Metamorphoses, part 2 – What Helps People Change?

This is part 2 of a series on the theme of Metamorphoses, looking at what causes change and transformation through the lens of pioneering humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Why would Caveat do that? It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Read all entries in this series here.


Larry and I used to laugh at descriptions of “transformative experiences” a lot — not because we didn’t take the idea seriously, but because we did.  When you care about something, you laugh at cliché versions of it.

And make no mistake, the idea that Burning Man is a “transformational experience” is at this point such a cliché that it seems trite to people who have never been (can you blame them?) but axiomatic to people who come back.

What makes the cliché worse is the fact that we’re so bad at talking about how and why this happens — and that fairly often the people who strive the hardest to mass manufacture “transformative experiences” are the least successful at it.  Their efforts to create transformational moments end up a useless heap of DJs, blinky lights, and inspirational posters.

That’s because it’s actually very hard to create genuine “transformative experiences,” and most of the things that are most commonly associated with Burning Man (throbbing techno music, glorious costumes, fire art, and so on) are either insufficient on their own to create them, or are actually beside the point.

What is sufficient? What do you need for people to change?

Make Some Art and Play the Odds?

Most of the time when we ask this question we tend to look for a particular, solid, thing:  a piece of information that someone needs (“let me tell you some statistics about racism”), or a particular piece of art that they see (“standing in front of Bliss Dance listening to beats by Kanizzle changed my life”), or a singular experience that they go through — maybe they hike the Grand Canyon — or take a class, a la Dead Poets Society.

All of which definitely does happen, but such things also have a far greater rate of misses than of hits:  most people who walk by the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, dance the night away at elaborate clubs, get coaching from expensive and highly rated executive trainers, or take John Keating’s “Introduction to Poetry” class, end up walking out the same person who came in.

How could it be any other way?  The idea that a particular thing or event or even piece of art is innately “transformative” assumes that everyone who views it will have basically the same reaction … which itself assumes that everyone is basically the same.  Doesn’t it?

This isn’t how our own experiences of transformative experiences go, a fact that Larry was keenly attuned to.  Far from assembly line processes where everybody gets the same treatment, breakthrough moments seem to be entirely personal:  a book of Oscar Wilde short stories once led to a very specific moment that changed my life.  And not in a way that I could have explained to you in advance:  I was stunned to discover that I hadn’t known what I needed.  I had to stumble across it.

Can that be artificially created?  Sure — if somebody knows you well enough to offer you just the right stimulus at just the right time in just the right place.  But otherwise it seems like it’s the luck of the draw, and if that’s the only way transformational experiences occur, then, there’s really not much to talk about.  You make some art and play the odds.

But in fact there is a very different kind of experience, one no less personalized but far more replicable, which can create individual change.

People Need People

This is the kind of experience that psychologist Carl Rogers wrote about in his 1961 book On Becoming a Person, where he proposes that change is not absolute or standardized, but relational.  Which is to say:  transformative experiences are not best looked at as particular things, but particular kinds of relationships.

“It has gradually been driven home to me that I cannot be of help to this troubled person by means of any intellectual or training procedure,” Rogers wrote.

“No approach which relies upon knowledge, upon training, upon the acceptance of something that is taught, is of any use.  These approaches seem so tempting and direct that I have, in the past, tried a great many of them.  It is possible to explain a person to himself, to prescribe steps which should lead him forward, to train him in knowledge about a more satisfying mode of life.  But such methods are, in my experience, futile and inconsequential.  The most they can accomplish is some temporary change, which soon disappeared, leaving the individual more than ever convinced of his inadequacy.”

On the other hand:

“If I can provide a certain type of relationship, the other will discover within himself the capacity to use that relationship for growth, and change and personal development will occur.”

Metamorphoses Requires Change

Why relationships rather than things?  Events?  Information?

Well, in part because relationships are themselves uniquely personal in a way that such objects can almost never be.  Your friendships and relationships are very much about you.  They are, if you’re doing it right, customized from the very beginning.

But more than that:  relationships are dynamic – they change over time – and thus engage those aspects of yourself that are also dynamic.  To reach a place where people are in fact going to change, Rogers posits, they need to be part of a system that changes.  Is taking John Keating’s poetry class going to be transformative?  Depends – how much does it respond to you instead of demanding you respond to it, and what kind of relationship with the class do you develop?

Static experiences push us to be static in turn, while dynamic relationships create room for us to change as well.

“When he enters the therapeutic relationship, the client is likely to wish to achieve some fixed state,” Rogers writes. “(H)e wants to reach the point where his problems are solved, or where he is effective in his work, or where his marriage is satisfactory.  He tends, in the freedom of the therapeutic relationship to drop such fixed goals and to accept a more satisfying realization that he is not a fixed entity, but a process of becoming.”

