The Power of Our Past Experiences

A spiritual director reflects on how moments of change can lead to profound spiritual growth.


“Good girl Athena! Here’s a cookie.”

I’m currently fostering a young dog from my local humane society. It’s a fun thing to do but it’s also stressful to know I am helping a living thing navigate a season of tremendous change. Her experiences with me will impact her for the rest of her future—a series of positive experiences will set her up to be a calm and happy family pet.  

I am also often reminded of a rescue dog I had during my high school years who ran and hid from the broom every single time it came out even though we never used it for anything other than sweeping floors. Scruffy had a negative memory from his first home that stuck with him for his entire life. Humans may have more sophisticated ways of managing or even hiding our true feelings, but we share with our canine companions this instinctive response to change based on past experiences.

More attention to negative than positive input

In her book Life After: Finding Strength and Spirit in Unexpected Change, Anna Mitchell Hall explains that “Our human brains have some natural resistance to change. Recent neuroscience research can explain some of this. Our brains try extremely hard to protect us from danger. One way our brains do this is to flag anything that conflicts with our existing understanding as an error. This is done by activating our emotional brain activity in the amygdala and decreasing our rational brain activity in the prefrontal cortex … Our brains pay more attention to negative input than positive. This is important in learning to avoid touching hot stoves, but counterproductive in other areas of our lives, particularly in our need to press through the discomfort of change to learn what it has to teach us.” (Hall, 13) 

We can see this in the story of the people of Israel who shifted rather quickly from celebrating being freed from slavery to complaining and wishing they could go back.  The book of Exodus tells us that it took only  about a month and a half into their new lives for the people to complain and say to Moses, “if only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread … ” (Exodus 16: 1-3) 

After a period of uncertainty and change wandering in the wilderness, they begin to crave the stability of familiarity, even the familiarity of slavery.

Rather than rebuke the people, God instructs Moses to lead them in a trust building exercise. Food will come from heaven on a daily basis. 6 days a week there will be manna to eat, and then on the 6th day they are to gather enough for the 7th day but no more. If the positive reinforcement of daily provisions leads the people to trust in God, all shall be well. But if they lean into fear and scarcity, gathering more than they need, any extra food will rot.

Impetus for spiritual direction

When people first approach me to explore the possibility of meeting for spiritual direction, I’m aware that there has been a series of events, thoughts, plans and prayers that have occurred that have led them to this point. Change is usually part of that equation.

Perhaps they have experienced an unexpected or unwelcome change that was beyond their control: the death of a parent, loss of a job or a relationship, a pandemic. Sometimes their lived experiences no longer line up with their long held theological beliefs and they feel unsettled and adrift. Or maybe, they have tried to make a healthy shift in their own behavior and it has not been well received by those around them.

Whatever it is, they are looking for someone to listen to their story, to ask good questions, and to help them see their own lives more clearly than they can on their own. It’s a huge act of trust and it’s my responsibility to help it to be a positive experience that supports them through their process.

While the specifics vary from person to person, I have noticed some common themes. 

  1. Change is just hard. It is made even harder when we judge ourselves for having a difficult time adjusting to it. 
  2. Our response to change is rooted in our past experiences of change.  We need curiosity about our response to change—is it all about this particular change or are past experiences also bubbling up? Again, great gentleness toward ourselves is so important as we ask these questions. 
  3. Change can be isolating. If you have access to these resources, a therapist, counselor or spiritual director can be invaluable in helping  process all the thoughts and feelings that will be swirling inside of you. Their compassionate listening presence can provide space for you to share freely and be heard without judgment. If possible, find friends and community members who can also remind you that you are loved, valued, and capable of navigating the change you are experiencing. Ask them to remind you of these things when you can’t see them for yourself.
  4. Change is a process. It will likely take a lot longer to change a long held behavior or recover from an external change in your life than you would like. Take time to stop and celebrate every small victory along the way. Whenever my foster puppy does something I ask her to do I give her a small treat and praise. Find a version of that process that works for you: a moment to express gratitude, a little happy dance, a text to a friend, or a great chocolate chip cookie.

Change is inevitable and it can be so hard to find yourself in a position where things are uncertain and out of your control. We can’t avoid change but we can learn to lean into the process and learn what it has to teach us.

  • Rachel Twigg

    Rachel Twigg is a spiritual director, retreat guide and a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. You can learn more about her, including how to connect with her on social media, at her website When she’s not working she can often be found drinking coffee, walking her dog, or doing both at the same time.

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