The Shape of Our Lives: How We Grow
By Joy Reichart, New Ventures West, guest contributor
“Sounds like you need to work on your sword cuts,” a fellow Integral Coach said to me recently.
My response to this was so vivid that even now I can feel it in my body: a sort of bunching in my solar plexus, moving upward, clawing at my throat and threatening to erupt in a petulant scream.
“Gah, THIS AGAIN?” I managed in a somewhat civil—though not altogether mature—reply.
The sword cuts to which she was referring were both literal and metaphorical. I’ve been practicing the martial art Aikido for years, and part of our training involves working with wooden staffs and swords. Admittedly this is the area of practice I resonate with least, most avoid—and therefore need the most.
This conversation with my wise friend was around the topic of making declarations and claiming space: an area I’m also challenged in and shy away from.
Integral Coaching is always making these connections between the shapes we make with our bodies and our experience of broader life. Maybe it’s not hard to see how sword cuts apply in both scenarios here, and why in that moment I felt so, well, mad.
My colleague smiled patiently, holding vast space for my little tantrum. “Of course ‘this again,’” she said. “It’s the spiral.”
Right. The spiral.
Growth is not linear
I’ve always been attracted to the spiral shape. My first tattoo was a tiny two-dimensional spiral where the top of my left foot meets my ankle. And this was long before I had any notion of its deep implications in growth, development, spirituality, and all else that has been central in my life.
Growth is not a linear path. George Leonard, in his book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, refers to it as a line that moves gradually, so gradually upward, but that comprises mostly plateaus and is lousy with backslides.
I love this image and come back to it (and the book) often. In a world where we’re trained to see growth and success as an uninterrupted upward trajectory, this notion is not only humbling, but profoundly relieving in the truth that it points to. Particularly when we’re learning something new.
The spiral is a similar, though not identical, expression of this concept. It’s one I tend to think and speak about more, for many reasons: the main one being that the spiral is such a gorgeous shape, and one that is elemental to all things in this universe.
The spiral in development
Think about a two-dimensional spiral, like one you’d draw on a piece of paper, starting at the center and moving out. With each revolution, the spiral gets bigger, yes, and it revisits the same spots, high, low, and in all other directions around an unmoving center point.
As you may have experienced in your own practice, we revisit the same points on the path again and again—the joyful moments at the top, for instance, and the discouraging ones at the bottom. Or maybe there’s a limiting habit or way of being that lives at, say, 4 o’clock on the circle, and the freedom from it over there at 10.
If you are committed to growth, these repeated visits are inevitable. But here’s the cool thing: each time we pass by them, it’s from a wider vantage and a more expanded version of ourselves. We bring more wisdom or equanimity or skill to the challenge, and we bring more grace and gratitude to the triumph.
We could also view the spiral as a more three-dimensional helix shape. As we deepen, we are spiraling down ever deeper, like a drill bit or a root corkscrewing into the earth. In this dance we are moving around the steady core that is our central issue—that unmovable One Thing that all our practices and spiritual pursuits point to, even if we aren’t always consciously aware of this.
As we move downward, we are exploring the ground ever deeper beneath and around this taproot of potential, getting closer to the ‘bottom’ of it, loosening the ground around it, creating conditions for it not to have such an inescapable chokehold on us.
But that core, that center point, that inexorable One Thing, is always there. We can change our relationship to it, but we can’t change it—at least as far as I know. I wonder if there are any enlightened masters who have. We mortals, it seems, only have the choice to stay on the path and keep spiraling ever outward, ever deeper.
So there I was, being reminded of my One Thing: those damn sword cuts. All of my dancing around them, all of my cultivation of grace, gentleness, flow, and all the other beautiful elements of Aikido practice – the ones I felt I was ‘mastering’ (in the line-going-up sense) weren’t the ones I needed. I was back at the bottom of the two-dimensional spiral, the sword in my hand and the truth in my throat, feeling inept—though admittedly not so inept as I felt five years ago, or ten. I turned back toward the core of my deepening journey in the helix and saw that this particular growth edge hadn’t gone anywhere, nor would it. All there was to do was stay on the path—with both Aikido and my own inner development—and make another revolution.
Meanwhile, the art on my body had been expanding, not in ways I could logically explain but that just felt right. A tree now lives on my inner right forearm, anchored at the wrist by a spiraled root ball and roots that spiral out from it. The trunk spirals into the branches, which become whisps of stardust spiraling up the arm, ending in a gigantic galaxy that spirals around my shoulder.
The universe is made of spirals. This is why Aikido is rife with them - because we are dedicated to blending with the shapes the world makes naturally, to live in harmony. I daresay that the path of growth is surrendering to the spiral—the most basic and pervasive shape in the universe.
“The courage of a master is measured by [their] willingness to surrender. This means surrendering to your teacher and to the demands of your discipline. It also means surrendering your own hard-one proficiency from time to time in order to reach a higher or different level of proficiency.” - George Leonard
A reflection for you
What has been the spiral of your practice? Where do you see yourself in it now, and what might the next rotation hold?
Or is there a new practice or skill you’ve been wanting to step into, but are hesitant because you fear you may not be perfect right away? How might holding it as a spiral path support you in taking the first step?
Joy Reichart is the Communications Director at New Ventures West in San Francisco.
New Ventures West invites you to step onto the spiral path of Integral Coaching mastery in Foundations of Coaching, our virtual introductory course, next happening on February 16-18. Use coupon code MINDFULLEADER for $100 off tuition.