What makes an experience transformational?
The term ‘transformational experience’ is always used in the positive when describing an experience. What makes an experience transformational as opposed to simply good, or useful? The internal narrative constructs the ‘story’ and meaning of experiences, and is linked to identity. A transformational experience is one that changes a person – takes them from one state of being to another; it’s a metamorphosis of some kind. This implies that a person’s story is changed, or developed, and also, by default, that the sense of self or identity is also affected, changed for the better in some way. So maybe the difference between the perceived qualities of experiences are whether and to what extent the personal story is altered. A ‘good’ or ‘useful’ experience might be one in which the personal story is added to or embellished; where new insight or knowledge can be tacked on to the current scheme or framework. A transformational experience is one where entirely new insights or realisations occur which cannot be tacked onto the existing framework but form new foundation stones or structures in themselves, changing the overall pattern of the existing structure of self. These necessitate the destruction of older parts of the framework in order to make room for them, but once they are established they create a more stable/beautiful/elegant pattern/structure than before – one that feels ‘right’ to the person somewhere in their nebulous pre-linguistic consciousness. Often when people speak of transformational experience they say things like “it all makes more sense now”, or “it feels right”. Or perhaps they have finally been able to give form to aspects of pre-linguistic consciousness by finding a symbolic language with which to ‘speak’ and therefore conceptually understand what was previously an inexpressible yet undeniable feeling or sense. Either way, a transformational experience seems to be one in which the person feels more whole afterwards, or to use a Jungian term, takes a further step towards individuation. This would imply that a transformational experience is one where unconscious aspects of the psyche are integrated into consciousness, creating a psychologically healthier person.
Ideas of transformation and rites of passage have come to be seen as massive life changing events, which change people fundamentally. I have heard a transformational experience described as being like "changing the Operating System", but I don't think this metaphor is a helpful or accurate one, implying as it does the destruction of the entire internal framework, to be replaced by something completely different, unfamiliar and potentially confusing. As such it could easily be seen as a threat to a person's identity, and this may explain some people’s reluctance to embark on change programmes. Whilst I do think that one is changed at a deep level by this type of experience, I see life as one continuous rite of passage and journey of development in which small but significant transformations can occur frequently. When thought of in this way it need not present a threat to a person’s identity.
A transformational experience is a disruptive experience
The word 'disruptive' often has negative connotations and is associated with interruption in 'flow', but also with mental and psychic structures which are comfortable and valued. However, I argue that without disruption to current assumptions and presumed knowledge, or habitual ways of thinking, learning and development are not possible. When people willingly undertake a potentially disruptive experience, they enter into an agreement to cross a threshold into liminal space, which has the potential of being transformational. This could be likened to the ‘Magic Circle’ phenomenon when entering a game-space; an agreement to set aside normal rules and play by the special rules of the game at hand. The willingness of a person to undertake a disruptive experience, or state of 'ludic liminality', implies some possibly undefined recognition of a need or desire to change in some way, and this is an important first step. By entering into the special agreement, a person makes a commitment to allow the possibility of change. This can be likened to both the severance phase of the rites of passage, and also to one of the first steps in the Hero’s Journey, when the hero overcomes her initial reluctance and accepts the call to adventure.