it starts to permeate us and work on us, cell by cell, until the transformation is complete.
And one day we wake up, look around, and notice that the life we lived is no longer ours. We changed, but the world has not. Not yet, at least. Tumbling down the rabbit hole was just the first step. Now comes the work of creating a new world that matches who we have become. We earned a chance to refract reality in a new way. Until we meet the next invitation to grow.
Thank you for reading,