Transformative Crucibles and the Adventure of Life

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To self-actualize, you have to go through a crucible. You have to experience the fires of transformation, the fires of creation. I didn’t know that when I first began studying and researching self-actualization. But now I do. When I began I didn’t understand what a crucible would be for or why it is necessary. I have learned these things along the way. What then is a “crucible?” And what’s involved in going through the fires of change? And how do we transform disruptive experiences in life so they work as a transformative crucible and how we can become a living human crucible to another person?

The Crucible as a Metaphor

As a metaphor, I am using the image of a crucible intentionally. In the physical world, we use a crucible to melt down alloys and pour the bubbling, boiling metal into a container so that when it cools, the metal will have a new form and use. We use crucibles to achieve this. A fascinating things about such crucibles is that they are typically made out of fairly fragile materials so that if you dropped one on a concrete floor, it would crack or even possibly shatter. So, fragile in itself, yet a crucible can hold the heat and intensity of the temperature of the metal to give it a new shape, to transform the metal.

There’s also crucible experiences in the process of self-actualizing as we seek to unleash and actualize our potentials. Why is this and how does this work? It arises because in actualizing our potentials we need to melt down our old forms of thinking, emoting, and behaving and mold these into new forms. That’s where a crucible comes in. We need the dross of life, experiences, and mind, burned away. At times, that which is a potentiality will only emerge from melting down some of our current habits and styles of thinking, emoting, speaking, and acting. That is, often what holds us back and interferes with releasing some potential new skill or competency is a current habit or form of life.

What is first needed is a context where we can use some pressure or stress that has turned up the temperature on our thinking and feeling, let our old forms melt, or burn away, experience the disintegration of our current forms of thinking-emoting, and then hold the space so that a new form and mold can receive all of the raw intensity of our needs, drives, passions, fears, etc.

  •     So what makes up this context, this space?
  •     What creates a human crucible?
  •     How many kinds of crucibles are there?
  •     How can we consciously create a crucible for transformation?

Naturally Occurring Crucibles

Crucibles for transformation and self-actualization actually occur naturally in life. Such crucibles can entail a wide range of things. They often involve a challenging situation and the pressure that we experience when we set some outrageous goal and then give ourselves to going for it. They can occur with the probing questions that open us unexplored territory within us. Or, they can involve a terrifying problem, a life-threatening illness, a significant loss or disruption in life.

Any of these experiences can become a crucible—a fire of transformation. If they do, then the experience becomes a very special space to us. It’s a space where the form of our energies can be taken apart and put back together to create new forms. In this space, we “get to the heart of things” where we then experience a transformation of our thinking, emoting, dreaming, relating, and self-actualizing. No wonder a human crucible is a very special event and one that we typically dread and fear. It is awful and it is awe-ful!

Intentionally Constructing a Crucible

We can also create a human crucible—one that manages its power so it doesn’t scare us or put us off. We don’t have to wait for some experience that threatens our way of life. We can take charge of the experience and use it intentionally as a transformative process. As we have learned to tame fire and to use it for cooking, warmth, energy, etc., so we can tame the fires of human creation and transformation.

With this metaphor in mind, consider how training and coaching can be crucible experiences. In each of these, there is a person who has certain expert knowledge and skill in transformation and who is also highly trained in creating a crucible space and holding it for us.

What is this special space? It is characterized first of all by acceptance and esteem so that we feel safe enough to be, to be real, and to live with the rough and tumble of our own authenticity. And this safety also arises from the trainer or coach’s belief in us, in our potential to learn and to become so much more than we are. Once there is safety and the permission to explore, to learn, to be curious, to let things emerge, into the space we bring an openness to the unknown and the unexpected.

Yet there is more. The space also has to be characterized by honesty, ruthless honesty, a telling the truth to ourselves so that we can face whatever is the case in reality without blinking, without caving in, without escaping, and without putting up ego-defenses. This is the fire. The fire of truth, of reality, and of authenticity. Now you can see why it takes a highly trained facilitator to create and hold such a space. It takes a person who knows how to elicit and build up our ego strength and then invite us to courageously step up to become all we can become. That person has faced his or her own fears of greatness, and so can now lead us in facing our fears.

In the relational context of being in someone’s presence who will not let us off the hook, who passionately believes in us and our possibilities, and who is committed to our growth, the heat and intensity of the conversation that arises is what enables us to get to the heart of things where we can experience surprising transformations. That’s why it is the fierce conversation that usually facilitates getting to the heart of things. It’s a conversation that holds our feet to the fires of creativity and passivity. You can now see the value of the metaphor of a crucible.

In itself, it is fragile and yet it can hold the hot bubbling melted metals that we pour into it. And we need the melting down so that we can form something new, something useful, and something valuable.

