The Underwater Volcano Theory of Growth captivates my imagination and helps me hold myself in a gentler way during the constant growth and change that life brings.

When I was a kid, I loved to read National Geographic. I still remember the delightful shiver of terror that convulsed me as I read the cover article about the new science of plate tectonics. Could this be true? Were we really floating around on giant rock plates that careened into each other like planetary bumper cars, plunging into the depths of ocean trenches and thrusting upwards to form massive mountain ranges like the Himalayas?

The concept of volcanic hotspots particularly fascinated me. I learned that the Hawaiian Islands were created by the movement of the Pacific Oceanic plate, as it moved northwest over one of these hot spots on the ocean floor. Over millions of years, lava welled up underwater, pushing through the slowly moving crust to form one island after another in the Hawaiian chain.

Imagine that. Each of the Hawaiian Islands is actually the peak of a towering underwater mountain. Mauna Kea volcano, for example, rises a relatively modest 13,803 feet above sea level. However, if you measure Mauna Kea from the ocean floor, it dwarfs Mount Everest— by nearly a mile. I find this astounding.

The slow birth of my Underwater Volcano Theory of Growth

That National Geographic article planted the seed for my Underwater Volcano Theory of Growth. Those heady thoughts of height and depth percolated in my subconscious mind. Living in Hawaii for five years surely helped. We watched in awe as Kilauea erupted spectacularly, adding new land to the Big Island.

In the years that followed, I lived through major growth and changes myself. I got married, became a mother; left the marriage, moved six times in six years, and changed careers. I began to realize that the early stages of the change process were often imperceptible as they happened. The change process can unfold invisibly for a long time—like the formation of an underwater volcano.

In such a case, you may live through months, years, or even decades in which nothing appears to be happening. Then, one day you notice a slight disturbance on the surface. You don’t know what to make of it, but over time, it intensifies. The sea boils and churns. Geysers of water shoot up. Steam billows. Chunks of stuff fly through the air. Out of the blue (or apparently so), an island appears.

As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I relate to this underwater volcano metaphor. Those of us who are built sensitive need to process emotions, realizations, situations, and decisions very deeply. As a result, we may take a very long time before we act. In fact, it may take us years even to realize that we need to act.

During that long gestation period, we my be unaware that something is building in us. We can’t feel, see, or sense it…until one day, we can. In the meantime, our inner change process can go through three underwater-volcano-like stages. The better we understand these stages, the better we can facilitate them.

Stage 1—Nothing appears to be happening

You typically can’t see this stage while you are in it. You might wish for change in some area of your life, but you feel so stuck that you dismiss it as impossible. Or you might have no conscious awareness at all of the coming change. Either way, change and growth are processing deep inside you.

Stage 2—Low rumblings

In Stage 2, you may begin to experience puzzling or inexplicable events. You sense something isn’t quite right, but you can’t put a finger on it. It’s like seeing a momentary shadow pass beneath your boat. What was that? Did you really see something? Or did you imagine it? The resulting uneasiness and self-doubt are hallmarks of Stage 2.

Stage 3: All hell breaks loose

Stage 3 is the upheaval stage. Your lover leaves you, or you leave your lover. You get fired. You change careers. The details are highly personal. I’m sure you can think of examples from your own life of this confusing, chaotic stage.

This distress is temporary, though. Out of the chaos, a fresh new idea, realization, or decision finally emerges. The bewildering events of Stage 2 organize themselves into a comprehensible pattern.

In volcanic terms, a new “island” has thrust its way above the surface of the calm seas of your former life. You have to reckon with it. That may be stressful, but at least you know what you are dealing with.

Three truths about this pattern of change

So far, so good. Now, let’s take a deeper look. The Underwater Volcano Theory of Growth implies three powerful truths:

1—Change can be happening even when you can’t see it.
2—At a certain point in the change process, you can sense it, even though it is subtle, vague, or unformed.
3— Sensing the change helps you facilitate it by sensing what is needed.