Do What Works

There’s considerable evidence that a relational approach to personal breakthroughs is far more potent than other kinds.  There’s the studies Rogers cites in his book for sure, though obviously those studies are now about 60 years old.  More recent evidence can be found in a favorite book of mine on the subject, Art Bohart and Karen Tallman’s 1999 studyHow Clients Make Therapy Work, which I may refer to again later in this series.

But we can also keep things more informal in our search for evidence.  In an interview with NPR, Tony McAleer, founder of Life After Hate, explained that in his experience racist beliefs are generally not held because of facts or information, but because they have been adopted as part of an identity and search for meaning.  To confront them as factual matters therefore rarely works. But listening, and “trying to reconnect to the person’s buried humanity” … that works.  But to do it you have to establish a relationship in which their buried humanity is capable of coming out.

That’s also the experience of blues musician Daryl Davis, a black man who for over 30 years has been befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan, and convinced over 200 of them to quit the group.  He does not credit his success to any particular message, but to establishing a relationship which facilitated change.

“As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship,” Davis said, “and as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.”

So there is a kind of relationship, a kind I posit that Burning Man –  its culture, its theme camps, and its network of relationships – frequently provides, that consistently creates the conditions for personal change in a way that most other things we do cannot.

In the next entry in this series, we’ll look at the characteristics of these relationships.

Top Photo: Walkway to the Man (photo by Andrew Wyatt)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

10 Comments on “Metamorphoses, part 2 – What Helps People Change?

  • Vickie says:

    Transformative experiences are available anywhere and any time, but we have to open up and allow them. I traipsed across the country and into an alkaline powder desert EXPECTING epiphanies that were desperately necessary to my life. The moment the wheels of the Burner Express touched the Playa, answers and realizations came rolling over me like water. Among them was the truth that I could’ve realized all that stuff at home in my favorite chair, devoid of Playa dust, with my cat on my lap. It seems that I needed to work for it, go to some trouble, and feel that I’d come to the mountaintop.

    People have life-changing experiences at Burning Man because they finally feel it’s okay to let themselves. If it were too easy, or if it weren’t held in Hell on Earth, we might not have so many epiphanies.

    This is an intriguing article series; thank you.

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  • The Hustler says:

    I think if people go somewhere, or buy a thing or seek a person to have a transformational experience, they will never find it; it’s akin to trying to create authenticity.

    Another approach is when a word escapes me for a moment, or if I drop something small on the floor and can’t immediately find it: I have to stop thinking about it for a moment and be open to the experience of finding that roll of film that somehow rolled under the couch.

    Going to Black Rock City to “find” anything of consequence may be a similar experience. I’ve had the most transformative-like experiences when I’m focused on something unremarkable, something not at all on the path to transformation.

    Black Rock City itself is a buzzing beehive of stimuli, from the theme camps to the weather to the Air Force pilots buzzing 6:00 in the F-18 Hornets. It reminds me of the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty & Cacioppo 1986), where they describe two primary cognitive paths that recipients of information or messages may take. One is the peripheral route where people don’t elaborate or listen to a message. They use mental shortcuts and topical reasons not to listen – it’s a fancy way of saying they’re not paying attention. The counter to that is the central route, where the intended audience is elbow deep in the message and actively scrutinizing the content. The idea is we’re all slammed with messages and information all the time, which makes it impossible even to comprehend the idea of trying to pay attention to everything. A message recipient has to make snap – often subconscious – decisions about what to dismiss and what is worthy of elaboration.

    While the ELM is entrenched in the canon of persuasive communication, it is sort of relevant here. If one can learn to filter out nonsense – the clichés about spiritualistic searches for some inner meaning or something – and focus less on “finding” transformative experiences, less free will and more determinism (eh, sort of), and also be open to the idea that a “transformative” experience can be small, then maybe it will work out.

    Or it might not. And that’s OK because it’s part of the experience.

    I’m stoked to see where you take this series.

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  • Popeye says:

    “establishing a relationship which facilitated change” is not only for interracial and interpersonal relationships. It works for all hardened opinions learned at a young age or part of a tribal or religous philosophy. This is why Pride and the transgender day of visibility are so very important.

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  • Julie says:

    I couldn’t get a ticket this year, so I’ll need to wait for next year to transform.

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  • Andie Grace says:

    One of my teachers says that the difference between simple personal change and transformation is that transformation requires an intentional container of some sort, be it a location, a setting, a course of study, or some other place to act out the intention. I’m still figuring out whether I agree, but the thought has stuck with me; plenty of things have changed me as a person, but anything I’d call a real “transformation” happened as a result of intent, and indeed, happened within a specific “container.”

    Still chewing on that one. Great piece.

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  • Dreamweaver says:

    You know that political slogan “Be the change you want to see”?

    Applies here in spades.

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