After the Breakthrough Comes the Work of Consolidation

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Breakthroughs are important and irreplaceable and life changing. They are also disorienting and lead to the need for continuing work.

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. — Zen Saying

Every scribe who has become a disciple…of heaven…brings out of his treasure things new and old. — Jesus

When we make a breakthrough it can be very full-on. It may be challenging, but it is far from boring. We are engaged with something difficult, and we know that we are working on something. We don’t doubt that it is significant — it could even be something that we have based much of our life on. Breakthroughs are intense and engaging and gripping. After the breakthrough we will possibly feel exhausted and likely quite fragile.

Through the processing, the breakthrough, we attain some new insight. We see ourselves differently in an important way. This can lead to questions — the bigger the breakthrough, most likely the more questions.

We have put together our lives in a particular way. We have made lots of decisions based on our beliefs about the world and ourselves. Our lifestyle usually hangs together in a more or less satisfactory way. But then something stops working and we confront this and come to a new understanding — perhaps one that means a very major re-organisation for us.

This means that a major breakthrough can lead to lots of work. All those decisions we made, probably over years and years, are now called into question. They were based on an understanding of ourselves and our environment that we no longer accept.

And we may not know what we accept now. We may have made a fundamental change, but how this works in the nitty gritty details is far from clear.

For instance, you might have decided when young that because you aren’t good at doing particular things, you are unacceptable, not a worthwhile person. You may find later that your abilities and performance don’t make you more or less of a person. And this could be experienced as very elating and revolutionary. It is liberating. And it leads to lots of problems.

Perhaps in your quest for acceptance you found ways to learn quickly. Perhaps you are now a very good student, who has been rewarded by money, attention and awards for academic performance. Perhaps you have lots of solid and nourishing friendships because you worked hard at developing listening skills. And then you find that all these things were part of a mistake — all that striving to be good at things was to get acceptance, and it didn’t work, it doesn’t work and it won’t work.

This leads to some problems — especially because being good at things is socially validated in our cultures. Waving goodbye to the tie-up between performance and acceptance leads to dilemmas. It leads to questions about what work is good. It leads to personal question about whether being a perpetual student is worthwhile.

A breakthrough that concerns something fundamental leaves us in a state of suspension. We really don’t know, to some extent, who we are or what the world is like. The freshness of perception can feel good, but the not knowing can be confusing and difficult. It takes time to get used to the new me and the new perceptions of those around. To hang loose from even those things which we valued most is not easy.

Gradually we find a more stable sense of ourselves and our world. We begin to get a sense of what captures our attention, what fits with ourselves and what doesn’t. Our new insight into others, our own and their relationships, the culture that surrounds us, gradually stabilises.

My way of understanding this is to imagine that we have grown up in an isolated village. For twenty or thirty years (or even much longer) we have lived in this village and fitted in with how things are done there. The scenery and architecture are familiar and feel right. We have learned how to negotiate the culture and what works for us to get by. We have gradually put together a way of living that works — which includes our sense of who we are (and perhaps what parts of ourselves are acceptable and what parts aren’t). And then we discover there is a whole world beyond the village. And so we are disoriented — we don’t know if the same rules apply beyond the village as within it. People may value qualities in us which differ from the ones validated by those in the village. There may be different rules and rituals. How to succeed outside the village might be very different to the steps to success we learned in the village.

When we make a major breakthrough it is somewhat like discovering that there is a world beyond the village we have grown up in. And so it takes time to learn what this new world is like, how to function in it, and even who we are in this new situation.

It will help to learn about this new world if we have a guide. This could be a book, or a person. It will help if we have something that is valued in the new situation as well as the old — interests, hobbies, crafts or an art we pursue. It will help if we can stay in touch with our friends from the village (as long as they are not threatening or violent, or won’t acknowledge us unless we do things their way). It will help if we find that some of those we knew in our old situation also live beyond the confines of the village.

Have you had times where an insight you have had or a breakthrough you have made has led you to question your old way of living and being? If you have, what helped you to adjust to this new insight and develop a new way of living? Did the new way of living end up being very different or a matter of subtleties of how things were done? I would love to hear your experience in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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