Why is this perspective so important? Because without it, you can too easily fall prey to your cultural conditioning, which glorifies knowledge, clarity, and decisive action, while dismissing uncertainty as a sign of weakness. If you fall into this trap, you will fail to give yourself the space and self-compassion you need, to allow new growth to emerge.

Changing the name of my business

Here’s an example from my own life that demonstrates the cost of not understanding this pattern of growth. During a session in the summer of 2018, my writing coach, Daphne Gray-Grant, asked out of the blue, “Have you thought about changing the name of your business?” She felt that the name “Luminos Listening” hardly gave people a sense of the kind of work I do. She was right, of course.

I blanched. I felt instantly overwhelmed. I said I’d think about it, but I really didn’t want to. My better self evidently took the assignment seriously, though, because half an hour later, the name “Sustainably Sensitive” floated into my awareness.

Daphne loved it. I did, too. On the spot, I decided to change the name of my business. I went on to create an entirely new website, the Sustainably Sensitive site. It took me a year and a huge amount of work.

Now, if you’d told me earlier in 2018 that I was going to do all that, I simply wouldn’t have believed you. I had no idea that this volcano of an idea was building under the surface of my mind, until it sprang up one day in July. That’s Stage 1 for you.

When I looked back on the previous year with the Underwater Volcano Theory in mind, however, I could see that the signs of Stage 2 unrest had in fact been showing up for months.

The early signs of change

I launched my first website in 2007, named Luminos. I loved that name. It was a made-up word that came to me during a meditative coaching session. I loved the implication of light. The ambiguousness of the word suited me. It felt open enough to accommodate the variety of modalities I was offering.

I added “Listening” to the title later and kept the name Luminos Listening when I launched a new website in 2014. Four years later, though, I felt vaguely uneasy and dissatisfied. The reasons were disparate and seemingly unconnected. For one, I got tired of explaining, “You spell it like luminous, but without the final U.” Also, unfinished Luminos Listening projects were piling up in my business projects binder.

These were classic Stage 2 symptoms. In volcanic terms, the waters were roiling. Unfortunately, I didn’t yet have that framework of understanding. I began to doubt myself. Was I disorganized? Hapless? Lacking in ambition?

Had I understood the Underwater Volcano Theory of Growth, I’d have known to ask more helpful questions. Instead of, “What is wrong with me that I am not getting all these projects done?” I might have said, “Is there something that wants to happen here?”

Once I’d sensed that “something,” I could have taken time to sit with it, listen to it, and describe it. I could have given it space to unfold, instead of burning up precious energy worrying or criticizing myself.

Paying attention to what wants to come

As soon as the name “Sustainably Sensitive” popped into my mind, I felt its rightness. I was lucky to have had Daphne to facilitate this process: her question-—“Have you thought about changing the name of your business?”— redirected my thinking away from what I was worried was happening, and towards what I wanted to happen. (Thank you again, Daphne.)

I realized then that I was ready to leave the sheltering umbrella of Luminos Listening. That name had at one time felt accommodating and inclusive. Now, it felt too vague. It didn’t clarify who I am, or what I do. Sustainably Sensitive, by contrast, captured the essence of my purpose: I help sensitive people create personally and professionally sustainable lives.

Even though changing my business name created a lot of work for me—a perfect example of the “all hell breaking loose” stage—it also released a volcanic amount of energy. I was indefatigable because I knew exactly what I needed to do, and why I was doing it.

When you think about it, there’s nothing more important than that. Things will be easy for you sometimes. Other times, they’ll feel laborious. Life is like that. But if you know you are following the breadcrumb trail of inner rightness, the hardness or easiness of the path becomes less important. It feels good simply to be putting one foot in front of the other, knowing you are going in the right direction.

How about you? Can you think of examples of this change process in your life? Perhaps, as we speak, you are noticing odd roilings in some area of your life. Perhaps all hell has already broken loose. Understanding what is happening makes it so much easier to surf the waves of growth as they come.

Photo by Iswanto Arif on Unsplash
Note: This article is an expanded version of one that first appeared here On November 20, 2018.