Recently, a friend gifted me an incredible book, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope.
Part of my new approach to reading rich and complex books like this is to make notes; putting the ideas into my own words, as I understand them. I figure it’s worth keeping those notes here, where I can be accountable for actually going through this process and integrating what I learn.
Here’s the first of these notes, based on chapter 2.
What Are Transformational Spaces?
These are the spaces we intuitively seek out (or get thrust into) at periods of great change in our life. They come in many forms: from institutions to physical spaces to relationships with an individual. Schools, college, the army, a mentor, a psychotherapist or a spiritual community are some examples Cope gives.
When we find one and hook into it, growth most certainly occurs. However, there are also spaces that pretend to be transformational – and fail to provide the conditions we need.
Here are the qualities Cope lists:
1) They create a quality of refuge
Rather than being forced to don a certain role like we do in most of our lives, these spaces offer a break from all that. If there is a role we take, it’s the role of the child, or the Fool card in the tarot deck. We approach our time there with a ‘don’t know’ mind, free from assumptions and our typical posturing.
In these spaces, our innocence is held in safety; free from judgement, accepted as we are. This is also why initiation rituals are so common when entering them: it marks our exit from the chaotic theatre of the outside world, and our rebirth.
When I was at an ayahuasca retreat centre in Peru, ritual was a major part of creating the transformational space in the Maloka: a circular, traditional building we used for the ayahuasca ceremonies.
Palo santo smoke circled us, lights were dimmed, candles lit, Florida water was sprayed, and our facilitators outlined how the night would proceed. It was the same every time, and it never failed to help steady my nerves – and at the same time open my mind and heart for what was to come.
2) They create safety through constancy in relationship
The relationship between mentor and student is key here.This mentor could be a teacher, facilitator, or leader of any sort – but there must be someone who is in a position of authority for the student to go through any real change. Ideally, this person is a constant, and doesn’t change radically or leave throughout the student’s time in transformation.
If you’ve ever felt uneasy when you were expecting your regular yoga teacher and someone else is covering the class for them, you’ll likely have experienced a taste of how unsettling this change could be on a grander scale.
Of course this person does not abuse their power: they ensure the student is safe and they provide a dependable home base, like in a (healthy) parent and child relationship.
3) They encourage creativity and experimentation
There is no one way of making a breakthrough or creating change. It happens through experimentation, and these spaces provide the stage for that.
When in Peru, I was having a particularly difficult moment involving a lot of lemongrass flavoured tea (apparently a purgative that would do me some good) and I was reminded by a helpful facilitator: ‘This isn’t a pass or fail thing.’
This, not the lemongrass, was the purgative I needed; I instantly broke down and released a lot of years of self flagellation. It was my first taste of what a true experimental, creative and playful attitude could be like. And it was a major relief.
4) They are organised around ‘traditional objects’ that are constant and reliable
To expect us to make our transformational journey without a boat to travel in, is unreasonable. Well, a metaphorical boat anyway. But these objects, that serve as our boats, can be very real.
A child might bring their favourite toy to school with them (though ideally they’ll have discarded it by the time they go to college.) It provides that little bit of home, a reminder of a safe haven and a means to internalise the comfort and stability home provides.
I’ve been returning to the book The Artists Way by Julia Cameron as a yearly ritual, as working through its 12-week process provides me with a reliable, consistent and therapeutic structure. At some point, I’ll stop, as I internalise the teachings and have received all I can from the exercises and words of wisdom inside.
5) They do not deify these transitional objects, or themselves
On that note, an object like a book or set of beads are recognised for what they are: tools to assist in our transformation, not deities to be regarded in their own right. The same goes for the teachers.
Even the most ‘enlightened’ of all are simply representations of our highest potential: they are not it. They are not perfect, all-knowing or infallible. They can (and should) be challenged, just as much as they are respected. Ultimately, they set us free and we are able to internalise the gift they give us.
When I attended my yoga teacher training program, I was reassured by the open-minded nature of the teachers we had. They encouraged us to challenge their ideas, and reminded us that they are still learning to: which in turn, instilled an open-mind and commitment to lifelong learning in all their students.
6) They provide us with a way of finding out who we are
As much as I love a personality test that tells you who you are and what you’re like; that is not the role of a good transformational space. Instead, these spaces provide us with techniques and practises to help us discover who we are directly.
This might happen in the most unsuspecting ways; being given a job we initially despise, being taught a new style of meditation or having lunch with someone new in the community cafeteria. We can’t know in advance what will show us what, but the ingredients are all there, provided for us.
7) They do not have to be perfect
There is even a danger, Cope suggests, in a space that believes itself to be ‘perfect’. When under this guise, there is no room left for criticism or growth of the space itself, let alone the student.
Expecting perfection from a space is also going to be a let down for the student, because of the unearthly demands this places on it: no person or place can live up to that.
Instead, we must make our peace with having ‘good enough’ teachers, mentors, schools and communities, and remember that it isn’t their job to be perfect, just to assist and encourage our own transitional period.
8) They are open to and support, other paths to development
The assumption is that any good spiritual seeker should commit to one path, one lineage, one guru, or one church and devote themselves to it. Even a standard therapist might recommend sticking to them alone.
The result of experimenting with other paths might even make us feel guilty at first, but it’s in this pick ’n’ mix approach that we can truly explore the path that is best for us.