Deep Change Q & A

“Many new creative and collaborative efforts are arising in various parts of the country, as well as the world, suggesting that the collective is in Deep Change. I feel that understanding the shifts of Deep Change can help us avoid despair and resignation over the unraveling around us and help us pay attention to what is trying to come into visibility.”—Dr. Susan P. Plummer


Questions & Answers with Dr. Susan P. Plummer

Who is this book for?

This book is for the many people who today are either on the verge of or in the middle of Deep Change, even though they may not realize they are engaged in this process. They may feel empty, depressed, lost, or disoriented, but they are actually poised for a very important transformation for which this book can be a helpful guide. I’ve also been told that this book is highly relevant to individuals in grief and recovery. Additionally, it is a useful guide for people who are supporting others in their life challenges and growth, including psychotherapists, counselors, faith leaders, spiritual direction coaches, bereavement counselors, and physicians. The Seven Shifts of Deep Change outlined in the book also apply to organizational change and community transformation and, as such, have proven to be invaluable to leaders and consultants working with innovation, development, and change in those arenas.

Considering the many books out about change and growth, how is your book different?

Many self-help books give prescriptions for how to change and grow, but my book provides descriptions of what people actually experience when journeying through Deep Change. In other words, it does not present a theoretical model but reveals in concrete terms the seven shifts that constitute this organic process of growing, shifts verified by the experiences of many others. These descriptions enable readers to recognize where they are on the journey and how to support it and ensure an reflective passage.

The book also shows the relationship between challenging (and often pathologized) experiences and a deepening sense of connection and belonging. Understanding the shifts makes it clear to readers that they are not alone on this journey but rather are longed for by the greater dimensions of life, just as they long for deeper connection to these dimensions. Therefore, while most books on change and growth emphasize our capacity for actualizing our dreams from our own imaginations, this book asks readers to cocreate with life’s greater forces.

Further, the shifts in my book illustrate that people undergoing Deep Change move from control to surrender, not a popular or common direction. In order to become radically open to a future that is not a continuation of known and habitual ways, they have to let go of being in control and knowing how to proceed. This kind of surrender to the unknown is very different from our Western paradigm of being masters of our fate. Yet such surrender is not a reversion to childish helplessness but rather requires courage of heart and faith in the unknown, as well as the ability to be present with one’s current experience without “jumping ship” by taking prescription medications or adopting a stance of resignation in an attempt to retain control.

What have readers said about the impact of your book?

Readers always emphasize how clearly the book either describes the experience they are currently having or helps them better understand an experience they have had or have blocked. They like how the language of the book simply describes mental and emotional states without the usual psychological or spiritual interpretations. They say this gives them faith to stay present with their experience even though it is difficult and confusing. They claim the “footholds” and antidotes in the book are very helpful and make them realize they are not alone. Many readers express particular appreciation for the part of the conclusion that addresses “Deep Change of the Collective” because it shows them how their personal experiences can be seen in a larger context.

Why is Deep Change so challenging for us?

We long to change and grow toward greater authenticity and connection, but at the same time we want to stay on safe and known ground—two very human pulls that create tension within us. When our desire for Deep Change becomes stronger than our wish to act according to habitual patterns, we sense the unknown close at hand, which confuses and frightens us. Yet the pull to Deep Change is very good news and reflects our longing for greater meaning, freedom, and sense of belonging and connection. Our culture generally offers little support and encouragement for cooperating with the shifts of Deep Change, which can make us feel even more alienated and alone, especially since during this time much of who we think we are dies (unravels). While we see in nature how things die before new life emerges, it is hard for us to trust in our own eventual spring when our lives are in winter.

You say that the widespread use of antidepression and anxiety medications often block the openings to Deep Change. How is this so, and why is it important?

While I agree that medications for depression and anxiety have a place, I’m concerned that today they are being prescribed indiscriminately, without consideration of the reasons for an individual’s symptoms. Even when prescribing medications for relief, I believe that healthcare professionals need to have a full understanding of the reasons for their decisions. While an obvious life crisis, such as a death, illness, or loss, can trigger anxiety or symptoms of depression, often Deep Change also plays a part in these states, a role that is frequently not addressed, causing misunderstandings about the true causes of these states.

Being in the process of Deep Change means that we are being called to a new future we long for but cannot yet clearly imagine. To better understand the critical role of Deep Change in personal growth we need a psychology of the future, in contrast to our traditional Western psychology of the past. Our relationship to our real future is revealed in our relationship to the unknown. To cooperate with our future’s longing for us, we need to befriend the unknown.

Cooperating with our future’s longing for us in order to cocreate that future was described poetically by a reader in a recent conversation. The woman explained how she felt upon seeing new buds appear on her inner rosebush, which she had previously feared had been so radically pruned that she had been sure no new growth would emerge. While formerly she had taken Zoloft at moments of feeling “dead” and “stilled,” she now saw that the medication had masked her experience and as a result she had not been able to progress to a new relationship with herself and the world.

