Life is weird. It has a habit of presenting us with weird tasks, trials and tribulations – no matter how much we’d rather not face them. So for many of us, we try to resolve the issues through ‘personal growth’, as something we undertake in the hope that things will get better, that we’ll regain some kind of control over our lives. And things do get better: though rarely in a simple, linear sequence of improvements, and sometimes not even in a way that we would at first understand as ‘better’ – the process is far more weird than that. There is indeed a deep joy and a deep sense of meaning to be found this way; but it would be unrealistic to say this without also saying that the path, always a personal one, can at times be intensely lonely and intensely disturbing. It’s that confusion that makes the process hard: but it is part of a process that does lead us to enjoyment, to the full, of every aspect of our lives – a joyous involvement in life as it is.
The reality is that the path we each take is weird, and often doesn’t seem to make sense: we get launched into new experiences, or seemingly trapped in loops time after time. And the whole process can not only be tortuous, but at times torturous, a sense of being tested again and again almost – yet never quite – beyond what we can bear. As to why it should be so, we can only answer ‘Yes’. In some cases there probably is no ‘why’: it is – and that’s all. If we’re to work with what Reality Department cares to hand us, we first have to accept it for what it is: the ‘why’, if any, can come later.
We do always come out stronger, more able to enjoy life, and more able to face our personal issues after each of these apparent tests, as long as we face them and what they show us of ourselves: that seems to be the reason for it all, and is certainly what makes it all worthwhile. And although this process of growth at times is hard, is painful, is lonely, it’s always based in our choices. We always have a choice; yet there’s also always a twist. Those twists are where the weirdness lies: the effects of our choices ripple out into the world at large, and then echo back to us in a way that we can only describe as weird. A weaving and interweaving of life and lives: a sense of connection, a sense of choices, a sense of subtlety, of something we can never quite control. Within those weird twists of our lives are subtle, hidden choices: it’s up to us to make use of them.
It’s to this weirdness in the process of personal growth – accepting the weirdnesses of our lives, and working with them rather than trying to fight against them – that this book is addressed. It’s also addressed to the realities of the process and its often uncomfortable twists and turns: as such, it develops a rather different view of the sequence of the changes in the process of personal growth. In particular, there’s an emphasis on some intermediate stages that are often missed out in existing descriptions: the stage of ‘everyone is to blame’ that must be moved through, for example, before the well-known concept of ‘no-one is to blame’ can be reached. And there are also some guidelines on how to work with the bad times – and how not to get lost in some illusory ‘good’ ones.
You may find the writing style that I’ve used a little strange at first, but it’s there for a reason: the way a book is written is a crucial part of its message. The impersonal third-person mode preferred by most psychology texts, typically referring to examples as ‘case studies’ or ‘client experiences’, may make intellectual understanding easier, but can actually block experiential understanding; while the second-person (“you should do this”) mode popular in ‘New Age’ books often seems condescending and patronising. My choice here has thus been to use, where possible, a first-person or ‘I/we’ conversational mode, framing the text as if spoken by an imaginary narrator – a composite (whom I’ve named ‘Chris Kelley’) drawn directly from many people’s personal and real-life experiences. So although this introduction is somewhat formal, the rest of the book is not. The stories the narrator tells are highly personal, and illustrate clearly the intensity of feeling of many of these states – so if you find yourself in the same kind of emotional spaces that this imaginary ‘I’ describes, you’ll know you’re not alone in that experience. We’ve all been there too: that fact alone can be a great deal of help in some of the darker times…
But since nothing changes without ourselves choosing to be involved in the change, there’s also a strong emphasis on the practical: examples to put the concepts into practice will be found on almost every page. These typically consist of a personal experience that illustrates the point being made, followed by some suggestions, and questions about the resultant experience. (There are no set answers to these questions: in this field, the only valid answers for each person are their own.) All of the examples have been tested in practice, most of them independently by myself, friends and colleagues as well as many others, and often over long periods of time: they work. Whether they work for you in the same way is up to you to decide, and to experience: but you won’t find out unless you try!
