Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down Change
There’s a story I like to tell my clients, when they’re dealing with some of the aspects of change and how we integrate it.
Classical actors create their character from the outside. They put on a costume, some makeup, maybe a prosthetic nose or a wart, maybe they adopt a limp, or some mannerism or affectation. They let these outer signs pave the way to the character they create with their acting. They act from the mask. Laurence Olivier was a consummate classical actor, sometimes disappearing so thoroughly into his character you’d have had a hard time recognizing him.
Method actors, on the other hand, generate their character by replicating the emotional reality state of the person they want to create. They find the path towards their character by generating an internal reality consistent with that person in that situation. They strip off the mask. Dustin Hoffman is a great example of a method actor, and it’s often very hard to believe that he’s acting at all.
Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman starred together in a movie called Marathon Man. In this movie, if you haven’t seen it, Laurence Olivier plays an evil dentist (…the mere phrase ’evil dentist’ gives me hives. Some sentences shouldn’t be allowed in English) who, in one scene, tortures Dustin Hoffman in a dentist’s chair.
In preparation for the scene, Hoffman had himself tied into this chair and left there, alone, on set all night.
In the morning, when Olivier found him, he is reported to have looked at Hoffman in shock and said, “my God man! What don’t you just act?”
Outside in, or inside out. Both men were masters of their craft, yet each had radically different ways of achieving their aims.
When we experience change sometimes it begins as an idea, a new understanding, an insight. And we see this idea, the rightness of it, the power of it, and we believe it… But it’s new, and it’s not quite part of us yet. We might not be able to speak about it very coherently. It might not seem like something we have a great deal of emotional connection to. It might not have any power for us yet.
But as we integrate this idea it begins to descend through the body. It becomes something we talk about and incorporate into our speech. It becomes something we care about, and we become attached to it and fond of it. It becomes something that directs our actions, we find utility in it and power. And finally, it becomes part of who we are, and we stop thinking about it because it has lost its fascination and there is no need to anymore.
This is top-down change. It begins in the mind, and over time it descends to the throat, the heart, the solar plexus, and the gut. This journey of integration of new ideas is pretty familiar to most of us, and most have seen new ideas and thoughts move through this pattern to become part of us.
But sometimes it goes the other way. And we experience a change deep in our beings. These changes feel very different.
Every now and then I notice that I am completely bored and disgusted with everything I have to say. I can’t stand that I have to listen to this tired bore saying all this same stuff over and over again. And I used to think this was quite a negative thing. After all, it is a really uncomfortable experience. But what I learned to recognize is that this is the sign that something has changed in me, deep down. That there has been a change in my being at the gut level. And I experience this as dissonance, as the feeling that all the stuff that I’m thinking and saying and attached to and using, just isn’t quite what I want anymore, and doesn’t feel quite right.
I’ve learned that what follows this uncomfortable period is the discovery of something wonderful and interesting and new for me. That realization and insight are around the corner. It takes time for this kind of change to work its way up. It starts with that initial dissonance, and that dissonance spreads to our actions and we find ourselves behaving in new ways, not putting up with stuff we used to tolerate, trying new things. Then we find ourselves caring about these new things and becoming emotionally invested in them. Then we begin to speak about and articulate these new understandings. And lastly, they become fully integrated into our thought-world and the idea-scape the makes up our reality.
It’s encouraging to know that change has an internal path and its own time horizon, its own arc and journey. Sometimes we feel strange because we know in our minds something other than what we seem to be doing, believing, valuing, caring about… In these times it’s good to know that there is a natural pathway that this new idea is traveling, and that its next step is articulation and speech. Begin to talk about it. Then to care about it, then to act on it.
It’s also good to know this when we feel that deep dissonance, that something is not quite right. That in those times there is a new understanding rising up. That we can welcome it and allow it and be eager for it even though the journey may be uncomfortable.
Integration of the new is not a toggle switch. It doesn’t happen simply because part of us is convinced or sold on the new idea. We are a deeper and richer inner community than that. It’s more like a long-term political campaign, where the candidate is slowly touring the country, doing stump speeches and winning over the hearts and minds and bellies of our inner constituency.
What are the new ideas and changes you believe, but have yet to see in your actions? Or the dissonance, the feeling of wrongness that has yet to change what you are doing? These are the beginnings of integration of the new, and your journey to your next best self. Invite them in!