If we embrace the entire process of Deep Change—its seven shifts and how they relate to one another—we can see that the challenging threshold experiences of the first shifts are actually bellwethers of important change to come, and more clearly comprehend that when we medicate individuals on the basis of these first shifts we are depriving them of their birthright to grow into new futures and experience increased authenticity, freedom, and a greater sense of belonging and connection.

What are some signs that a person is likely to be moving into Deep Change?

When I hear a client or friend describe experiences related to emptiness, meaninglessness, or lostness, I listen closely for an embedded longing in their experience. In the process of Deep Change, we are most often primarily aware of what I call a felt lack—a feeling that something is missing. But when free-floating longing can also be detected, then it is a clear indication that there is more going on than a sense of lack. It is very important to become aware of how such an embedded longing is experienced in the body to appreciate its palpable presence. At this stage, though, a person may be so entrenched in resignation—usually an attempt to stay in control, even though it doesn’t feel that way—that the longing has little, if any, opportunity for evolution toward future fulfillment.  

You write that you think our entire culture is on the brink of Deep Change. What are the signs and what are the implications through the lens of the seven shifts?

There are many signs that we, as a people, are unsettled. One is the unprecedented number of individuals on medications for anxiety or depression symptoms. There are also many signs that life, as we know it, is unraveling, including the near collapse of our economy, various environmental crises, the frequent occurrence of natural disasters, an increase in mass public shootings, and our inability to fund basic programs such as education and infrastructure. Looking at the events of 9/11 and our response in this context, the bombings of the Twin Towers were a powerful and tragic reminder that we, and all we hold dear, are vulnerable, not invincible. The fall of the towers showed symbolically that perhaps the United States is neither as powerful nor as respected or admired for being the world leader as we thought. Our identity as a nation was shaken in a way similar to how individuals experience the unraveling of their personal identities and beliefs. We, as a people, circled the wagons, laid blame everywhere but home, and went on the attack, trying to reassert our former sense of power and position.

I wonder what it would have been like if our leaders at that time had engaged in any kind of discourse that encouraged us to look metaphorically into the hole at ground zero, not in self-criticism but with acknowledgment that we are, indeed, helpless and that the way ahead is not known. I wonder what it would have been like if we had, in the stilling of facing the unknown, found a means of listening together to discover a deeper destiny for our country that might have been trying to transform through Deep Change to a more authentic relationship with the world. Was this a missed opportunity for us to begin a more cooperative and cocreative role with the world? I think in some ways, with some groups and leaders, such a new relationship is presently emerging. Many new creative and collaborative efforts are arising in various parts of the country, as well as the world, suggesting that the collective is in Deep Change. I feel that understanding the shifts of Deep Change can help us avoid despair and resignation over the unraveling around us and help us pay attention to what is trying to come into visibility.

What guidance or advice would you offer to those who feel they may be in Deep Change?

In my book, each shift concludes with what I call “footholds.” These practices are designed to help individuals cooperate with the experiences involved in the shift. For individuals experiencing aspects of the unsettling—emptiness, meaningless, lostness, disorientation—it would be helpful for them to try to detect a longing for something more and deeper within their sense of lack. If they then experience this longing, they should try to locate it within their bodies. The longing in Deep Change is palpable and announces a very real possibility for their future. If they can sense the presence of the longing while feeling the lack, they will have begun aligning with the call of Deep Change to embrace their new future.

Also I suggest that people experiencing the shifts of Deep Change find some support system in their lives involving either professionals or friends with whom they can share their experiences and receive support and fellowship. Any practices that will strengthen their ability to be present and embrace what they are experiencing will also further their growth. Most of all, people should be gentle with themselves and know they are not alone, that many individuals at this time are being called to Deep Change.

In your introduction, you mention a kind of vision in which there would be wise elders available to those moving into Deep Change. Can you say more about this and what it would be like?

Deep Change is transformation causing us to expand our horizons and connections with life, a change that sounds good to most of us. Yet often we do not realize that such transformation only occurs as we let go of our familiar ways and open to the unknown. We do not understand that some central aspects of ourselves must unravel and die in a way before we can be freshly receptive to new possibilities and dimensions.

The poet and scholar John O’Donohue once said that the lineage for these kinds of experiences has been broken, implying that at one time there were people knowledgeable about such transformational experiences and available to guide others through them. I believe it is time to reestablish this lineage. I envision circles of elders in communities who have journeyed through Deep Change speaking clearly about it and teaching a variety of practices that will support and guide others through the process. These elders would not necessarily be older people but rather individuals schooled in the process of Deep Change while also well known and highly respected by their communities. Historically, when individuals showed signs of being on the threshold of Deep Change, they would know how to connect with these elders themselves or loved ones would refer them to the elders. Coming under the guidance of such elders would then be viewed as a positive event and cause for communal celebration because it would mean that the individuals were embarking on a sacred journey resulting in deeper exploration of their inner selves to achieve an increased sense of belonging and connection with themselves, their communities, and the world.