The four sections of the book develop a sequence of observations and changes, starting with the self, and moving outward to the world at large. Be warned, though, that the sequence is not always obvious in the usual sense: the apparent repetition that occurs throughout the book, for example, is intentional, and is not simply due to poor editing! And in particular, the early part of the book may seem to dwell on the darker emotions more than you might expect: the reason is that unless these are faced early on, they continue to block progress indefinitely. So the first two chapters ‘set the stage’, using a typical experience as a start-point, and comparing the sense of fatalistic gloom that often accompanies it, with the subtle freedom to be found from a better understanding of the original meaning of ‘weird’.
The second section, consisting of roughly a third of the book, looks at the kind of pressures that get us to limit our choices – especially as we grow up – and builds some analogies and suggestions as to how to break free of our habits and conditionings. We learn to watch – and use – the way in which old issues keep looping back in one form or another until they are resolved; we gain a peculiar – yet very real – kind of freedom by working with the twists and paradoxes of life, in a way that moves past the fears that drive our need for control. And we recognise that we always have choice, we always have responsibility – although at times it’s neither easy to see nor to accept.
The next eight chapters – also roughly a third of the book – discuss ways to work with and consolidate this new freedom in our own lives. We do this by watching, listening and, especially, acknowledging what we feel; accepting ourselves for who we are, from moment to moment, whilst still maintaining some kind of overall aim. A delicate balance: we learn to trust and to let go, yet without letting go; we learn the subtle – weird – difference between doing nothing, doing something and doing ‘no-thing’; we watch the ways in which our own choices echo back to us from the world around.
In the final section we start to move out into that wider world – and recognise that in some weird way it is also always a reflection of ourselves and our choices. The sense of being separate from the world, and at the effect of its forces, is to some extent an illusion: our choices are part of the weaving that makes up the world we experience, ‘inside’ or ‘outside’, ‘self’ or ‘not-self’. Our relationships, our work and our interactions with the world at large all have the same weirdness in common: there’s always a choice, there’s always a twist. And the choice, and the responsibility for that choice, are always ours: it’s up to us to build the world we need.
Using this book
In keeping with the nature of its subject, this book can be read in a number of ways, not all of them obvious at first.
It can, of course, be read in the usual way, from cover to cover: as mentioned above, it does have a developing sequence of ideas, with a beginning, a middle and an end. If you’re only interested in concepts, you can skip over all the ‘boxes’ of practical material – the text will still work without them, especially in the earlier parts of the book, which deal more with ideas. But if you only do this you’ll also miss one of the key points of the book, which is to provide practical tools for change.
If you plan to read it from cover to cover, doing all of the practical material in sequence, take it slowly: experience suggests that, after the first couple of chapters, not more than a single section a day – two or three pages – is best. Change, while valuable, can also be uncomfortable, and the practical material, if it’s used properly, does trigger real changes in the way we view and work in the world: if you try to rush it, or force the pace of change, you’ll either miss some key points and have to go back later, or else give yourself an unnecessarily rough time. So take it slow: “beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle on yourself”!
Another way is to skip over the main text, and use only the practical material in the boxes. That’ll make sense too, though it may not be so good in terms of understanding what’s going on. You can follow the sequence of examples in the book, or just dip in at random: it still works – perhaps even better than the sequential way, given the weird nature of the subject. It’s up to you.
The general consensus, though, seems to be that a combination of all these methods works best. Read the first two chapters; then skim through the whole of the remainder once, quickly, stopping only to read in detail a few passages that catch your eye. That’ll give you enough background for the practical material to make practical sense, whatever you do next. Then go back and read through a chapter at a time, slowly, carefully – though in whatever order you prefer. And also, as the whim takes you, dip in at random to find a passage or a practical piece: you’ll usually find it has some apposite comment or suggestions to make on your current situation. Use this book to work with the weirdness of change, the weirdness of the world: that’s how it works best.
Whichever way you choose, welcome to a different world! It’s a world in which we do have choices – although, as we’ll discover, there’s always a weird twist in what happens…