Becoming whole

A client of mine recently asked me an excellent question: what is the process of transformation? It was so simple and disarming that I had to stop for a moment before answering; and as is often the way with such things, it provoked an answer that was both inspired and helpful. In this blogpost I’ll elaborate on what I said to her.

The process of transformation is a journey to becoming whole. The way I picture it, each of us has a unique ‘map’ inside us, a guide to our psyche that reveals everything that exist within us. When we look at this map some parts are easy to read and the territories they describe are places we know well. If you’re a caring person, the areas called Empathy and Taking Care Of Others are beautifully mapped and thoroughly explored; by contrast, the parts called Asking For What I Want and Knowing When To Stop Giving might be less clear.

When we begin to know the unique map of our individual psyche, we typically find three things. Some areas are clear and easy to read. These are the places within ourselves we already know. Some areas are completely blank. These are the places we either don’t know yet or we’re terrified of. And some areas are kind of fuzzy: places we know to an extent but aren’t very clear on the map or well explored within us.

This analogy is useful because most of us know what a map is. It’s an image we can relate to and a reference-point we can return to again and again. It reminds us that what we’re setting out to do in this journey of transformation is to learn more about who we are, not to become someone else. And it enables us to say things like “I’m in that unfamiliar territory again – but now I can see some of the paths through it more clearly.”

With this image in mind we remember that the process of transformation is an exploration, something we can often enjoy and take pleasure in. All too often people talk about healing and personal growth as if they’re the most difficult and painful things in the world. While it’s definitely true that the journey can be tough at times – just as climbing a high mountain can be physically challenging – keeping the map in mind reminds us that the essence or spirit of our process is to explore and discover ourselves.

It also reminds us that the purpose of all this ‘work’ is to become whole. Throughout the world, where shamanic traditions arose independently of each other, there were certain common features. One of them is soul retrieval, where the shaman goes with you (or on your behalf) into the non-physical realm to get back a part of you that got splintered off earlier in your life.

In psychological terms this fracturing is called dissociation and is usually the result of trauma: an experience is simply too difficult or too painful so we suppress the memory in order to carry on living. While this is often a necessary strategy and is much better than falling apart, it leaves deep traces in our psyche. When a part of us is splintered off from our conscious self it exerts a profound influence and this is not something we can control.

An example of this is the bullied child who becomes a bullying adult. Ask them outright and they’ll probably deny that they bully, giving a bunch of pseudo-rational justifications for the way they behave. These might seem like excuses but usually they’re not: in very real terms they simply don’t know what they’re doing. This part of them has broken off from the rest of them as a survival mechanism and now controls them unconsciously.

Coming back to the original analogy, this part of their personal map is either fuzzy or completely blank. It’s a part of them that exists but they don’t know it very well (or at all). So the process of transformation is a process of becoming whole and discovering all of what’s inside us. It’s about exploring those parts of the map that are fuzzy or blank and getting to know those aspects of ourselves better.

With this in mind, we might choose a guide to accompany us through a bit of forest that looks particularly dense, scary or full of hostile creatures. Similarly when it comes to the map of our psyche we might ask a therapist, shaman or other practitioner to go with us into the darker, scarier parts of our personal map.

And here’s where it gets interesting! A guide to the forest has usually walked through it hundreds of times and knows it really well. By contrast a guide to parts of our psyche is exploring this territory for the first time as much as we are. Each person’s map is unique and therefore no-one has ever been in your uncharted areas yet.

So a practitioner is useful because they have the right gear and lots of experience in similar terrain. A therapist who’s worked with many sexual assault victims develops an expertise that means the hazards of going into that territory with a new client are more familiar to him or her than they are to someone else.

Two things are worth bearing in mind here:

It’s still your journey. I can’t stress this strongly or often enough. A guide is just that: someone who travels with you through parts of the map that are blank or fuzzy. They should be helpful and have the equipment needed to navigate this terrain, but it’s still your journey and that never changes. If they start telling you something that doesn’t make any sense to you or try taking you to places you don’t want to go, they’re no longer serving you as a guide to your personal map.

You should enjoy their company. Because of the way a lot of psychotherapy works, there’s a residual notion that practitioners should be somewhat blank and have no personal relationship with you while you work together. Having been in therapy with a Freudian analyst who did this blankness with consummate skill, I can definitely see its benefits. At the same time it isn’t the only way. There are many approaches more personal, friendly and relaxed than these ‘traditional’ forms of psychotherapy. What’s right for you in exploring one part of your map may be totally wrong for another part. There are no hard and fast rules here and you’re the best person to determine when and where a certain approach or person is right for you.

Since developing this analogy a couple of months ago I’ve been able to see more clearly which terrain I’m good at navigating and when I’m able to access those places. An example of this is a client who wants to explore certain territory with me but the areas all around that territory are dark and uncharted. Sometimes I can gently work with them to map the surrounding areas and approach the places they want to reach; but at other times they’re better off working with a different practitioner first and coming to me later. And sometimes the reverse is true: they’ve been unable to get somewhere with someone else and working with me opens up the approach to those areas perfectly.

Working with a practitioner is one way to explore your map, but it’s not the only one. A loving, conscious relationship is an amazing way to open up parts of the map that were previously fuzzy or blank: for example, the part called Sexual Intimacy might only be accessible when you feel close enough to someone and safe enough with them to go there.

Similarly, some parts of us can only be reached in groups. Often we are looking to reach those parts of us through the social groups we belong to, and often those groups give us just what we need. But sometimes a held group, facilitated with skill to ensure that we are safe when exploring the scary places, is a great way to map things quickly and well.

Whatever you’re working on and whichever bits of the map you want to open up, I encourage you to use this analogy as a way to see the big picture. Your journey of transformation is a process of becoming whole. Stop from time to time and recognise how much of the map you’ve filled in. Look around and see what’s still fuzzy or blank. And remember that it’s your map – always was and always will be.

May your explorations be fruitful and joyful – and may the tough bits be thoroughly worthwhile and rewarding.

Newman offers one-to-one coaching sessions. Sacred Pleasures run workshops in conscious kink, sex-positive community and whole-hearted living.

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