Growth Is a Spiral: Repetition and Return in Practice

The more things stay the same, the more they change.

What?

No, I didn’t accidentally write that backwards. Because the thing about growth, about learning, is that it doesn’t travel in a straight line. It often doesn’t feel like growth in the moment. It often feels circular, like repetition, like return.

It can feel like sameness. But growth isn’t a circle, not exactly. It’s a spiral.

Growth is incremental. Little by little, leaf by leaf, shoot by shoot, a plant uncurls. Each year, cell by cell, a tree lays down another ring around its core. A plant, or any living thing, grows by iteration.

You can’t see it if you watch it in real time, because the changes are too subtle. One cell becomes two become four. One leaf gathers sunlight to make a second leaf, then a third, then a whole new shoot.

Timelapse of vines coiling around a branch.
Look at these busy little guys.

It repeats itself, remakes itself in its own image, noticeable only if you walk away and come back the next day, next week, next month. The same principle applies for human growth. You can’t see it if you only look once.

There is a reason why labyrinths and mandalas are used as tools of meditation.

Same place, new person

It feels like you are returning to the same place over and over, but you’re not. You’re a different person this time. You can’t go back, but you can go around and see the same spot from different eyes.

An aerial photo of a spiral path with greenery in between the pathways, a small grassy park in the center, and a teal blue waterway with wooded banks passing through the upper left corner.
Photo by Mudassir Ali on Pexels.com

The problems you had before will largely be the same problems you have now. The weaknesses and strengths will be the same. But you are not the same.

You have been here before. You have walked this path. You are different this time. You have one more round of practice.

Same stage, new steps

I am drafting again this spring. I have trouble starting. Every night I have trouble starting. Some nights I don’t start at all. This is the same as it ever was.

I have reached Act 2 and once again feel like I am floundering. My carefully laid plan, the outline I felt so proud of when I created it, has begun to reveal itself as illogical, uninspired, or worse, boring. Same as it ever was.

A white woman with jean jacket, patterned skirt, and black hose falls sideways onto a brown couch, with text "Oh, I'm so bored. I cannot do it."
Gina Linetti in “Death of an Outline.”

But every time I draft I learn a few new tricks. This draft, my trick is to free write on the page about why I am stuck or don’t want to write a scene. I learn things about the story this way, find the next step, the direction that inspires me.

My other trick is sprinting. Nearly this entire draft so far has been written in sprints. A small group of folks sprint with me most nights. This is not the same as prior drafts. I have companions, fellow walkers and commiserators on this spiral path.

There is discovery here, even though the process, the path, is not new. There is more to learn, even though I walk in my own footsteps. I notice things I didn’t notice before because I didn’t know the way, because my eyes were on my feet to watch that my steps fell sure.

Same fears, new faith

Book 2 in the Cambion series, CAMBION’S BLOOD, releases in just over a month. As pub day approaches, I have the same doubts and fears as last time, that no one will read it, that everyone will hate it. Same as it ever was.

A blond white woman in a strapless red dress (Tricia Helfer) leans over the back of a lounge chair to stroke the shoulder length hair of a smirking, tan skinned, dark haired man
Well, hopefully it will happen again, anyway 😅

When I got my finalized cover last weekend, though the cover itself is beautiful, I felt a spike of anxiety. I don’t know exactly where this comes from, but my therapist thinks it is about being seen. My name is on that cover, albeit my pen name, my heart in its pages, in some ways more than the first.

Writing for publication is strange that way. It’s a constant emotional push and pull between desperately wanting people to read your words and wishing to vanish into the woods, never to be perceived again. Same as it ever was.

I’ve been here before. I know this territory. Even the anxiety feels familiar. It rises every time I step toward the next milestone.

Frodo looks mournful as he says "Because we've been here before. We're going in circles."
Here we go again…

Every time I promote myself, every time I stretch my comfort zone to take up space in the world, some part of me shrinks back and screams a warning. I catch myself worrying that every step I take is wrong, every word unwelcome and unwise. I second guess every decision, although literally no one scrutinizes every move I make as much as I do.

But I know now that it ebbs. When it does, I take the next step, more sure than the last time around. I remember, most of all, that I can ask for help and support.

I also know the stakes better now, because I know just how many people bought the last book when it came out. Surprisingly, humility helps. It tells me that none of this matters as much as I think it does, except for the fact that I am actually living my dream, which is getting paid real cash money for my words.

Get over yourself, it says. Get on with it. This time around, you may as well enjoy yourself.

Natasha Lyonne adjusts her coat in a stylish bathroom before strutting forward toward the camera with a determined expression.
If we’re doing this all over again, let’s do it with a little bit of attitude.

Same moves, new month.

In my yoga practice this year I am pursuing routine and repetition as well. Every month I do the same series of practices in the same order. The routine has proven valuable for consistency, taking a decision point out of my day.

I don’t have to pick what practice to do. I don’t have to consider what I feel like doing. I just do the next one, the next step on the spiral.

Four months in, some days the practices feel familiar. Other days I find myself tuning into an unfamiliar part of the movement, a new sensation in my body, an emergent awareness, and I wonder “How did I miss that last time?” My memory is less good than I expect, though sometimes my body remembers the next movement before I do.

