William Bridges

Spirituality Is About Learning the Art of Transitions

The longer I live, the more I become aware of how central to the journey of spirituality (and developing fertile depth in my life) is learning the art of transitions.  I use the word "art" intentionally - because art depicts a significant dynamic:  it's learned, it's creative, what works and is displayed as art for one person might look different for another.  In art, you may have a gift or natural talent for it, but it's still something you have to develop and work at in order to flourish. Doing transitions in life well is an art.  It's not easy.  It's messy.  It must be learned.  And it requires lots of patience!  Right?  I know all about this from personal experience.

If you've read Malcolm Gladwell's latest book "Outliers" (which is a profoundly researched book about redefining our traditional cultural perspective on success), he refers to what scientists call "the 10,000 hour" rule.  They've discovered that people (regardless of how much innate talent or giftedness they possess) who have reached the pinnacle of their respective fields all put in a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice before they reached that pinnacle.  Imagine that!  10,000 hours!

Reminds me of what my dad use to say every time he walked past me while I was practicing the piano:  "Don't forget, Greg:  Practice!  Practice!  Practice!"  Wow, as much as I hated hearing what seemed at the time an overly simplistic platitude, I realize how right he was!  To get good at anything, it takes practice!

So while I sure hope it doesn't take 10,000 hours of painful transitions until we get good at it (God save us, if it does!), the point is still true:  spirituality is about learning the art of transitions.

Horace, who is considered by many as one of the greatest of all Latin poets (whose work later influenced Shakespeare), was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of the great Roman emperor Augustus (1st Century B.C.) and a personal friend of the Caesar.  In the first book of his Epistles, Horace penned these words:

"He has half the deed done, who has Made a beginning."

A profound and insightful paradigm.  Sometimes we think that our transitions are simply three stages:  an ending, the neutral zone, and a new beginning.  But as Horace wisely reminds us, the new beginning is only "half the deed."  As William Bridges, an expert on life change and transition, points out, genuine beginnings depend upon "inner realignment," when we do the important work of aligning ourselves with not only the new external circumstances but also with our renewed identities, our new longings and desires, our emotional shifts corresponding to our external shifts.  Learning how to live with congruence where what's outside matches what's inside.  This isn't easy work and also takes time.

Here's the way Bridges describes it:

"It is unrealistic to expect someone to make a beginning like that of a sprinter coming out of the starting blocks.  Even when your outer situation is complete - you're on the new job, you're finally married, you're in your new house - the inner beginnings are still going on.  At such a time, people often say, 'I guess I'm just not used to this new situation yet,' but it would be more accurate to say that 'I'm not quite fully the new person yet - but I'm getting there.'"  (Transitions:  Making Sense of Life's Changes, p. 173)

So he suggests that during these new beginnings it is a time to be gentle with ourselves or with the other person, a time for the little supports and indulgences that make things easier.  And it's also a time to acknowledge that, as much as we long for them, new beginnings can be things that we often resist inside just as much as the loss-filled ending and the ambiguous and frustrating neutral zone were.  Cut ourselves some slack.

So surround yourself with some familiar things that conjure up good memories or warm feelings.  Don't jump into too many new things all at once so as not to short-circuit the current new beginning.  Postpone other major decisions.  Take it one step at a time.

This new beginning is a time to return "from the disengaged state and the wilderness to set about translating insight and idea into action and form."  Developing new commitments at home and work.  Re-engaging in new and strategic ways.  Re-negotiating old and new relationships.  It's doing the hard and what might seem like mundane work of getting established in the new beginning.  As the Zen saying goes, "After enlightenment, the laundry."

This is why so many spiritual and religious traditions developed practices and rituals to help them re-engage and move into the new beginnings.  They often couched their most important insights from their transitional experiences in the form of stories that could be remembered and retold again and again through rituals.

The Christian Eucharist retells and relives the story of Jesus' life and death and helps the participant re-engage in a resurrected identity.  The Jewish Passover retells and relives the Exodus story of deliverance and helps the participant re-engage in that identity of liberation.  Stories lived out through rituals and practices and symbols to empower an inner alignment with an outer reality.

Horace was right:  new beginnings are but the beginning of "a deed half done."

That's why the spiritual community I belong to here in San Francisco, Second Wind, is committed to our stories of past, present, and future.  We value entering into the great ancient and contemporary stories of faith and transition.  And in so doing, empower ourselves to live out effective new beginnings again and again.  Telling and respecting and valuing each other's stories is one of the ways we're "practicing" the art of transitions.

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