Return to Love

Why Take the Time For Self Development

46th Session This week I had the 46th session with a coaching client.  We started our journey together a year ago.  This is the longest I've coached a client - 46 sessions!  What has impressed me with this client's experience has been that it's only been in the last month that more visible break-throughs have been taking place.  I have seen profound transformation in his way of thinking about himself and life and how he's showing up in the world.  He has much more clarity as well as fulfillment these days.

My typical coaching approach has involved working with clients sometimes for a month, most often for 3 months, sometimes for 6 months (all involving weekly sessions).  I've helped people through life transitions, establishing personal dreams, developing strategic plans for business or personal issues, helping them achieve clarity about their strengths and life purpose, defining a new personal faith.  All very helpful journeys, according to their personal testimonies.

But in this case, we've continued for 46 sessions - mostly at his request - and certainly I've agreed with the value.  But significant change has happened lately that has caused me to realize some very significant realities about life growth as it relates to this lengthier journey.  Thought I'd share three of them with you in this week's blog post.

One, personal growth takes time. 

Regardless of your view of God and how God operates in the messy human process of growth, God rarely seems to simply "snap his finger" to transform people.  Pray as hard as you might, growth isn't based upon a magical formula that occurs in the "twinkling of an eye."  Genuine change takes time - it doesn't matter what the personal or relational issue, meaningful transformation simply takes time.

There's a reason why so many spiritual wisdom traditions call spirituality a "journey."  Personal growth is a process, a path.  Even Jesus called himself "the way."  Notice he didn't say "the point" or "the moment."  He's the way.  He's describing the process of spiritual growth - becoming a follower on a path which involves a journey that takes place over time, in fact over one's entire lifetime.  It's as though he's saying, "Follow me.  Watch me.  Consider me, what I do and how I do it.  Walk with me and observe, reflect upon, question, weigh, and wrestle with it all.  Practice what you observe with me.  Learn how to lean into it.  Be a follower on the journey."  Those kinds of experiences don't happen over night.  There's no simple formula.  Personal growth takes time.

Two, personal growth involves developing new ways of thinking.

No wonder it takes time.  Our thoughts create our realities.  In fact, some experts say there is no difference between cause and effect - our thoughts produce our experiences (and vice versa) simultaneously.  What we think, is.  So if we want to change our experiences, we have to change our thoughts.  Our thoughts are the fabric of all the stories we tell ourselves and others about ourselves, about others, about all of life, even about God.  Our stories (what we think and say about all of this) are the sum total of the thoughts we string together to describe what we think we're seeing and observing.  Our thoughts create the lens through which we see life. So if something isn't working well or serving us well in our lives, we have to evaluate carefully and honestly our lens (what thoughts we're stringing together to describe what we think is reality).

And if that lens is hazy or dirty or smudged or cracked, that impacts what we see.  This is why spiritual traditions describe the journey of spirituality as the process of cleaning the lens or even changing the lens through which we look.

St. Paul described this process:  "11 When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. 12 Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.  All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely."  (1 Corinthians 13)

He likens seeing through a cloudy lens as being a child.  When we're kids, our ability to see and understand the realities of life are limited.  Kids have nightmares or bad dreams about things that aren't real.  And many of us adults still have that limitation. :)

I remember having nightmares as a kid about gorillas.  I would wake up scared to death that the gorilla was in my room ready to eat me up.  My mom says she would often awaken in the middle of the night feeling this "presence" beside the bed and when she opened her eyes she would see me standing there (still asleep) but white as a ghost.  Rather unnerving for a parent (not to mention this little child).  A child's ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy is not well developed.  Kids are seeing imperfectly through "a cloudy mirror," as St. Paul put it.

As I've grown up, I don't have nightmares about gorillas anymore (thank goodness!).  But I do have more sophisticated fears that can equally incapacitate me at times and which sometimes prove to be equally fantastical (not based on reality, not true).  My gorillas have turned into fears about my worthiness, my ability to succeed, whether people will accept me or admire me, etc., etc.  I've at times gone into situations with other people completely sure that they would judge me or criticize me because of my past, only to end up experiencing just the opposite from them.  I almost allowed my "seeing through the cloudy mirror" to keep me from showing up in that group which would have caused me to miss out on a wonderful experience.

Kids don't understand the nuances in human relationships - life tends to be more black and white.  Maturation, human development and growth, is about learning the process of seeing more clearly, and sometimes of even having to change the lens because the lens is simply not true.