So with us. A human crucible is the sacred space created for us by a trainer, a coach, a mentor, a consultant, a friend, a parent, someone who is skilled enough to not be afraid of our human stuff (emotions, needs, fears, dreams, passions, greatness, desperations, etc.) and who will be with us, stand by us, and not let us off the hook. Yet of all of these professions, coaching is the one that most completely operates as a human crucible.

I say that because, unlike the other professions which has their own expertise and invested interests, coaching is strictly a meta-discipline with no content expertise. The coach enters the human relationship context without a single agenda except to facilitate from the client his or her goals, resources, dreams, fears, potentials, talents, and to hold the space with questioning, accountability, and intensity of reflection and feedback so that the transformations occur.

This can also happen in trainings, if the training is well designed and well executed. In that situation, the specific information content of the training provides the new learnings to be incorporated and actualized. Then the various challenges, drills, and practices comprise and hold the space where people can play and experiment until the learnings become embodied.

In these instances, we set out to create a controlled and highly managed context as a human crucible with the design personality change and life transformation. As such, that’s what a client or a training participant pays for. That’s why we search out top-notch trainers, consultants, and coaches and put ourselves into those contexts so as to guide and direct the discipline of the transformation.

When Life’s Challenges become a Crucible

But do you have to engage a professional coach, trainer, consultant, etc.? The answer is yes and no. While life can be a crucible, and while we can intentionally create an interpersonal space in training and coaching for a crucible, it takes acceptance, intentionality, courage, and understanding to put such experiences to good use. That is, to use them as a transformative crucible. It is failure to put them to good use that explains why most people do not get much from these experiences or challenges.

This premise about adult learning, growing, and self-actualizing, of course, raises certain crucial questions:

  • How can we use our events, relationships, trials, and experiences as a crucible of transformation?
  • How can we use life’s experiences as a transformative experience?
  • How can we enter into the fire of creation to invent new ways of being?

Typically when a challenge or threat arises, it is unplanned. That’s why we feel out of control. And that’s the key difference between life’s experiences and those planned experiences in trainings, coaching, apprenticeships, etc. It just happens. It happens without our choice, desire, or planning. And so we mostly experience it reactively—reacting to the turns and twists of life, to the ups-and-downs of work, relationships, health, economics, etc. And so no wonder most of us feel that such crucibles are unpleasant, painful, destructive, and to be avoided at all costs. Isn’t that true for you?

Experience per se does not guarantee transformation. It does not guarantee positive, passionate, and highly desired transformations. Problems, challenges, disappointments, upsets, etc. are just as likely to make us bitter as better. The difference, of course, is our attitude—our perception. The difference is how we take, handle, and explain the experience. Here our explanatory style, will determine whether we use the experience for transformation or not. Here everything comes down to meaning—to your ability to create meaning, to enter the crucible, release old meanings and construct new ones.

Enabling a Crucible Experience

If every experience is not a crucible, what enables some experiences to become a crucible of transformation for you? More likely than not, you will not utilize the experiences that could become the foundation for transformation. You will avoid using your experiences as crucibles because you will naturally defend against it. You will naturally seek to escape it. In order to allow something that’s a problem, that induces negative emotions, pressure, etc. to work as a crucible — you have to stay with it and welcome it. You have to completely change your attitude. You have to do what is so counter-intuitive, you have to accept it and look for value in it.

  • So what enables us to transform an experience into a positive transformative one?
  • How can we turn our experiences into crucibles of change?

Prerequisites for a Human Crucible

For an experience to become a human crucible, it needs to meet several conditions. Minimally, it needs to have the capacity to hold three things

1) Heat.
2) Time-Space.
3) Ownership of Meaning.

1) Heat: The experience has to activate and hold an intensity of emotion and energy.

Not everything that happens to you or that you experience is capable of being a crucible, only those things that activate sufficient energy in your needs, drives, emotions, thoughts, hopes, dreams, fears, appreciations, etc. What will do that? Threats, problems, pressures, stresses, challenges, confusions, wonders, curiosities.

To be a crucible there needs to be enough human heat to melt down your current forms and expressions of life— your current thought patterns, attitudes, ways of emoting, rituals, habits, lifestyles, cultural structures, etc. You typically experience this heat as stress, pressure, disruptions, disappointments, anger, grief, confusion, and so on.

And what determines sufficient intensity of energy is meaning. Is it meaningful? Is it significant? Does it matter? If not, then insufficient intensity. If yes, then you have the beginnings of a crucible in the making.

2) Time-Space: You have to stay inside the experience for a sufficient time.

While a short experience that happens and is over quickly could be a crucible, it has to have an enormous amount of intensity, a level that is usually traumatic. Yet when that happens you are more likely than not to become overwhelmed which explains why you don’t use it for transformation.

More typically, crucible experiences will involve an experience that lasts for days, weeks, even years. It has to last long enough so that its heat causes us to melt down. It goes on long enough that your traditional and habitual ways of operating, thinking, feeling, relating, etc. no longer work. And it is in that ineffectiveness of your current ways that moves us to look around and reform to try something else. This is the unfreezing of the old pattern before the creation of the new.

