The dynamics of change – what we experience as change unfolds

Human change is ultimately driven by the complexity of our life conditions (both material and psychological) and our individual capacity to cope with that complexity. When our coping capacity matches our life conditions, there is no impetus for change. It’s only when we fall out of step with our life conditions that our inherent adaptive intelligence is activated and we begin to change.

The diagram below shows the changing complexity of life conditions as a green line and the various milestones of the change cycle as yellow faces. Note that life conditions are trending towards higher complexity in this example.

The cycle of change, explained

STABILITY: When most of our problems are taken care of, life is manageable and good. We experience stability and we want to hang on to it. Change isn’t needed or wanted, for now.

STRESS: Sooner or later though, our life conditions change (but our thinking and behaviour is still the same) and we sense that something isn’t quite right. At first we may not know why, but for some reason life isn’t as comfortable as it used to be. We experience stress in the form of problems we can’t solve. Often our first response is to try going back to our ‘old ways’ to see if that works, or we may simply try ignoring the problems, hoping they’ll go away.

CHAOS: Because our thinking and behaviour is now well out-of-step with our life conditions, as time progresses our unsolved problems get worse and we find ourselves in a state of chaos. By this time life is so uncomfortable that we really do want change!  Often there are perceived blocks or barriers to our progress. This chaotic phase acts like a pressure cooker that can trigger changes in our neurochemistry and neural networks. These in turn bring transformational changes to our thinking and behaviour, allowing us to break through the barriers and progress to the next milestone.

RENEWAL: When the barriers to change fall away, we experience a newfound energy and clearer direction. We can now see the solutions we need and we feel a sense of renewal. At last, the way ahead is clear!

NEW STABILITY: Over time we solve our problems and reach a place of new stability. As a result of our personal changes we find ourselves at a higher place and able to cope with greater complexity.

This is the normal change dynamic, which we call Revolutionary Change because it involves breaking through barriers. Evolutionary Change is also possible (see the dotted line) but it requires a higher level of awareness and flexibility very early in the process, to avoid falling into chaos.

This change dynamic is so fundamental to human existence that it’s deeply embedded in our philosophy and mythology across all cultures. The version shown above is a simplified form, but more complex versions of the same change process are found in many places; including philosopher Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, in the ancient Chinese I Ching (Book of Changes), in the sequence of cards in the Tarot, and even in the afterlife journeys described in various Books of the Dead from different cultures. This change process is the archetypal human journey, where adventure is called for, hardships are faced and overcome, and the end result is the triumphant return of the hero/heroine to be raised above their previous level. Incidentally, the journey’s profile is similar to the rising and setting Sun – therefore many ancient cultures used the Sun as a spiritual icon representing the human experience of change.

The points of stability at the start and end of the change cycle are actually stages in a larger pattern of development. Click here to read about the stages.

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