Notice that St. Paul describes his current knowing as "impartial and incomplete."  But he looks to that time when he will know everything "completely" (fully, accurately, wisely, without limitations that are self-imposed or otherwise), which he describes as the way God sees us.  The point he's making is that that path between those two times (from unknowing to knowing) isn't bridged instantaneously.  Personal growth takes time because it involves learning how to think more maturely and wisely, more divinely.  We have to grow up, to develop.  "By beholding, we become changed."  Are we beholding truth and reality or old "truth" and unreality?  Change the lens to behold clearly.

Three, personal growth necessitates personal patience and profound acceptance.  I'm getting better at giving myself some slack for the lack of perfection in my life.  That doesn't mean I'm choosing not to take self responsibility.  In fact, I'm taking more ownership for my life with all its foibles and dirty lens and my determined responsibility to make necessary changes then ever before.  But I'm learning to give myself more patience and self-acceptance along the way.

One author I was reading this week said that the most important gift we can give ourselves and others is acceptance.  It's a counter-intuitive choice.  Contrary to popular opinion, accepting doesn't prohibit or stifle growth, it actually fosters it.  "Accepting people as they are has the miraculous affect of helping them improve" (Marianne Williamson, Return To Love, p. 162).  In fact, this kind of acceptance is the most divine act we can engage in.  That's what Paul was saying earlier - God knows us completely - and as the next verse says, God loves us just as completely.  "13 Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love."  (1 Corinthians 13)

The power of divine grace is that God considers us perfectly acceptable every step along the way of our journey into greater wholeness and maturity and development (take a look at one of my favorite bible texts, Hebrews 10:14):  Perfectly acceptable to God while we're in the process of becoming more and more whole.

That attitude of profound acceptance toward us is what empowers us with the courage to continue the journey of growth, to keep learning and struggling and becoming, to changing the lens so that we see ourselves-others-and God more clearly and perfectly, to being courageous enough to let go of the old stories we almost immediately tell ourselves when something negative happens to us, to changing our "childish" thoughts into more mature and loving ones.   We end up showing up with way more love in all our relationships and life experiences.

Personal growth necessitates personal patience and profound acceptance.

My forty-six client sessions have been such an amazing learning experience for me.  My client is not at the same place where he was a year ago.  His old paralyzing stories - his cloudy mirror - are changing and being replaced with the truth about himself and the promise of his profound potential.  There is tremendous value in allowing someone else into your life for such a long, specifically directed period of time.  That's the power of having a coach or other trusted person to help guide the journey.

And the journey has helped to change me, too.  Forty-six sessions!

The Princess and the Frog: How Love Works As the Key to Transform Relationships

The Frog and the Princess Do you remember the fairy tale about the frog and the princess?  A beautiful princess loses her favorite play thing, a dazzling golden globe, in a pond.  A frog ends up finding it and bringing it back to her.  Delighted and grateful, she promises the frog that it can come to her palace (never thinking it will take her up on the offer).  The frog shows up later, much to her dismay and disgust.  But feeling convicted of her need to be true to her word, she lets him enter, feeds him every day, and puts him to sleep every night in her bed.  And then one morning, feeling sorry for it, she plants a gentle kiss on its head.  Suddenly, the frog turns into a handsome prince ...  and in true fairy tale fashion, they live happily ever after.

This simple story reveals the deep psychological connection between our attitudes toward people and their capacity for transformation.  As one author says, "Only what you have not given is lacking in any situation."  A counter-intuitive concept, isn't it.

As it turns out in the tale, the frog had once been a prince but had come under the evil spell of a wicked witch.  She had turned him into a frog to live in a pond forever or at least until someone kissed him again.  Sounds like the story of the Beauty and the Beast.  An act you would least think of doing or even want to do is the act that brings transformation.

Our Typical Approach:  the Blame Game

The author's statement is unusual to how we typically think.  We often look at others (the people in our lives closest to us, especially) and think that the way they're choosing to behave is creating the lack in our relationship.  "If she or he would just act this way or that way, we'd have a great relationship."  Our focus is on wishing for something different from them.  So we'll cajole, criticize, guilt, shame, or "encourage" a change in their behavior.  It's the typical blame game.

But the quotation above states a counter-intuitive reality:  what is lacking in any situation is what WE are not giving to it.  That's not to say that the other person doesn't have responsibility for their behavior and actions in how they are contributing to either pain or joy, peace or conflict.  They do have responsibility.  But you and I cannot force their responsibility.  And our delusion is in thinking we can "help" them change their ways.  And as we often discover, unfortunately that only exacerbates the issues, certainly our own personal frustration and pain.

3 Principles for Healthy Relationships

Years ago I read Cecil Osborne's book "The Art of Understanding Your Mate" in which he points out that there are 3 primary principles in developing healthy, fulfilling relationships:  1.  I cannot change other people; 2.  I can only change myself; 3.  But other people tend to change in response to my change.

