As I look for my next work engagement, I ask myself: What do I really want to be doing? Again and again, transformative learning pops up.
Personal transformation–or transformative learning, as Jack Mezirow calls it– has been a consistent interest threading through my entire life, both personally and professionally. It connects my choice to become an artist; a writer; a teacher of yoga, breath, and meditation. It’s where my interest naturally lies as an instructional designer.
I’ve experienced transformative learning in many contexts. Some were consciously chosen: hours-long work sessions drawing, painting, writing; taking LSD and mescaline (decades ago); various meditation, breathwork, and yoga practices.
On the other hand, I’ve experienced transformative learning in many situations not entirely of my choosing: divorce, fire, bankruptcy, losing jobs, falling in love, losing love.
Speaking of unintended transformative learning experiences, the original research that led Mezirow to conceive transformative learning theory was a study of unintentional transformations, not intentional ones.
Make no mistake: the process of transformation is rarely easy. It is inherently vague, uncertain, confusing, complex, and ambiguous. Individuals often fail. In divorce such a failure of TL is called flame-out, meaning the person never fully recovers. Instead of transforming through the trauma to create a flourishing re-invented life, the person is permanently crippled.
Transformative learning theory was Mezirow’s attempt to create a reliable road map to help the individual not only survive the psychological and emotional ordeal but to come out the other side stronger.
People often revolutionize their lives as a result of a transformative learning event. One student complained that yoga teacher training should come with a warning label!
Personally, much of my experience with transformative learning theory in action has occurred in various training programs with Landmark Education. The first time I participated in the Landmark Forum, my life changed tracks entirely. After that weekend, I was on track towards a different future. I saw more clearly how my skewed private map of reality–my interpretations, assumptions, expectations, narratives, and other such stories–actually created my life situation as a self-fulfilling prophecy! And let me tell you, what I saw was disgusting! I saw how my life was perfectly arranged to allow me to blame everyone around me for what I didn’t like about it. As the saying goes, the truth will set you free…but first it’s gonna really piss you off.
But afterwards, after distinguishing these mappings as my own subjective map, I looked at my life with fresh eyes. I saw the facts a bit more clearly: divorce, the impact on my three sons, loss of love, loss by fire of nearly every possession (including twenty-five years of journals and my entire body of art-works). After this transformative learning, I was able to choose a different future: where before I contemplated suicide, now I planned a trip to Thailand! Where before my immediate future was basically more of the same old same-old, afterwards my future included a year at Chiang Mai University as a visiting foreign lecturer!
Bottom line: your future is determined by mental maps that may or may not match reality. In fact, they can never match reality entirely. At best, a map has limited and short term utility. To have fixed ideas based on them is madness. And yet that is what so many of us do. We go on acting like we don’t know the difference between reality and make-believe. Why? Because we don’t!
I am convinced that the future of planet Earth depends upon such maps. Every decision by every world leader is based on a specific map, a specific mental model with its predictions of what the outcome will be of choice A versus choice B. Go to war against Iraq? Intervene in Syria? Eavesdrop on citizens? Invest in renewable energy or coal?
Transformative learning is the process of upgrading our mental maps.