I will start with a quote from my dad. As you know, I have on previous occasions shared my father’s words that in retrospect have turned out to be small wisdom sayings for me. Of course, I didn’t know when I first heard these utterings as a teenager, or even when I was a young man, that there was a profound value to his humorous expressions. I thought his little sayings were funny, but I was largely dismissive of them. It is a cliché but it is truly amazing how much wiser my parents have become as I grow older, and even though they are no longer here within this earthly realm they clearly are still alive and growing in my consciousness.
In fact, my Dad’s full statement was, “The difficult will take some time. The impossible will take a little longer…” I believe my dad held this view quite strongly. He also used to say, “The limits of what we can do are defined by what we can think” What I recognize, in looking back over my nearly eight decades of life, is that my dad’s sayings instilled in me an essential credo namely that: ‘I am limited mostly by my ideas of what is possible.” Some may think that this represents magical thinking. This is not my understanding, and I will use an experience from my own life to illustrate later in this Field Note. I will first explore this idea of how our thinking can limit or expand our possibilities. In the psychological literature, there is a notion now commonly known as a growth mindset.
This term, growth mindset, was coined by Carol Dwek (Mindset – Updated Edition: Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential). She contrasts this with its opposite mode: fixed mindset. This latter sees things as frozen and unchanging, and unchageable. A fixed mindset is from within my perspective, against the laws of nature. Everything—the entire universe—keeps changing all the time, and if we have a fixed mindset as most of us do, to a greater or lesser extent, we will have difficulty adapting, coping, and flexing with reality. I have seen that most of us experience inner conflict with these two ways of being in the world. Where does this conflict come from?
Human beings do seem to have a great propensity to try to achieve certainty, which can more or less be translated into keeping everything as it is. This, I suspect, is an evolutionary reality based from the earliest days of human existence on the earth. Much energy and effort go into effort to maintain the status quo. I would say it is equivalent to driving with your foot to the floor on the accelerator and pushing down hard on the brake at the same time. This is very hard on the vehicle, of course, and when the vehicle is our selves, the result is perhaps not surprising. We begin to break down. Our body literally starts to shake itself towards a state of dis/integration in concert with our feelings and consciousness, and this will almost certainly feel like a breakdown. Entertain the possibility that there is a fine line between breakdown and breakthrough. Breakdown is damage; breakthrough, is a paradigm shift—transcendence. As well, there is some necessary ‘breakdown’ built into the way we grow and develop. Think of a seed that needs to transition through its outer covering in the service of growing towards its potential. New growth in anything, from muscle to mindset, from seeds to institutions, necessitates breakdowns, but these have to occur optimally. Otherwise, there will only be damage.
From the viewpoint of growth mindset, I would propose that personal crisis is an identity edge; what we might see as the limits of our personal known universe, our limiting identity, or as I have usually called it, an egoic structure, of which we all have many. (If you are interested, send me an email and I will send you a copy of my journal article, Dissociative Identity Disorder, where you will see that most all of us have experienced this kind of crisis, albeit in less extreme manifestations than is referred to the diagnostic label.) I will now share some personal experience to illustrate these concepts and the associated practices.
Looking back and studying my younger self, I can say that my egoic structures were entrenched in ignorance about my potential and possibilities. From my dismal undergraduate experience (where I barely avoided failing grades and managed to graduate marginally above the minimum requirements), combined with my general experience of feeling miserable and unhappy about my life. I saw myself as a failure and expected increasingly less from myself. Nevertheless, I think, again in hindsight, my father’s saying was like a seed that was dropped into the soil of my soul, and that was waiting for the time when there would be a more favourable germination environment. As I know now, from decades of experience, that everything has its necessary timing and path and that often the destination turns out to be other than what I had in mind at the outset
A particularly favourable environment arrived when I was offered a job that allowed me to do something I was immensely interested in; namely, to make a living by talking to people about things that were very interesting and substantial, and that mattered. I became a child care counsellor under the tutelage of Dr. Peter Lavelle. I wrote about this in other places, and so I won’t repeat the story here. I would say that Dr. Lavelle’s singular contribution to my growth was to help me to move beyond my self-limiting and sabotaging ego identity structures sufficiently—not entirely, of course—to move into an increasingly growth oriented mindset. Over the many intervening decades to the present, I have been, I would say, growing, to the point of achieving the “impossible.” My dad was definitely right: “Impossible will take a little longer,” and that has been mostly but not always my experience.
