I’m silently observing from the back corner of the classroom. Bent over art supplies and paper, the students are bringing to life images of a world at peace, drawn from a guided meditation I’d led them through moments before. A visitor to the room might guess that they’d entered an art class, rather than the Women’s Leadership Seminar I had the honor of teaching at Mills College for seven years. Overseeing this creative moment, a part of me feels excited and proud. But that part is drowned out by my beating heart, sweaty hands, churning stomach–physical manifestations of genuine fear and dread coursing through me. In this moment–the first time I’ve brought my identity as an artist into the classroom–I feel exposed and vulnerable. I feel afraid. For my students, the point of this exercise is to make images of a world free from injustice. For me, the point of this exercise is to stand in this fear, to observe myself within it, and to answer the question of whether or not I can survive it.
You may think that words like “dread,” “fear,” and “survive” seem strange ones to describe a classroom activity. And you’d be right. Their very strangeness throws into relief how deeply resistant I had become to change. I was caught within my own Immunity to Change™, a term developed by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey over twenty years of research and practice that refers to a subconscious self-defense reflex that attempts to protect us from painful experiences. In that moment, my subconscious was reliving the rejection and embarrassment that I experienced as a child at school when I was vulnerable enough to be my true self. Those early experiences created a core belief that it is unsafe to be myself—to bring my creative, spiritual identity into the classroom—and that belief shaped my behavior for thirty years, until I learned to overcome it.
Most of us–dare I say all of us?–move through life with silent, subconscious beliefs about the world that are left unexamined and taken for truth. Drawn from our early experiences, these beliefs serve an important purpose: to keep us safe from re-experiencing fear, pain, trauma, and humiliation, by limiting and defining our behavior. And as important as that is, at a certain point, our Immunity to Change™ can become a serious hindrance to our personal and collective growth and development, preventing us from taking risks and actions necessary to fulfill our goals and be the people we wish to be. And so we remain trapped between desired changes that are at our fingertips, and a lifetime of highly refined defenses against the very actions we’d need to take to make those changes.
"But for a time, I was more willing to contemplate leaving my job than to do the hard work necessary to overcome the fear living in my body. The truth is, I had no idea how to overcome it."
“The mind, body and spirit are hardwired together,” says Zen priest and former Hawaii State legislator Norma Wong. Standing in front of the classroom that day, I could feel the truth of these words in the way my Immunity to Change™ was operating on me. My spirit was injured by key experiences in my youth. Those experiences lodged in my body as trauma, causing a physical reaction of fear to any experience that felt similar, even well into my adulthood. And that physical response in my body influenced the decisions and actions governed by my mind. And so, while I loved and was proud of the work that I did with Mills students, at the same time I was miserable in my job because I was not bringing the aspects of myself that are most meaningful to me, where my greatest potential lies. But for a time, I was more willing to contemplate leaving my job than to do the hard work necessary to overcome the fear living in my body. The truth is, I had no idea how to overcome it.
Norma Wong goes on to say that, “To behave as if they [our mind, body and spirit] are not [hardwired together] is to not operate at your full potential." I had no hope of overcoming my Immunity to Change™ until I learned to engage with it from the integration of my mind, body and spirit. I engaged deeply with Kegan and Lahey's process, and integrated into it creative, intuitive and embodied practices that greatly increased the effectiveness of this proven cognitive model. I had to learn to live into the truth of how we are all hardwired so that I could leverage it to grow into my potential, rather than remain trapped by it.
I now coach individuals and teams through the Overcoming Immunity to Change™ process because it quite literally changed my life. I survived that day in the classroom, when I risked bringing art supplies and meditation to my students, and then thrived through deeper and deeper tests of the limiting boundaries I had been living with. I am living a more fully integrated and joyful life as a result.
What kinds of changes do you long to make in your life? Shall we journey through them together?