If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
― Shunryu Suzuki
As a coach / guide, a fundamental topic of interest to me is the anatomy of change.
I’ve worked with a number of clients who truly desire to change some aspect of their lives, but who feel that they can’t overcome that strange “nuclear attraction” keeping them perpetually bound to whatever it is they’re trying to be free of. Sugar, alcohol, a shitty workout commitment, whatever. They feel the tug of a kind of nonlocal, “spooky attraction at a distance”, to wax a bit Einsteinian, toward whatever the bad habit may be.
Hold on just a minute, because I know what you’re thinking: “oh, here we go. Bedazzle ‘em with Quantum Mechanics speak when there’s no solid justification for an argument.” No, in this case, it’s just a metaphor; nothing more.
And for sure there are solid, “hard science” reasons for this entanglement with shitty habits. Unhealthy biota overgrowth causing sugar cravings, for instance. Faulty methylation cycles that unfavorably skew the dopamine/serotonin balance. The latter being my own bugaboo.
The point is this: I’ve come up on these strange, tough-to-shake attractions in my own life. I’m quite sure everyone has. And so the question remains: how does one pull free from that gravitation pull of said bad habit? How do we drop the habits that don’t serve us well, and add the habits that would? Even in the face of that “spooky force” that makes the elimination / addition of those changes so damn difficult?
Here are some things that I’ve learned. Both with myself, and in working with clients.
I always find it beneficial to coach the why behind whatever point it is we’ve trying to improve. This is a proper hinge, for instance, and this is why you want to perform a hinge in this way. And these are the ramifications of *not* hinging properly.
Demystification is a *huge* lever for effecting positive change or habit reconditioning. Akin to the scene in Hoosiers where the small school basketball coach has the team measure the distance from baseline to freethrow line, and the height of the goal in the arena where they’ll play for the state championship. Yep, it’s precisely 15 feet in distance and 10 foot tall respectively — same dimensions as any basketball court they’ve ever played on. The mystery, or “wow” factor of this particular venue thereby being nullified. Same game, same rules. Just a bigger venue in the big city, and louder crowd.
Change, though — even a change understood (at least, logically) to be beneficial — provokes fear of the unknown. And the unknown is an elemental, primordial fear on par with the fear of death. The ego (sometimes referred to as the “shitty roommate”) has a very clever workaround for this dilemma however, and is adept at conjuring rebuttals to every logical reason for changing the status quo. Even if that status quo is killing you, and even if one recognizes as much on a logic level. Because the fear generated by the prospect of death postponed until “sometime” is less abhorrent to the ego than the certainty of entering (willfully!) into the unknown now. It’s the psychological equivalent to the poison being in the dose.
And just so we’re clear, this pattern (even though aggravating as all hell) is an evolutionary necessity. Maintaining the status quo (assuming you are alive in this very instant) translates into the ability to propagate in the next instant. Muck with the status quo, though, and all bets on effectively mating are off. Who knows what might happen in uncharted waters?
But here’s the rub: the ego has a tough time justifying (logically, at least) holding to a shitty status quo once the fear of whatever unknown might result from a deviation of the status quo has been encountered (see this post: Inviting Your Worst Fears to Meet You for a Cup of Coffee). So when faced with this pending show-down, the ego throws its trump card on the table: you’ve always been this way… you’re hardwired for… it’s because your parents spanked you as a kid…look at your 23and Me! it’s in your fucking genetics!!
A note on that last ego argument, here.
You know exactly what I’m talking about. The shitty roommate, holding court. And again, I’ve been there myself, and I’ve been there with clients. It’s not just you; this theme is universal; part and parcel to the human condition. Some just navigate it better than others. But most navigate by never navigating at all. They just drift to the whim of the current.
That’s not me. And it’s not you, either. So, what to do…?
Well, let’s begin to regain control by considering the idea that we came into this existence — not as a blank slate (sorry, Locke) — but with our personalities already well grooved. In fact, I think it’s the way we do come into existence.
Karma, Death, and Birth
In his wonderful translation of The Dhammapada, Eknath Easwaran writes, as part of his brilliant introductory chapter, on the nature of one’s personality, and how that core personality (entwined with one’s consciousness) is transferred, existence to existence, much in the same way that a mature oak transfers its “oakness” to an acorn.
In essence, I believe (and the the gist of what Eknath gets at in his piece) that this consciousness / personality entity that is the real “us” waits for prime opportunities to manifest in this realm. And “prime opportunities” are those that force us to grow. We are each put here to teach and to learn those lessons that cannot come otherwise.
Eknath equates “personality” to karma. As all actions, thoughts, the material world as we know it — all of everything that is — is ultimately comprised of energy, this transfer of karma and personality across realms and times makes sense. The only thing that changes is the environment in which this consciousness / personality /karma finds itself and, therefore, the opportunities in which to grow, learn and teach. Then on to the next manifestation. Just as the mature Oak transfers its “oakness” to an acorn that must, in turn, find a way to thrive within whatever environment it finds itself, propagating its seed to the next generation.
And so on, and so on…
Why is this shift in mindset important? Precisely because it removes the veil of mystery from the process. Just as in Hoosiers, we’ve verified the height of the goal and the distance between baseline and foul line. This is along the lines of “what gets measured gets managed.” When we shine a light on, and see the process for what it is, the ego has little wiggle room to spin / concoct outlandish (though utterly believable — the ego is a *master* yarn spinner), stories as to why we’re “stuck” in whatever mire we find ourselves.
The truth being that we’re not stuck in, or predestined for any habit whatsoever. WE have ultimate choice in the matter. In fact (waxing spiritual here), it’s one of the major reasons why we’re here. The environment may be set, but freewill reigns supreme.
Ah-hah! So what if I’m grooved to be passively sucked into whatever bad habit comes my way? No will for positive change, etc.
Ok, cool. And I’d expect as much from the ego/shitty roommate. But now we’ve at least removed the veil of mystery from the process. It’s just like observing your lackluster attempt at a perfect hinge in the mirror. We now know what a proper hinge looks like, and we know, too, the ramifications of the improper movement. We have choice and freewill, no matter how “badly” we’ve grooved this movement prior, and no matter how piss-poor our deminsions happen to be, or our genetic propensity for tight hamstrings. We can choose to listen to the ego’s yammerings about why we can’t, or we can choose to see things as they are. We can choose to work and improve, or we can choose to suffer in the status quo.
Heal thyself, harden thyself; change the world!