Transitioning: Let Go to Let Come

by Nick Owen

It’s common to hear people talking about how to live a good life. Nothing wrong with that. But an equally important question is how to die a good death. And not just at the end of our life. Every time we go through some kind of important transition in our lives we have to let go of the old ways of being and doing and ask ourselves who might we become in the next stage of our life? In other words many deaths and re-births can accompany us throughout our lives.

It’s important to make a distinction here between change and transition. Change is a horizontal journey, for example learning to become more skilful with something we already do well, getting a promotion, moving house. Sometimes this is called First Order Change and its focus is primarily on the external and material although inner change is not necessarily absent. It is change to the system.

Transition is a vertical journey through which the very basis of how we make sense of ourselves, others, and the world, shifts. Sometimes this is called Second Order Change and its focus is primarily on the internal, the psychological, the spiritual. It is change not to the system but of the system. We know we are experiencing this kind of transition when we notice that the world is no longer what we thought it to be; when some of our very core beliefs and values are tested and found to be nothing more than illusions, no longer relevant to the new world we have woken up to. 

Examples of transition might include the phase in our life when we realised we had left our childhood behind and were stepping into the world of adulthood. Or when a relationship we thought would last forever collapses in misunderstanding and distrust and we realise that neither ourself nor our partner were really who we thought we were. Or when we leave the world of formal work or homebuilding and enter the world beyond those tasks: the transition from the Second to the Third Act of our life. We wake up and find that somehow the world is the same and yet extraordinarily different, and that what worked for us yesterday no longer works for us today.

There are noticeable differences between change and transition. Change is situational. It is most often a conscious act, something we do to the world, and it is usually tangible or visible. Transition is something that we sense is done to us; we may know it is happening but we are caught up in a dance with other powerful forces that have their own ideas of what needs to happen. Adjustment is often invisible and drawn-out and happens within our psychological and spiritual domains. In change, we want to impose ourselves on the world; with transition, life is trying to live through us, inviting us to become aware of the emergence of a different, deeper self that was not apparent before.

Our ancestors, more deeply connected to the rhythms of the natural world than we are, had deep insights into ways of successful transitioning. Unlike our busy desire to get to the next stage of life as quickly as possible, they looked to the lessons of nature. They recognised that between the death of autumn and the re-birth of spring, winter is necessary for the land to recuperate. They saw that between the sowing of the seed and its germination, a period of dormancy is necessary. They knew that a pregnancy needs a full term to give the off-spring the best chance of healthy life. It was not that nothing was happening; but that deep and generative change needs time to happen. 

The honouring of a fallow period following the dying or letting-go of the previous phase of life, and preceding the re-birthing of the next, is essential if we’re not to simply repeat the mistakes of our past. This fallow period can sometimes be full of anxiety, confusion, doubt and uncertainty as we struggle to make meaning of our sense of loss, of our dis-identification from who we previously thought we were. But it is the very not-knowing that gives life a chance to live through us in new and surprising ways; that gently allows us to experiment with new ways of seeing and being.

If we’re open to this period of uncertainty and prepared to submit to the idea that new shoots will arise in their own good time we can minimise the struggle of this transition. It is resistance, and holding on to our old ways of doing, thinking and valuing that are likely to prolong the suffering.

Copyright © 2020 Global Leadership Associates

Copyright © Nick Owen