My doctoral thesis was about biological transformation and how the hidden intelligence inside each cell communicates with the whole entity as change is happening. I netted a tank full of tadpoles from a local pond and then studied them at intervals as they metamorphosed slowly into frogs. The same question that guided my research then is still exciting now: What is the natural intelligence that guides transformation?
Tadpoles are fascinating to watch. They’re orderly change artists, masters of subtle and sneaky transformation. Perfectly engineered water wonders, tadpoles have big heads and graceful, tapering tails that offer little resistance to forward movement. With no fanfare at all, the pollywog simply starts to change one day: His tail gets shorter as his body absorbs it, and he sprouts four tiny limb buds.
Day by day, powerful rear legs and delicate forelegs take shape, a sculpture in progress. Seemingly oblivious to the stunning internal and external remodeling, the tadpole continues to swim, eat, and rest until he becomes an amphibious masterpiece capable of living both in the water and in the air. From the human perspective at least, this elegant process occurs organically and gradually without undue fuss or bother.
Caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies in a much more startling way. One day the caterpillar suddenly finds herself spinning a chrysalis-one minute she’s crawling around munching leaves and the next she’s hanging from a thread, imprisoned in a silk coffin. Unlike a tadpole, she doesn’t just grow new body parts that allow her to move effortlessly from earth to sky. Instead, new cells called imaginal cells begin to multiply inside her.
Then her immune system goes into hyperdrive, desperate to destroy the would-be invaders. The caterpillar’s imaginal cells multiply and overwhelm her immune system; in fact, the poor little being actually dies and liquefies, while her imaginal cells feed on caterpillar soup. Triumphant, they finally gather into a community, differentiate, and form an entirely new creature: the phantasmagorical winged beauty called a butterfly.
The caterpillar had the seeds of transformation, the imaginal cells, within her all along. But she had to die completely to her old life to be born into the new form that was her true nature, essence, and destiny. Perhaps we’re similar to our winged sisters in that there are seeds of essential humanity embedded within us that grow and evolve in the wake of life-shattering crisis and change.
All in all, I’d rather transform like a tadpole, but no one ever asked my opinion. As I look back over 60 years of life, it’s easier to see big caterpillar-like meltdowns such as divorces, betrayals, and the deeply distressing death of my younger son’s best friend in a car crash when he was barely 17. It’s harder to notice the small tadpole-like transformations that include becoming more patient, appreciative, or discerning.
The great American philosopher William James, the founder of modern psychology, once noted that human beings transform both through sudden crisis and slow lysis (a process of disintegration or dissolution). A central question that interests me about both processes is what enlivens them. After all, we generally don’t choose to have crises, and we aren’t even aware of lysis as it gradually helps us shed an old skin. If these kinds of changes aren’t consciously initiated, where do they come from? Are they sparked by something akin to the plant hormone auxin that causes the stem to bend toward the light, or is there a deeper mystery still? Where is the ghost in the machine?
We’ve all watched clumps of grass and impressively hardy weeds pop up through tiny cracks in concrete walkways. . . . There’s a will to thrive that all living things share, from tiny one-celled organisms to human beings. Every species has its own genius for overcoming obstacles and aiming at the perfection of its form. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s famous line, seems to apply just as well to the evolution of human beings as it does to plants. There’s something that urges us on to our full potential until we, too, come to flower and then cast seeds of reproduction.
I’m reminded of when my friend and colleague Jean Houston, truly a master of human potential, was interviewed by psychologist Jeffrey Mishlove on his remarkable Public Television series, Thinking Allowed, which aired until 2002.
Jean told a story of being befriended by the extraordinary French Jesuit, paleontologist, and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. She’d literally run into him in Central Park when she was 14 years old; following their collision, the two became friends.
Of her walks with the philosopher/priest, Jean explained, “It was extraordinary. Everything was sentient; everything was full of life. He looked at you as kind of a cluttered house that hid the Holy One-and you felt yourself looked at as if you were God in hiding, and you felt yourself so charged and greened with evolutionary possibilities.”
When I’ve listened to Jean speak, she’s often talked about the “Godseed” within us. Using her metaphor, change splits the shell of that seed and allows us to fill the form of the Holy One that we’re destined to grow into, just as an acorn is destined to become an oak. That’s a great philosophy, one that makes me sigh with satisfaction and belonging as I read it. But its test, of course, is in the living, not the metaphor.
I want to know what being the Holy One (or at least a wave in the great ocean of that One) might look and feel like for me. And I want to know how it might be different for you. I’m less interested in generalities than a truthful dialogue about what it means to any of us to become our real selves, our unique God selves.
The term Holy One, of course, means different things to different people. A noted priest I admire recently participated in a Christian/Buddhist dialogue in Boulder, Colorado, followed by a Jewish/Christian dialogue in Denver. He sidestepped the childhood version of the “Guy in the Sky” with a beard and a black book quite deftly, and by the end of the dialogues, it was clear that he and both of his audiences were all speaking about the same thing (although the Buddhists omitted the word God). They all spoke of a consciousness, or a “Ground of Being,” inherent in every person.
The nature of that consciousness-whether you call it “God,” “the Great Mystery,” “Yahweh,” or like the Jewish mystics “the Ein Sof” (the endless endless)-is wisdom and compassion. That’s the secret energy, the natural intelligence that both does the work of transforming us and is the nature of transformation itself.
Can you remember a time when the world as you knew it fell apart and you were transformed in the process? What did this feel like? How do you perceive the world differently now? If you can’t remember a personal story, think or write about a powerful account of change that happened to someone else, even if it was in a book or a movie.
The following excerpts have been taken from the book Saying Yes to Change by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. & Gordon Dveirin. It is published by Hay House, and available at amazon, at all bookstores or at Hay House.
It will look like this: The Natural Intelligence That Guides Our Transformation