Growth, as you no doubt know, is usually not a linear and tidy process. On the contrary, it tends to be bending, circling, and chaotic; nor is there a shortcut. At least, I have never found such. In order to move through this process of growth, I had to proceed with and through every step of the way, including difficult, disheartening, demoralizing, and at times, “very bad and ugly” periods. Through it all, profound changes took place in my sense of who I was, and also, changes in my sense of my capabilities and talents. After labouring so long in my formative years under the beliefs that my capacities and capabilities were limited, that I had no notable talents, and that I just wasn’t good enough, the discovery that such wasn’t the case did not sink in readily but took place over, years and even decades, I began to increasingly notice and cultivate the deeper truths about myself, relationships, and life.
After a spectacularly miserable experience as an undergraduate student, to discover that I was a top student in my master’s program was an experience that simply pushed me to the edge and beyond of my personal world view: I couldn’t believe it. The same happened when I entered the Ph.D. program at the University of British Columbia and even after being awarded a number of scholarships throughout my career as a doctoral student and eventually graduating with a major achievement award: the Ted T. Aoki Prize for Outstanding Dissertation in Curriculum Studies. (My dissertation is titled: Attending to the inner experience of an educator: The human dimension in education. It has been published as a book . . .) Even today, after seeing, again and again, how completing my doctoral program opened many previously unimaginable doors professionally and personally, I can still be struck by a sense of incredulity and, I might say, awe. As I have seen with most everyone I have known personally and professionally, our self-concepts formed during our earliest days seems to have a long-lasting presence, and that paying a particular kind of attention to them will help them ro grow ‘up’ and develop inner relationships and inner community.
What I hope to illustrate with the stories about my experience (ones that I have shared in this Field Note and in my previous ones, too) is that dreams unfold over time, and very often, in an unfathomable manner. And at early stages, it may seem that dreams barely exist. I have noticed, with some alarm, that some of my clients don’t have dreams. It is as though they have given up on dreaming at all. They may think or say: Why bother dreaming the impossible? Of course, having a dream of the impossible does not guarantee its fruition. What it guarantees is, however, opening up a journey that offers an exploration and learning about the dimensions of the inner, outer, relational, and even spiritual that were hitherto invisible to a vision that has been darkened. I hasten to add that dreaming something big is equivalent to setting a goal that requires setting out on the path towards that goal. Just having the big dream is not likely to magically manifest the dream.
I highly recommend dreaming big, dreaming small, dreaming any size at all. Dreaming opens up the possibility of being on the road with the likelihood of growing ever deeper into your own very personal process of imagining what your dream is, and being open to what you will learn that will help you grow into a more whole human being. Learning about Big Dreaming was part of my learning with Arnold Mindell, the founder (along with his wife, Amy Mindell: (aamindell.net) of Process Work.
As the title of this Field Note indicates, the possibilities inherent in pursuing what may seem impossible opens the door to achieving the impossible, perhaps discovering what is the possibility that is most authentic to you and your world, and having the adventure of finding out what is possible. And, perhaps most significantly, the door to your own growth, imagination, creativity, and most authentic self will be opened ever wider, and your own resilience and flexibility with the occurrences along the way, including the uninvited, the unwanted, and even the horrible. (“Dare to dream,” enjoins Brene Brown). Cultivating the persistence to stay with your dreams through the sunny and dark days is a lifelong process that, in the end and along the way, will turn out to be the ongoing unfolding of your actual life.
Many thanks to Heesoon for support with this Field Note, as we move on into 2022.