Each of us has the Plato’s Caves of our lives — places where fear, habits, wounds, denial, conformity, ignorance, manipulation, and even a cherished way of life blind us to greater insight, awareness, authenticity, and possibilities. Caves are places where we mistake false appearances for reality. We literally “don’t know what we don’t know.”
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But every once in a while, we get pushed, dragged — or even venture willingly — out of one of our caves. For example, the alcoholic on his deathbed is forced to make a choice of life or death. If he chooses to stay in his cave, he will die. If he chooses life, he must then see himself as he is — always the first step of change — not as his delusions and self-deception tell him he is. At first he is as mad as can be at this forced change. It is always painful to be confronted with our false realities. But he slowly becomes acclimated to a new reality. Increased self-awareness and new knowledge bring forth new ways to live with meaning and purpose. This transformation is often called a spiritual awakening.
Modern-day physicists experienced and described similar dynamics as they leaped from one understanding of life to another. Quantum theory presents a strange, unexpected, paradoxical reality utterly different from Newtonian physics. The early scientists who studied quantum theory were like those who leave Plato’s Cave. They found they lacked the thought processes and language necessary to understand their new observations and experiences. Emotionally this change confused, frightened, and required an inner shift in scientists to make sense of what they saw in the subatomic world.
Like drunks and physicists, everyday people have their caves too. Some never leave the caves of their lives and live what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation.” Others may leave a cave or two and then stop — content with their lives. Still others understand that our worlds have many caves in them. They know they’ll never run out of caves to abandon in search of greater aliveness. They are determined to seek out the caves of their lives and leave them proactively — because caves always eventually confine or threaten their spirits.
Despite the loss and fear of change, these seekers choose intentionally to jump into new situations, new learning, and diverse adventures to expand their empathy, experience, and understanding. These people don’t stop leaving the caves of their lives until they die — and no one knows what happens after death; perhaps the adventures continue. Whatever the circumstances, leaving a cave involves an inner shift that brings forth a deep examination and change of values, beliefs, and assumptions that evolve life.
The spiritual awakening of the alcoholic, the existential crisis of the quantum physicist, the insights of everyday people, the enlightenment of the seeker, and the moment of metanoia — a change of the inner person, like former Chairman and CEO of Perot Systems, Mort Myerson, who exclaimed in a moment of insight, “Everything I thought I knew about leadership is wrong” — are similar, as each requires a temporary surrender of the ego, a re-ordering of the psyche, and a fundamental shift of perception.
No one who experiences this transformation will ever see the world in the same ways again. We should not be too proud of our initial inner expansion for we will be called over and over again to leave cave after cave, and journeys always humble the traveler.
Excerpt from: Learning to Live: Essays on Life and Leadership