The Nautilus and Our Inherent Impulse to Grow
Sometimes I wonder if I’m a growth addict. If I had it my way, I’d have a weekend workshop lined up at least every month, I’d be able to continue attending college courses for whatever flavor of the month might be inspiring me, and I’d have weekly therapy/coaching/mentoring. But, sometimes I wonder if I’m over the top…. Okay - I know I’m over the top. But sometimes I have the thought “But perhaps I’ve grown enough.” Now that I’m a teacher, perhaps I should have already reached some kind of plateau of wisdom. As the antidote to this type of thinking, I am reminded of the nautilus, perhaps the most impactful metaphor I know in regards to the soul’s nature to transform.
The nautilus is a perfect metaphor of the idea that the human soul seems to thrive on us bettering itself and becoming more than we once were. The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes was the first to draw attention to this metaphor a century and a half ago in his poem “The Chambered Nautilus” (read the original poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44379/the-chambered-nautilus). Over the course of the lifetime of the exquisite cephalopod mollusk known as the nautilus, it creates a spiral shell built out of a succession of chambers. Each season it inhabits a particular chamber, and then as its body grows, getting more and more uncomfortable, it has to keep building new and larger chambers to encompass new stages of growth. In the same way, consider our own evolution… As we progress through life, in order to thrive, we are consistently developing, changing, and having to expand our awareness. One could say that growth is akin to “thinking outside the box”, and yet as we abandon old worldviews for larger and more expansive ones, perhaps we are just in a larger box for a time. Each perspective serves us for a time, but is it not exceptionally easy to think that the chamber we’re in is the ultimate one?
“Soul” is a loaded word, but I define it to be the transpersonal essence that points us toward becoming bigger, more aware, more conscious than we were before. Many believe that the soul has a path, a destiny, and I will admit that my life experiences have steered me toward thinking that it’s at least something like this. So I find that the way I encounter difficulty is to see them as growth exercises on the path. This means there is merit in overcoming our fears, embracing discomfort, and growing to meet greater and greater challenges. We become more than we are, and it seems that some subtle part of who I am thrives when I do so. Perhaps you’re like me and you wonder at times, “Why is life so hard? Won’t I just reach some plateau and it will just get easy at some point?” Perhaps some things will - but if life didn't continue to throw new challenges and obstacles at us - we’d stop growing. In turn, that would be the start of stagnancy, depression, monotony... If life were a video game, it’d be like playing level one over and over and over again.
Recently I learned a new word: kaizen (改善). It’s the Japanese word for “change for the better” with the inherent meaning that this is “continuous.” It’s been applied to everything from business, healthcare, psychotherapy, government, banking, etc. I loved this term because it’s relatively mainstream now, requires no esoteric beliefs, and instantly invokes positivity in response to change rather than the other way around. In the study of neuroplasticity(brain change), rigidity in behavior (not changing) can be seen as a sign that more flexibility aka neural networking is needed. In any of today’s businesses, they are tasked to change with the times or become obsolete. Within the scientific method it is built upon this idea of continual improvement and evolution of theories to best suit current evidence. The list of possible applications goes on and on…
As I hold the nautilus and kaizen in my mind, it steers me toward thinking that change can and should go on and on forever and that this is in fact a good thing. I know that life can challenge this notion of change for the better aka the sake of our very souls. Many times the change we are facing is not what we had hoped for or expected. It would be dangerous for me to blanket that statement to all things in life, but, I do find that I’m continually surprised by how often this improves or changes my orientation to whatever it is. Just as the nautilus has to continue building its chambers till the end of its life, we must embrace kaizen if we are are to continue thriving. I am reminded to erase any conception of the plateau, that I have reached any final chamber of sorts, and embrace the possibility if I’m doing things right, my perspectives and opinions will be quite different when I reach the end of my journey.
This recent inquiry made me curious: How many other succinct words, phrases, or concepts are there from other cultures that capture change within spiritual growth? If you know of one, or if you were impacted by this post in some way, will you mention it on the comments below?