Sounds like the fairy tale.  As much as the princess shrank in disgust from housing the ugly frog, it was only when she softened her heart toward it and then ended up kissing it, that the frog was transformed back into what it had originally been created--a handsome prince.  There was no amount of arguing, cajoling, guilting, shaming, forcing, criticizing she could do to change that frog.  She had to change her attitude first.

So you and I have to ask ourselves the questions, "What is lacking in this relationship?  What am I not giving that I can give to it from a place of authentic heart and soul?"

Loving First Is the Highest Way

Marianne Williamson, in her book "The Return to Love," states this reality:  "What this signifies is the miraculous power of love to create a context in which people naturally blossom into their highest potential.  Neither nagging, trying to get people to change, criticizing, or fixing can do that.  The Course says we think we're going to understand people in order to figure out whether or not they're worthy of our love, but that actually, until we love them, we can never understand them.  What is not loved is not understood."

In the fairy tale, the princess doesn't suddenly know the trick for transformation.  She isn't aware a handsome prince is hiding inside the skin of an ugly, warty frog.  She doesn't therefore simply grit her teeth and force herself to endure the gross act of kissing the ugly thing.  She comes to a place where her heart softens to a frog not a prince.  And she ends up kissing the frog in an act of gentle acceptance.  When her heart was in a place of "pure love" her act brought transformation.

Now let's be honest:  I don't think the princess ever really enjoyed having the cold, damp, warty frog sleeping in her bed or eating at the table right beside her in the royal dining room.  We don't have to like the difficult characteristics of the people in our lives.  And in some cases, their dysfunctions might be so dangerous for us we have to separate from them for safety's sake.  We can't hold ourselves responsible for their irresponsible attitudes and behaviors.  Sometimes, no amount of personal change can change the other.

But the principle is true:  what is not loved is not understood; and accurately understanding the other is the foundation for compassion, empathy, and respect which all combine to reinforce a space of love which is the only environment in which genuine transformation can take place. Without that love and understanding, we hold ourselves separate from people and wait for them to earn our love or we resort to trying to force their change through whatever devious or not so subtle ways we can think up.

Accessing the Divine Miracle

So Marianne continues:  "But people deserve our love because of what God created them to be.  As long as we're waiting for them to be anything better, we will constantly be disappointed.  But when we choose to join with them, through approval and unconditional love, the miracle kicks in for both parties.  This is the primary key, the ultimate miracle, in relationships."  (p-129-130)

Our attitude toward people powerfully impacts their capacity for transformation.  The rub is that they have the ultimate choice (the whole freedom thing) for what they want to do with it.  And painfully, sometimes they choose not to respond in kind to our love.  But if transformation is going to happen, it will happen through our choice to love first.

But Frogs Are Disgusting!

The whole thought of kissing a frog is pretty disgusting.  I grew up in the rice paddies of Japan spearing frogs for entertainment, not kissing them (I'm ashamed to admit ... I'm still not sure where that behavior came from ... the tendency toward violence of little boys is scary).  We were told that if you even handled frogs you would get their worts.  The whole point is that we were instilled with the attitude that you simply stay away from or certainly don't get close to, much less handle frogs.

No wonder this fairy tale points to such a counter-intuitive experience that we don't have much proclivity toward.  We carry this "hold at arm's distance" philosophy into our human relationships.  Relating to The Other (those who are different from us, who don't act or believe like us) is extremely difficult.  So we tend to insist on the other "changing" first - we want them to change to become more like us in order for us to accept them and love them and embrace them.

We see this paradigm manifested in attitudes toward people of other religions and belief systems, sexual orientations, political parties, racial profiles, and yes, even in our closest relationships in marriage, romance, and friendships.  No wonder our world is in such a mess!

Following the Divine Way

I'm reminded of the divine example for how this works.  The disciple always considered closest to Jesus writes about it this way:

"10This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a way to show His divine love in the midst of our waywardness.  11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us."  1 John 4

The divine way is "kissing the frog" when it's still a frog.  Notice the radical, countercultural dimension of this approach:  it's when we love each other in this way that the fullest expression of God is experienced in both the giver and the receiver.  It is the only way that the full expression of divine love is grown in us which results in transformation.  God knows that.  So God acts first.  And the frog turns back into the prince.  That's the divine miracle we receive and we pass on.

I know I can be such a frog at times!  I'm painfully aware of many of my warts--I am awakening to more and more.  Thank God my wife keeps kissing me!  My princehood is awakening.  The miracle continues ... and it empowers a desire for me to do the same with others.   Imagine a whole world where love keeps awakening everyone to their true royalty!  Now that's a world I want to live in.