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The Pattern of Genuine Transformation

With spiritual practice, "ah" usually shows up as a first taste of "just this" or timelessness or spot-on grace. When we taste it, there is no going back.

When I was little, my family lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. Every summer day, without fail, my mother would load my little sisters and me into her blue Nash Rambler and head to the municipal swimming pool. We’d always get there early enough to mark our turf with a combination of old towels, sunblock, and toys. By noon the pool was so crammed with kids that I had bruises from all the kicks, elbowings, and thuds from my sisters trying to learn how to swim underwater with their eyes closed.
One day I decided that I was done with all of it―the bruises, the crowds, the “borrowed” toys that permanently disappeared. I demanded that we go home―forever. When my mother asked why, I told her that the place was too frigging crowded to be any fun. She looked at me.
“So swim in the deep end.”
I just stared at her, trying to understand what she was telling me. Then it hit. The big “ah.” I did know how to swim. On some days I was convinced that I was tadpole girl. That meant . . . that I could swim in the deep end of the pool.
So I did.
The first time I lasted about a minute. Relative to the kids’ section of the pool, the water was freezing cold. Plus I couldn’t see the bottom. Pretty scary for a six-year-old. But I kept returning to the deep end, mostly for the bruise-free swims. The more I swam, the more I loved it. The feel of the water. The sun overhead. The smells. (Oh, that chlorine!) The perfect kind of tired at the end of the day. I became a swimmer―not a world-class swimmer like my baby sister―but good enough to surf the undertow-ridden beaches of Sydney, Australia, as a teenager.
I kept swimming until college, when I traded in water for a chance to study dance with Merce Cunningham and friends at his studio in Greenwich Village. There the same thing happened. At first bruises, crowds, and frustration. The urge to leave. The dance world was cutthroat―lots of excuses were available. I just needed to pick a couple to feel mightily righteous for quitting. Then a minilecture from one of Cunningham’s teachers, a man who had been watching me closely and correcting me unmercifully, stopped me.
“You can dance. So dance.”
Ah.
At first, clumsiness, with small spurts of pleasure and a feeling of just-rightness. I kept at it, sometimes for six hours a day, and skill grew. With it, joy. I still dance today.
It turns out that all genuine transformations follow a similar pattern. First comes the “ah!” It often, surprisingly, grows out of a period of frustration or sadness or working hard at something without seeing any benefits. No matter. The “ah” is the realization that “I can do this” or “I can stop this.” It becomes the gate to transformation and is, in many ways, the easy part.
Still, this shift in consciousness changes a life forever. Once I realized that I could swim in the deep end of the pool, I could never again not swim there. In the same way, once we realize that sugar is harming our bodily systems, we can never pretend that it isn’t―because we know better. Once we experience a moment of the joy that comes from being right here, right now, we can never forget its possibility.
With spiritual practice, “ah” usually shows up as a first taste of “just this” or timelessness or spot-on grace. When we taste it, there is no going back. The consciousness shift has happened. We know that enlightenment is possible. We know that grace pervades everywhere and everything.
My experience has taught me that this “ah” marks only the beginning of the transformation process. There is still work to be done―pool laps, stretches at the barre, meditation retreats, daily prayers. But if we do the work, we experience surprises that reward our continued effort. For example, continued effort in a spiritual practice brings with it transformation in the form of a calm sanity, maybe for the first time ever. And that’s just the start.
There is nothing special about any of this, given that we all have the capacity to transform. When Zen master Nan-chuan told his student Chao-chou, “Ordinary mind is the way,” that’s exactly what he meant. We can all transform our lives from where we are―right now. No need to run away from anything. No need to run toward anything. Just remember the “ah” and keep practicing. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
As we keep practicing, we start to see how we really are our own worst enemy―and that we can stop. We each have it in us to do what needs doing. We get a chance to correct the personality patterns that are harming ourselves and others. All of this grows out of that initial “ah.” The longer we keep at it, the more surprises appear. The concrete form we’ve labeled with our name becomes increasingly porous until we find ourselves smack in the middle of the whole universe, as the whole universe. Intuition grows. Compassion expands. We fall in love with the world, and it falls in love right back. We become the solution the world needs.
Talk about transformation! Yee-haw! But it can happen only if we stop whining and dive into the deep end of the pool.