The Spiral Path of Change

Spiral hedge mazeAll of life, all of learning and growth, all of healing follows a spiral path. We return over and over to a place of pain or suffering in order to master the lessons held therein. Each revolution of the spiral brings us more experience and perspective and skill, so that our path is smoothed and we become increasingly resilient and expansive. This sounds good, but in practice it can be quite difficult.

When we find ourselves repeating old patterns we thought we had gotten rid of, dealing with the same difficult people repeatedly, or turning into a teenager again after spending 15 minutes with certain family members, we may feel discouraged. When we are trying to change our behavior from something we dislike to something we like, or to something more functional from something less functional, it is hard to find ourselves in that familiar, rotten territory—all our hard-won awareness shines a blinding light on our foibles, while our bag of well-earned tools hangs loosely at our side, for all intents and purposes utterly empty. But these are actually opportunities for change, and so we can welcome them.

It isn’t easy to change how we do things. The older we get, the more years of habit we have keeping us in the familiar groove, whether or not it serves us. Those grooves were laid down very early on, when we were soft and spongy. Those tracks can be very difficult to obliterate or alter. But not impossible.

Fear not, and do not dismay. These seeming setbacks are natural, normal, and in fact necessary to the process of living our lives, healing our suffering, and moving along our life paths. If we can accept that we have certain lessons we need to learn, it becomes less onerous when they pop up repeatedly. Comprehending the spiral nature of self-healing and understanding the stages of change can help us recognize our successes and appreciate our own hard work.

First, we develop awareness. We notice that something isn’t right. We aren’t happy in our relationships or we aren’t satisfied with the quality of our lives. We may search for understanding, in counseling or through contemplation or self-study, or simply wake up to what we are doing. This can be a very painful part of the process of change, but it is necessary. If we don’t know what we are doing, we can’t change anything. But at this stage, we can’t usually act differently.

If we cultivate a nonjudgmental observer’s point of view, a friendly curiosity about ourselves, we can gather a lot of information. This kind, detached attitude also helps us avoid triggering the old patterns, most of which evolved out of self-protection. Refraining from attacking ourselves when we see these patterns means we won’t aggravate them further. No salt in the wound.

Once we understand how we get ourselves in trouble, we can choose an alternative, the next stage in the process of change. The general rule here is, “just do something different.” We are talking about change, not perfection. Doing something different is a success, even if it is not pretty or smooth. Learning to excuse ourselves to go to the bathroom instead of engaging in a habitual conflict is not the only strategy we will ever employ, but just breaking the momentum of a negative habit is a powerful experience.

The practice is up to us. This is the third stage. We have identified the problem, the alternative to it, and now we have to actually walk the path. We will not do it perfectly or have fabulous results every time. We will be clumsy and mess up. If we use our friendly awareness skills, we will notice that just practicing—whether it is meditating, thought-replacing, or lifting weights—is a reward in itself.

Practicing anything intentionally engages us with our lives. The more we practice the new action or thought, the less room we have for the old one. We realize that our work is paying off. We find ourselves automatically saying the new words, pausing where we might previously have rushed in, or stepping forward with confidence where once we might have hidden. We start to see that our work in one area spills over into other areas. Just as lifting heavy weights in the gym translates to ease in lifting grocery bags, children, furniture, and other previously immoveable objects, working consistently with our minds eventually brings more peace, more happiness, and less suffering to ourselves and those around us.

Please note that after the third stage—or any time, really—we circle back around to the first stage. There is no final stage where we win. The process never ends, but it gets easier with practice, so we might as well relax.

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ker Cleary, MA, Contemplative Psychotherapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jeremy

    April 2nd, 2012 at 10:54 AM

    The spiral in this case is a wonderful analogy to confronting your pain and healing, and quite honestly one that I have never thought of before. But you are right in that it is exactly the same thing. That past pain is something that most of us must confront over and over again to gain a new perspective on it and come up with different ways to confront that some old problem that we know is certain to appear in front of us again one day.

  • Elizabeth Norwood

    April 2nd, 2012 at 3:17 PM

    I really did love this piece a whole lot. This is a strong message for any of us who continue to battle the same mistakes over and over in life, and we wonder why we keep encountering those same things again and again. It is because we have not learned from them, so we are given another chance to see those mistakes in a new way every time, and hopefully get to the point where we finally learn what we need to do to resolve that. I don’t know how many times I myself have made the same mistakes over and over again and it might take me once to recognize it, or it might take me 42. But somewhere along the way you get a but wiser and see that some things have to knock you over the head in order for you to finally rectify it. It’s a journey like anything else, but well worth learning from.

  • Ker

    April 2nd, 2012 at 7:37 PM

    Thanks for your comments, Jeremy and Elizabeth! I think it can be so easy to blame ourselves for encountering our “stuff” over and over, but really, isn’t that how we gain mastery in anything? We don’t learn the alphabet by saying it through once, we have to tie our shoes anew each day, nobody ever learned to paint by doing just one canvas. If we see it as an art form we are mastering rather than having unrealistic expectations of ourselves, we can enjoy the process more and get more out of it. Cheers!

  • Lynne Rourke

    April 3rd, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    Lovely article Ker! I’ve always imagined life to be like a bowl of spaghetti, loops touching in random places – not quite as elegant as a spiral – but maybe that is just my chaos! I’d like to think that there is a final stage where we eventually ‘get’ something. When we extricate a piece of spaghetti from the plate and devour it!

  • Elizabeth Norwood

    April 3rd, 2012 at 4:25 AM

    Thanks Ker!
    Until I read this I admit that I had always thought of change as this constant long road, never thinking about the fact that it had to be something more for me to keep bumping up against these same old things. Your clarification really helped to bring me to a realization that I had not come to before, and I appreciate that so much!

  • jared

    April 3rd, 2012 at 8:15 AM

    things in the past can be troublesome but sometimes confronting and working over them is the best way to stop the old habit takes practice to get rid of too!

  • Theresa

    April 3rd, 2012 at 5:18 PM

    how about just taking the time to learn from your mistakes the first time? novel concept

  • Ker

    April 3rd, 2012 at 7:50 PM

    Lynne, that’s funny, it does seem like spaghetti sometimes. I’m having spiral pasta for dinner, LOL!

    Elizabeth, I am glad I could help! I am sure you will bring clarity to another – we pass it along…part of the fun of the spiral!

    Jared, yes indeed! We seem to forget we took a long time to form the habits so of course they take a while to unravel.

    Theresa – that is of course a great idea. In my experience, whatever I learn from anything will be needed to help with something else along the way, so it is never wasted!

    Thank you all for your comments. It is enriching for me to hear feedback.

  • Jacqui

    January 1st, 2014 at 7:36 PM

    I so needed to read this today. I always seem to be triggered by family,and had decided to isolate myself for a while so I don’t cause any more pain through my acting out.Good to hear that what I am going through is normal!!!

  • Ker C

    January 2nd, 2014 at 9:11 AM

    Jacqui – I am glad you found this helpful, right when you needed it! Good luck with your growth spiral!

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