Recognizing the Pattern of Transformation in Our Lives

How do we know when transformation is about to happen to us?

The Writings of Baha’u’llah state that,

Adversity is the oil that feedeth the flame of this Lamp! Such is God’s transforming power.1

Psychologist C.G Jung also wrote that,

There is no balance, no system of self-regulation, without opposition.2

It would seem, from the above, that it is when we consciously experience the adversity that comes from opposites clashing in our lives. But being aware of these life-changing moments is one of our greatest challenges. We do, however, have some very useful tools to help us recognize and welcome such changes. 

Transformation is the means by which we stay on the life trajectory that we are intended to be on. We know from biology that our physical development maintains a balance between opposing forces in our lives through the process of homeostasis. We also know that through homeorhesis we persist along the pathway we are meant to be on despite complications encountered. Our biological development is pre-set to unfold according to an innate blueprint; we have an inborn tendency that keeps us on this biological path.

Is there is a parallel principle governing our psycho-spiritual development that is similarly designed to keep us on a certain trajectory? Little acknowledged is that over 100 years ago anthropologist Arnold van Gennep found, through his extensive cross-cultural studies of rites of passage, that life cycle ceremonies all over the world share a three-phase pattern consisting of separation from the familiar; transition to some new learning; and incorporation, in which the person returns to the group with a new status or role. Indigenous peoples were very accustomed to living within this archetypal framework. This pattern of quest, challenge, and renewal, or birth, death, and rebirth, is the standard process by which we undergo every life transition.

What is even more interesting is that this pattern is also central to the world’s spiritual and mystical traditions; it is especially evident in The Seven Valleys and the other writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha.

Baha’u’llah links transformation to experiencing opposing forces:

Know ye that trials and tribulations have, from time immemorial, been the lot of the chosen Ones of God… Such is God’s method carried into effect of old, and such will it remain in the future. Blessed are the steadfastly enduring, that they are patient under ills and hardships.3

Or, as Abdu’l-Baha explains,

The mind and spirit of man advance when he is tried by suffering… Just as the plow furrows the earth deeply, purifying it of weeds and thistles, so suffering and tribulation free man from the petty affairs of this worldly life until he arrives at a state of complete detachment.4

The Baha’i writings offer a number of core oppositions that get to the essence of the pattern of transformation: crisis and victory, affliction and advancement, tests and bestowals, criticism and confirmation, opposition and triumph,5 each one representing an ever-recurring dialectic in our lives between two halves of a whole, both of which are necessary for the blueprint of transformation to be completed.

This “archetype” of transformation is a timeless, universal pattern designed to facilitate our spiritual development. It tells us there is a dynamic give and take, or push and pull, to life that is with us every day of our lives, and that we have a natural tendency to find our way to those experiences in life that will lead us to and through our own transformation.

Dealing with the inherent oppositions of life is how we discover our blueprint for soul-making. It is the way we access the higher levels of human existence and fulfil our potential. It is what helps us become comfortable with the uncomfortable, and to see the whole from its parts.

Transformation is no accident; it is necessary to keep us progressing in the physical world. Abdu’l-Baha makes this clear:

All things are subject to transformation and change, save only the essence of existence itself – since it is constant and immutable.6

As opposites clash in our own lives, our core moments of overcoming adversity facilitate spiritual growth and transformation. Psychologist C.G. Jung says that opposition is inherent in human nature:

Nothing so promotes the growth of consciousness as this inner confrontation of opposites.

Consciousness and confrontation of opposites are linked in one of life’s primary purposes:

Only here, in life on earth, where opposites clash together, can the general level of consciousness be raised. [The] tension of opposites which in their turn seek compensation in unity…7

…brings about the all-important expansion of consciousness.

This principle of opposites colliding and merging to create opportunities for greater growth should be recognized as a spiritual principle that applies equally and universally to all human beings, just as the biological principle of homeorhesis does. The first principle is a blueprint for our spiritual development and the second is a blueprint for our biological development.

Identifying this pattern of transformation in our own lives and incorporating its structure, significance, and meaning into the stories we tell about our lives is an important task for our time. This three-part process of transformation, a juxtaposition of dualities driving and directing our growth, leads to a new and greater form of unity and integration in our lives – and in the world – because this is a journey that leads ultimately to personal and collective transformation.

Now, more than ever, when the well being of the whole is so tied to the well being of the parts, when the parts are indistinguishable, even inseparable, from the whole, each influencing the other, the personal is the collective. What benefits one benefits us all.


