Metamorphoses, Part 6 — What “Transformation” Are We Talking About?

This is part 6 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.


All right, so, people talk about “transformative experiences” all the time. There’s a whole event genre now of “transformational festivals.” Snack bars have begun advertising that they contain 50% of your daily supply of transformation. Lawn chairs don’t just give you a place to sit, they are a transformational sitting experience.

It’s come up so much that I no longer like the word — “transformation” has been so overused that a linguistic tragedy of the commons has occurred, and the term has nothing left to offer.

But do we actually know what it is we were talking about in the first place? Do we actually know what “transformation” involves in a Burning Man context?

Here’s an interesting thing about Larry and his understanding of transformation.

His Thing Doesn’t Have to be Your Thing

Larry, as I said at the beginning of this series, was a fairly serious Freudian. And he liked to tell a story about how, in his youth, he encountered a book on the principles of psychoanalysis, and then proceeded to psychoanalyze himself. This was incredibly challenging for him, but through it he gained tremendous insight into himself, and was able to live a better life. It was, in short, one of the earliest — perhaps even the first — “transformative experience” in Larry’s life.

And yet … for all that he believed it had done him great good … Larry did not go around handing out volumes of Freud to his friends. He didn’t talk key Freudian concepts up to everyone he met. He never tried to institute a psychoanalysis curriculum or directed psychoanalysis experience.

On the contrary. Most people who weren’t his close friends actually had no idea he was into Freud at all.

Instead of telling people all about the thing that had made a difference to him, Larry listened. Instead of creating a Freud-festival, where people would learn all about The Important Thing, he created Burning Man — where people come together and figure out for themselves what they really want to do, and then do it. And the thing that changed Larry’s life almost never comes up for them.

Learning How To Change

Larry, in other words, did not really see a transformative experience as getting access to the “right” information or content. But he did see transformation as happening when people relate to themselves and others differently.

Larry never said it to me explicitly, but I think he understood something that Carl Rogers proposed long ago: that “transformation” in the sense we use it here happens not when a person changes from one thing to another, but when they increase their relationship to change itself. When they come not to a new form, but to an enhanced openness to further change that never needs to stop. Transformative experiences, in this sense, are not turning lead into gold, but turning lead into possibility.

Individuals move not from a fixity or homeostasis through change to a new fixity, though such a process is indeed possible,” Rogers wrote. “But much the more significant continuum is from fixity to changingness, from rigid structure to flow, from stasis to process.”

Much in the way that the most profound education is not so much learning a specific thing as learning how to learn, a truly transformative experience is not changing into a new specific thing, but learning how to change.

I think that’s what happened to Larry when he discovered psychoanalysis: it wasn’t so much that he figured out the right answers, but that the process of discovery he undertook was one that opened him up to ongoing change and discovery throughout his life. And he realized that giving other people the same answers he’d found would lock them in to new dogmas about themselves, rather than creating the conditions under which they could change.

Creating those conditions is the important thing.

We Are So Much More Than We Think

Let’s dig deeper into this. Why would it work that way?

Well, why do we need “transformative experiences” at all? What is it that keeps people from changing in the first place?

The issue, Rogers found, is that even if we want to change most of us cannot because we are stuck with a fixed mental image of ourselves that is so strong that we tend to ignore, or not even notice, information that contradicts it. We have confirmation bias about our lives.

Rogers wrote: “In our daily lives there are a thousand and one reasons for not letting ourselves experience our attitudes fully, reasons from our past and from the present, reasons that reside within the social situation. It seems too dangerous, too potentially damaging, to experience them freely and fully.”

Because we see ourselves as strong, we cannot accept the experience of weakness; because we see ourselves as good, we cannot accept that we have thoughts that might be bad; because we think of ourselves as at war, we cannot accept the ways we can be at peace.

To truly change, then, we must first learn how to accept new kinds of evidence — we must gain the ability to notice all the feelings we have that are incongruous with our self-image. We must be able to experience the parts of us that we try to ignore, to recognize the things we try not to look at.

“The process (of change) involves a loosening of the cognitive maps of experience. From construing experiences in rigid ways, which are perceived as external facts, the (person) moves towards developing changing, loosely held constraints of meaning in experience, constructs which are modified by each new experience.”

Rather than clamping down on a new set of truths, “I must be this,” transformational change is an ongoing ability to accept new evidence about yourself. The end result of this process is not a new fixity, but the increased ability to be who we are in the present moment. To experience our whole self, rather than just the parts that make up our self-image. The more we can do that, the more new facets of ourselves we can discover, not just in this moment, but on an ongoing basis. And when you can do that, you can change.

I think that’s transformation, the way we talk about it at Burning Man. Not a single change from this to that, but an enhanced capacity to experience who you are, in all your paradoxes, moment after moment after moment. Which leads to change, which leads to more change, which leads to more change.  You are not just a different person, one rigid self-image replaced by another. You are a different kind of person:  one who experiences themselves dynamically, in the moment (with Immediacy), rather than someone clinging to a static image.

What this means, of course, for people who are trying to create environments in which transformational experiences happen, is that you can’t determine their outcomes. Because you are not leading someone to a fixed endpoint, but rather helping them discover their own capacity to change based on their own experiences, you have to give up any illusion of control. You’re helping them in their process, but have no ability to decide where it goes.

In the next post, we’ll connect this experience of transformation to the conditions of a “transformational relationship,” and ask what this idea means for an “authentic” self.

Top photo: “HybyCozo — Deep Thought”  by Yelena Filipchuk (photo by Luksz)

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 6 — What “Transformation” Are We Talking About?

  • Jane says:

    I’m going to dress up like a butterfly!

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  • Marion says:

    I love every single word you’ve written. It was a pleasure to read this. Thank you.

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  • Solomon Grundy says:

    Beautifully written wisdom. Nothing to cling to, nothing to get hung upon.

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  • Marisel says:

    Can’t wait to read your book!

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  • temple run 2 says:

    Most people who weren’t his close friends actually had no idea he was into Freud at all.

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  • Jason says:

    This is my favorite of the series so far. You kick ass!

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  • Joanna Priestley says:

    This is very inspiring! Looking forward to your visit to Powells in Portland.

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  • Petal says:

    Recently, I viewed a podcast of a long-time mentor, Ken Blanchard, and Simon Sinek, one of this generation’s current leadership thought leaders where Simon referenced his next book, The Infinite Game:
    “In infinite games, like business or politics or life itself, the players come and go, the rules are changeable, and there is no defined endpoint. There are no winners or losers in an infinite game; there is only ahead and behind.
    The more I started to understand the difference between finite and infinite games, the more I began to see infinite games all around us. I started to see that many of the struggles that organizations (and individuals) face exist simply because their leaders (or they) were playing with a finite mindset in an infinite game.”

    Although the book is directed at those involved in leading communities and companies, the concept of an infinite game vs. a static one SO applies to us as human beings and catalyzes for me your piece on Transformative experience and my own experiences, insights and personal evolution as a 7-time Burner. Burning Man teaches me that life is an ongoing series of puzzles and challenges that I experience, not alone, but with others in a context of communal living and participation. I have come to believe as well that Transformation as Rogers theorized and Larry lived happens in the context of relationship and community.

    Thank you so much for this Series…

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  • Your share is the great knowledge I have gathered, you are an important person I admire, thank you

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  • Marilisa says:

    Thank you for suggesting Carl Rogers book. One of the most interesting book I’ve read this year.

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