In a world of ever quicker change, we have perhaps got used to the idea of dramatic adjustments. Films are often based around a dramatic event in a person’s life, and scriptwriters are trained to make obvious how a character develops during quite a short time.
In such a fast-paced world, it can be hard to work on long-standing psychological issues patiently. Therapeutic services often offer courses of six or ten sessions, which creates a pressure to use the time well, and make sure measurable change has happened.
Although some change can be quick and dramatic, arguably much personal development happens quite painstakingly, and over much longer periods of time. There are a lot of reasons for this, many of them related to how we are made.
WE ARE LIKE TREES
You can make dramatic change in trees and plants by cutting or pruning them. But growth-style changes take much longer. Trees have root systems, trunks, and branch systems, all of which can take years to take on a particular size and shape. In the same way, we have the equivalent of root systems – we have mental roots which feed nutrition from our culture, our family, our friend networks, our resource networks. We have trunks, a relatively fixed sense of personal identity. We have branches of influence that we put out and develop over years.
The point I am making is that when making change, we are working with mental and physical systems which we have lived with for years and years. Any personal development is wise to be mindful of the longstanding pathways and connections we are used to.
PRUNING IS QUICK, GROWING IS SLOW
In the same way, life may force upon us dramatic, sudden change. In other words, we can be ‘pruned’. Losses, such as the death of loved ones, illness, or injury, are ways in which the universe forces upon us quick learning. When someone dies, we suddenly have to decide how we are going to live without them. In response, there are some rapid developments we may be capable of, out of necessity. This is why, sometimes, suffering can be our greatest teacher.
However, even when we are ‘pruned’, there are longer-term growth systems at work. A branch may have been cut, but the same root system may underlie our resources and behaviour. If we want to adapt ourselves, to continue developing, then it will require more of a constant, daily effort.
ALSO, WE ARE NOT LIKE TREES!
There are one or two important respects in which we are not so like trees. Firstly, we have much more developed thinking systems. And secondly, we have limbs which, often, can propel us wherever we choose to go.
Our thinking systems are a blessing and a curse. Our brains have a wonderful ability to speculate on both the future and the past, and to create stories about both. This can cause problems where our speculation imagines ghosts that do not exist, such as disasters which really have a low likelihood of happening. But our brains can also use speculation to plan ahead, to shape and mould ourselves for the better.
Our limbs are also a blessing and a curse. We can project ourselves through space, and appear in a different locations, by a mere effort of will and body. Problems can happen when we misuse this ability, and interfere in other people’s lives by turning up where we are not wanted or needed. But we have the glorious ability to explore, and to help our fellow beings, by sometimes being in a good place at a good time.
So, in terms of long-term development, we have unique abilities to plan ahead, to explore, and to travel to where we are needed.
HOW WILL YOU GROW, SLOWLY?
When you are undertaking your own self-development, maybe ask yourself 3 questions:
What plans do I want to make?
What do I want to explore?
How do I want to help others?
Maybe take some time out to look ahead, and think how you would like to develop as a person. I strongly suggest that you include, in your aspirations and plans, an element of exploration, as well as an element of helping others. The first thing, exploration, enables you to stay fresh by learning steadily, edging out of your comfort zone at your own pace. The second thing, helping others, ensures that you do not become too selfish in your quest; there is great happiness to be had from serving others.
WAYS TO DEVELOP SLOWLY
Finally, here are 5 quick examples of things you can do to make progress in your own long-term development:
SENSE – perhaps through counselling, get a feel for of where you are in life, and where you might like to go next.
PLAN – begin to use diaries, rituals or habits, to develop your changes, like a gardener planning their landscape.
AGREE – whatever you are planning, it helps to let those around you know, so they can work with you. Kind of avoids frustration and disappointment later.
CONTEMPLATE – your plans and agreements will suffer constant disruption (that’s life!), so a contemplative approach enables you to process frustrations without panicking.
EXPRESS – develop your ability to share your journey, through writing, participating in like-minded groups, or just talking. This consolidates your learning, and wraps it into a shareable form that may help others in future.
And the first letters of the above 5 points spell ‘SPACE’, which may help you remember them all, and stay balanced. Arguably, a balanced life has a good dose of sensing, planning, agreeing, contemplation, and self-expression.
If you are missing one or two of the above 5 skills, then you may feel it in the form of suffering. For instance:
If you are no good at sensing, then you may have an apparently perfect life, but it will have nothing to do with what suits you personally, so it will feel fake.
If you are no good at planning, then you will find yourself defenceless against events – they will overwhelm you.
If you are no good at agreeing, then don’t be surprised if you are always at war with those around you, and they seem to be frustrating your plans all the time.
If you find contemplation difficult, then you are likely to have constant meltdowns, either anxious or angry, because you have limited capacity to sit still, accept frustration, and learn from it.
If you find it hard to express yourself, then you may feel lost for words to tell your story, which can leave you feeling isolated or alone.
We live in a fast-moving world, but self-development is a long-term process. Even though tragedy can speed up change, we are wise if we keep on developing ourselves at a natural pace, just as nature does.
Furthermore, as higher mammals, we have an enhanced ability to think and plan, and to go where we choose. To use these additional blessings well, maybe it’s wise, through counselling, or by other means, to learn to harness them, slowly and steadily, for good and happy ends.