With a haunted expression, Gandalf says, I have no memory of this place.
Getting old is a trip.

I am going through the same motions with a body that has the same weak points, tender spots, and quirks. I have flexible joints but lack upper body strength. I have decent balance but wobbly ankles. Same as it ever was.

My body is now one that has practiced this set of movements before, once, twice, thrice, now four times. New ease slips in, at times, with subtle changes. A sequence I hated becomes interesting. A longer practice seems shorter than I remember.

It’s not always ease that develops, though. Sometimes I discover new discomfort. A new ache arises in some muscle or joint that I’ve awakened or fatigued with this repetition. Sometimes things get harder.

Some days I am migraining, or didn’t sleep, or have too much to do after I put my mat away. An innocuous practice from last month becomes a trial this month, painful, enraging, interminable. Sometimes I curse at the screen, relieved that the video’s instructor can’t see my struggle.

I am not the same person as I was last month. I am walking the spiral and seeing the same point in the circle. But the act of walking this curving path has wrought a change, a newness, not in the way but inside me.

Same heart, new healing

The same is true for personal growth, for mental health, for emotional weaknesses and strengths. Healing comes in spirals. We backslide and regress, or so it might feel.

But are we really slipping backward or just coming around again to the same place? The challenges might seem the same. One’s reaction might arise in the same way. And yet in the recognition itself—ah, this again—it becomes something new.

It really comes down to knowing oneself. Ah yes, there is the weak spot from an old injury, and today it aches for no particular reason, save that the weather changed and I slept on it funny again. Hello trauma, my old friend.

Old hurts don’t die, they just fade away. The body remembers them, writes them in muscle and bone, saves them for a rainy day. But one learns to move around them, to gentle oneself through the ache, keep going when it eases.

A green, lobed leaf sits atop a cross-section of a tree showing many rings of growth.
You can’t unwrite the past. Photo by Joey Kyber on Pexels.com

That’s how healing works. It can’t erase the past, but it can adapt to it. New experience builds around and on top of the scars, like knots or burls in wood, like the thin growth ring of a drought year sandwiched between thicker layers.

Same river, new ripples

In one of my favorite Star Trek: Next Generation episodes, the Enterprise becomes trapped in a time loop. With each repetition, they live the same events with subtle shifts. Eventually, the crew begins to iterate a solution, culminating in a message Data leaves for himself in his own mind with the key: changing his own predicted response.

You can’t step into the same river twice. Time races on, but not just time. On this small spinning blue marble orbiting this small yellow sun in this arm of this spiral galaxy, we hurtle through the universe at ridiculous speeds.

An image of a white and cream-colored spiral galaxy spangled with stars in the black, perhaps our own Milky Way.
Approximately 1,367,000 mph. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Even if it seems like we walk in a circle, we wind up thousands of miles from the place we stood before. We are the same shape and substance but fundamentally changed by the steps we’ve taken, even as we follow our own past footsteps.

Everything comes around again, except after enough tries, we find the right way to move through it.

Practice not product

Growth comes with the eternal return: to the mat, to the garden, to the page. We write “the end,” then return to the beginning and start over. We take the next step, same as the first.

If I had ever been here before I would probably know just what to do

Don’t you?

If I had ever been here before on another time around the wheel
I would probably know just how to deal with all of you

And I feel like I’ve been here before…

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Deja Vu

We return to the work, to the word, writing them down one after another. We go back to the river, to the well, to the wheel. It is the same place but not the same water.

What we water, grows. We can’t simply water a plant one time and be done with it, expecting it to thrive. We have to water it every day, or every few days at least, because missing a day won’t hurt.

What we practice, we learn. It might be worth considering what we are we practicing and what messages we leaving ourselves for next time. Are we falling into cruel self criticism, or finding something different to focus on?

A reminder I return to again and again.

Regardless of the choices made, we will walk this pattern again and talk this talk again. At the same time, we also have another chance to learn or layer on a new lesson. But we have to keep returning.

What are you returning to?

4 thoughts on “Growth Is a Spiral: Repetition and Return in Practice

  1. I like how you say that the obstacles are still there despite having written various manuscripts prior. It’s the same for me. Even things like bathing in cold water doesn’t get any easier after a few years. But every time I do it, I just learn a very tiny thing about myself, and doing that over and over has allowed me to grow way beyond what I was on the first day I decided to try cold water. Thanks for this post, Erin!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s more about knowing what to expect than anything else! Doesn’t actually change the experience itself that much but it changes how you experience it, if that makes any sense at all.

      Like

  2. What a simply marvellous post, Erin!!
    I know what you mean when you said that growth happens not in a spurt, but gradually. For instance, whenever I sit to see the hour hand of the clock move, it always feel like the same position. And that is why I loved the way you said that moving on is ‘sameness’. I just love the labyrinth example you gave because it really is true that we can look at our past-selves from different directions and perspectives. And that is what makes it so similar. The river perfectly alludes to this theme. I am glad I found time to read this post. Helped me broaden my vision a lot.
    Keep writing, Erin.
    Wishing you an excellent week with load of spirals.

    Liked by 1 person

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