What is required for staying with an experience? You have to choose to be present with something, to welcome it into your consciousness, emotions, life to adjust and adapt to it. To then reflect upon it and to give it your full presence and mindfulness.

That’s why it is the experience that won’t let you escape or defend against it and that forces you to face your current forms gives you a chance to re-mold them. This typically happens when you have a big and bold enough of a goal that keeps you in something for a month or a year— an adventure, an job, a career, a committed relationship, a sports season, etc. Or when someone holds the space and won’t let you avoid or run away from it.

3) Ownership of Meaning: You have to use the experience for transformation.

For the experience to evoke, elicit, and provoke change within you, as you are with the experience, you experience a melt-down, a releasing of the old, a questioning of the old. Now while an overwhelming experience may cause a “melt down,” you may not put the melt down to creative and positive use unless you have a sense that you can direct and guide the new forms. This is where acceptance gives you that kind of control.

Best is an experience that keeps the pressure on, that keeps challenging you and does so just a little bit beyond our current skills and understandings. Then instead of crushing your spirit, you keep resiliently coming back and stretching and accessing potential resources you never knew you had. This requires resilience and a solution-focus orientation of looking for resources for coping and developing problem-solving skills.

Unless there is inner change that you own as your own, an experience will not be positively transformational. That’s why any experience that’s overwhelming generally does not result in positive change.

The experience has to have sufficient pressure to reveal, create, and develop your character, but not too much. And within the experience there must still be an awareness that you’ll get through it, you will survive, and you will conquer it. You have to maintain hope and courage. You have to keep calling to your depths and reaching within to access resources you had no awareness is there. Often this happens with people you meet along the way who encourage you and who stand by you. Sometimes it happens when you meet someone in a book or story or film that serves as your mentor and coach.

Given these conditions for using an experience as a human crucible for change, you can now use these as stages of a crucible experience and begin to use questions to explore past experiences.

1) Heat: The experience has to activate intense energy and heat within you.

  •  What experience calls upon you to respond?
  • What experience demands something of you? What does it demand?
  • What experience puts you under immense pressure?
  • What is or was that pressure?
  • What was or is at stake in that experience? What was at risk?
  • What kind of energy is or was activated— mental, emotional, a drive?
  • How are or were you challenged? Challenged to what?
  • How are or were you tested, put to the test?

2) Time-Space: You have to be with the experience for a sufficient time.

  • How were you held in that experience?
  • How long were you held in it?
  • What ways did you use to try to escape it?
  • How did you try to defend against it?
  • What prevented you from escaping?
  • What finally broke through all of your defenses?
  • What forced the encounter?
  • What was the fierce conversation that you finally had?
  • Was it just within yourself or with someone else?

3) Ownership of Meaning: You have to use the experience for personal transformation.

  • Did you let the experience evoke, elicit, and provoke inner change in you?
  • What and how did you change?
  • What changed about you?
  • How were you molded by the experience?
  • What dream emerged through the experience?
  • What dream are you now actualizing given that experience?
  • What decision did you make?
  • How did the experience reveal or develop your character?
  • What meanings did you release?
  • What meanings did you create?

Bringing it altogether

While it’s possible to do this by yourself, I don’t recommend it. While heroic figures arise from time to time who re-invented themselves and allow an experience to be like a crucible so that it melts down life as it allowed new frames to emerge, going it alone takes a lot longer. It means spending much more time in “the dark night of the soul,” and it usually involves lots of unnecessary pain and emotional distress. Viktor Frankl did it alone and out of it created Logo-Therapy, but he was in prison and didn’t have much choice.

We really do need each other. It is so much more effective to experience transformation when there is someone who will go with you and be with you providing the context and crucible space. Ultimately that is what training, apprenticeships, mentoring relationships, and especially coaching offers. In Meta-Coaching, we train our coaches to become the kind of persons who can “hold the space” with acceptance, non-intrusive witnessing, care and respect, and then bold, ruthless questioning so that they can quickly enable a person to “get to the heart of things.”

We call this the dance of change and use the Axes of Change to facilitate the process and we do so in such a way that the crucible experience becomes not only a highly valued one but also one that’s more fun and playful than painful and disruptive. And that occurs because our coaches also know how to empower the ego-strength of clients so as to take full ownership of their meaning-creativity. The result is a transformation not only of specific life changes, but of one’s relationship to change — so that we become change-embracers, resilient change-embracers who are thinking ahead about new challenges and potentials to unleash and who don’t fear the process at all but embrace it as the path of self-actualization.

Michael Hall

L. Michael Hall is a modeler of human excellence and self-actualization. Since 1992 Dr. Hall has focused on modeling “the highest and best in human experiences.” This modeling focus arose first from his studies of NLP and later in his re-discovery of Maslow’s original modeling of self-actualizing men and women.

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