The Art of Being
By Deborah Chandler, Ph.D.
Change occurs along two dimensions: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal transformation repeats our mental conditioning, changing things on the surface. Vertical change is a paradigm shift, altering our experience of who we are.
Horizontal change often feels good and can give us a lift, like a new purchase or rearranging the furniture. Vertical change is structural and takes us to a new dimension and initially, can feel uncomfortable.
Dieting illustrates these two dimensions. Horizontal dieting is buying a new brand of potato chips. These new chips might have less salt but eating them will not help with weight loss. Sometimes we think we are doing great things for ourselves when all we are doing is rearranging what we have. With horizontal change we are not altered. We maintain what is familiar.
Vertical dieting would include having an apple, jumping up to a new option. In the new option our relationship to food changes from gratification to self-care. With vertical change we are elevating our experience. Vertical change is driven by our deeper aspirations for inner peace and knowledge of who we are.
Vertical change is often uncomfortable or even disorienting. After making vertical change we need a period of integration to establish our self in the new realm.
If we want to change a habit, it helps to know when we need the stability of staying horizontal versus the challenge of attempting a vertical rearrangement. To stay with the dieting metaphor, there are times when we crave comfort from food. Sometimes, nothing else will do. But, if we want to weigh less, we shift the balance of our eating choices toward the healthier options, even if not easy.
In psychotherapy, these two dimensions are significant. The function of therapy is to facilitate vertical change. This is a delicate process, of stirring up unfamiliar memories and emotions. When this is happening, there are feelings of confusion and disorientation. While this provocation is occurring, there is a simultaneous need for stability. This movement between disorientation and stability is intrinsic to psychotherapy. Managing this dynamic is essential. Too much vertical change leads to resistance and denial and needs to be soothed with some horizontal integrating and stabilizing.
Any significant progress in skill development follows the same oscillation between horizontal and vertical change. To be a better golfer, household manager, or spouse, we oscillate between these two dimensions.
For me, the magical moments in vertical change occur when I am surprised. I’ll have a moment when I am lost in the now, I fold into the moment and lose my sense of individuality. I might be dancing, walking in the woods, or meditating. I am not doing; I am lost in the being. This is a charmed moment of vertical uplift.
We tread the delicate balance between horizontal maintenance and vertical transcendence.