‘Breakthrough’ may be a buzzword but it is also a vitally important concept in personal, organisational and social transformation. Yet what exactly do we mean when we say that someone ‘has had a breakthrough’, or that something is a ‘breakthrough approach’?
The dictionary defines breakthrough as the act of smashing through an obstacle. While this might be a conventional image of breakthrough, I don’t think it is a helpful definition when it comes to our personal process. In my experience it is extremely rare for us to smash through barriers to our growth and development. To me, the metaphor of ‘smashing’ implies violence and destruction. While some obstacles to our path might require such aggressive energy, there is rarely anything to be gained by force.
I’d like to offer some alternative images of breakthrough, to evoke your imagination and promote discussion. Contemplating each image, as an alternative to ‘smashing through obstacles’ might suggest a new and more nourishing approach to breakthrough in your own life and work:
- Breakthrough as natural growth. Think of a crocus pushing its colourful way out of the frozen ground of Winter. This image suggests that breakthrough is an organic process that happens in natural cycles and requires no efforting. What if you let go of forcing yourself? How might you blossom?
- Breakthrough as a coming to life. Imagine a chick, hatching from its shell. This metaphor also suggests that breakthrough is an ordinary, biological process – but that we need to respond to our situation when things can no longer contain us. This image of breakthrough also reminds us that we need to take action, which can be exhausting! What do you need to respond to energetically?
- Breakthrough as finding the element of our belonging. The poet Rilke describes a swan, lumbering awkwardly along the ground, almost tripping over its own feet until it reaches water: then it lowers itself down and is suddenly graceful, elegant and poised as the river supports its bulk. All that has happened is that the swan has found its true element. Where is the place that you most belong – and how can you let it support you?
- Breakthrough as a shedding of something. In the bible story of the burning bush, God told Moses to ‘put off thy shoes, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground’ (Exodus 3:1-6). In the original Hebrew, the verb for ‘taking off’ is the same word used to describe a snake shedding its skin. The deeper meaning is not about taking off shoes, but about letting go of the mundane and of the worldly, and realising the sacredness of our life just exactly where we stand. Is the breakthrough you most need, a shift in attitude that allows you to honour your life just as it is?
- Breakthrough as non-doing. Imagine a Zen monk, sat in meditation. A number of Eastern spiritual paths advise us to give up wanting anything else to happen, and to be willing to allow things to be, just as they are just in this moment. This simple paying of attention to the ‘thusness’ of life is one aspect of ‘mindfulness’ – where we do not only let things be, but also let ourselves be free from any attempt to fix, improve or develop ourselves. What would happen if you desisted from taking action for a while?
- Breakthrough as a release from our story. What if you rewrote the story of your life, not as a crime story or a horror story, but as a love story? This image of breakthrough invites us to reframe our lives – to see what has happened to us in our childhood or recent history in an utterly different light. We all reach a point when we get bored with our story, yet keep repeating it and keep acting in accordance with our familiar sense of self. Yet what if you dropped your identifications and did things that are unfamiliar? What if you simply stepped forwards differently into your life and allowed yourself to have new experiences?
When I first starting researching the subject of breakthrough, I saw it as a momentous event that smashed through my ordinary life. After some time, I realised that my assumptions were in the way of me experiencing more breakthroughs! I stopped seeing breakthrough with a capital 'B' and began to understand that there are also many breakthroughs (with a small b) in my experience, and that not all of them require me to use my personal willpower and action-orientation. This realisation was itself a breakthrough and it has had enormous implications in my life and work!
Transformation is always supported by insight – I hope that if you contemplate these alternative images of breakthrough, you’ll find something of deep importance for your own journey.