  1. Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah p.72. []
  2. J. Jacobi, The Psychology of C.G. Jung, p.53. []
  3. Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah p.129. []
  4. Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p.178. []
  5. The Universal House of Justice, Crisis and Victory, p.4, 6, 33. []
  6. Abdu’l-BahaSelections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha p.157. []
  7. J. Jacobi, ibid, p.55; C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p.345, 311, 335. []

About the Author

Robert Atkinson, Ph.D., is an internationally known author of eight books, a professor of human development and religious studies, and director of Life Story Commons, at the University of Southern Maine. This blog post is adapted from his most recent book, Mystic Journey: Getting to the Heart of Your Soul’s Story (Cosimo, 2012). To learn more about the book and how to order it, go to his website www.RobertAtkinson.net.

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Discussion 10 Comments

  1. Thanks for your comments; Allen, I like the connection you’ve made to justice. The process of transformation – through holding and merging the tension of opposites – may be a requisite of justice – the pre-eminent sign of compassion in action. Both transformation and justice are gifts from the Creator, and both rest upon the principle of oneness.

  2. Such wonderful words with thoughts that make us think of the ‘bigger picture’.
    And finding the balance is the hard part but thru prayer and trust that distruction is also part of reconstruction physically and spiritually.
    This is also a hard concept for our western society but we were brought up to believe that goodness equates to no problems.
    Silly concept but it I believe came from that Judeo Christian background – sin equated to poverty and problems.

    However, I loved your article and will need to read and reread your quotes so as to take it all in.

  3. It occurs to me, that separation often includes grieving and that has been observed to include several stages such as: denial, anger, and bargaining before we get to acceptance. In accepting my diagnosis with Parkinson’s I was noticeably at first in denial, not wanting to think about it or learn anything about it. Now I notice I wave back and forth between frustration (a form of anger), justifying (a form of bargaining perhaps), and acceptance when I want to know what’s happening and getting on with life.
    I note all this to add to the above that the three stages of separation, transition, and incorporation may not occur in a straight line dynamic. Although the messages of the 5-Yr Plan, for example, give us the vision of what incorporation will look like and we’d like to be there now, we may have hang-ups that keep us from advancing steadily along the continuum described. No wonder that prayers for detachment are so crucial, at least for me they are.
    Thanks for sharing this information from science. Great stuff!!!

  4. It is true that challenges are opportunities for growth but there also needs to be loving kindness for oneself and from others to help nurture and heal the wounds to enable one to grow. Those who have experienced extreme abuse and trauma are especially in need of loving support from others. Because I grew up with extreme abuse and neglect, overcoming its effect on me has been a lifelong challenge. Fortunately there have been people who cared enough to research how to heal and overcome trauma. Much has been learned and new techniques to help someone heal trauma are being researched but a caring, supportive, empathic, nurturing relationship is still the greatest catalyst for healing and growth. My greatest learning and growth have been in an environment of safety and support. One of the greatest lessons I have learned is societies need to do all they can to end child abuse and teach better parenting skills. Secure attachment in childhood to a loving, safe and trustworthy parent helps build in the individual the skills, and inner strength to better handle life’s challenges and to learn and grow from them. For those of us who were deprived of a secure, loving and safe childhood – we have to learn how to rebuild that.

  5. One could take this as that the more confrontation or tribulation you experience the more one gains….Perhaps any level of tribulation as small or insignificant as it may seem could bring about transformation?

    These teaching could be applied to major life events… Sickness, death of loved one, etc. AND little ones… Work, career, the slow dude in the left lane!

  6. In addition to all of the good thinking above, the pattern of planning/action/reflection that Baha’is are learning to use in their collective efforts bears a resemblance to these transformative experiences that we tend to speak of — at least *I* do — in an individual context. Often, as individuals, it is at the point of action, the point at which we are forced to encounter suffering or difficulty, that we may become conscious of the process of growth that life is inviting us to pursue. (Usually, speaking for myself, we don’t embrace this awareness, but instead just go grumbling and stumbling along.)

    It is fascinating that, collectively, we *plan* to put ourselves in situations of discomfort, newness and learning, as many of the civilization-building activities that the Baha’is are engaged in are beyond their experience and their comfort level. They/we *choose* to learn, knowing that it will produce difficulty and trusting that, upon reflection, it will also produce insight and opportunities for useful forms of service.

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