Keeping Our New Year’s Resolutions: Part 2

January 4, 2011

Part 1 of this essay is available here.

A Course in Miracles advises us to, “Make this year different by making it all the same.” What does that mean? It means that all of the different situations we will encounter this year will have one important thing in common—every situation will be an opportunity for us to either reinforce our stories or let go of our stories.

Although some will argue that their stories are not merely their interpretations of events, most of us can at least intellectually recognize that we are attached to our stories and that our stories are not reality. Yet notice, our stories are seemingly intractable.

There is that moment of each day when we first open our eyes, and the day is completely fresh. But, quickly we check in on your stories. We check to see that our physical pain is still there, we check to see that our grievance against a colleague is still there, we check to see that our concerns about our problematical life situation are still there. Honesty demands that we acknowledge that we are relieved when we check in with our stories and find they are still there. We are pleased; now we can get out of bed, because all our stories are intact and ready to go.

Every situation that we react to—with anger, with self-righteousness, with fear, with anxiety, etc.—provides an opportunity: We can project our stories onto the circumstances we are encountering, or we can use the situation to become more aware of our stories and thus release them.

Let me give you a small example. This morning, I had a blood test. After checking in with my insurance information at the desk in the lobby, the next step was to go to the counter in the lab. There was nobody at the counter; I was puzzled. Then I noticed the receptionist was in a back room surfing the Internet. She was oblivious to me. My internal reaction had elements of both amusement and annoyance. In this case, I quickly caught myself reacting, and I was able to drop my annoyance. After a few minutes, she noticed me; and I was able to sincerely greet her.

But the situation could have gone the other way. I could have become indignant at the lack of service. I could have pretended I wasn’t annoyed and called out to her while trying to control the anger in my voice:  “Excuse me, please.” I could have gone home and complained to my wife. Any of these responses would have been a clue that I was projecting my own story onto the receptionist. If so, I could inquire within: Do I waste time surfing the Internet? Do I have a story that justifies my habit of wasting time? Do I try to multitask and, in the process, reduce my effectiveness at everything I’m doing.

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I would be at a crossroads. I could feel bad about my habit, justify my habit, or resolve to change. If I resolved to change, I might start out by looking for a new technique to help me change. I might develop a New Year’s resolution:  I will spend less time multitasking on the Internet.

It would be natural to search for a new technique to help me reach my goal. Yet a new technique, by itself, rarely works. Indeed, the more specific the technique is, the less likely it will work. Why? As we saw in Part 1, the problem is rarely what we think it is. Thus our solutions rarely rise above treating the symptoms.

For some, my Internet example is relatively trivial. But many of us have one or more habits that we believe are very significant. Feeling like a giant in chains, we are held back by our perceived problem or habit. We resist the habit believing that if we could eliminate our unwanted behavior, the success and happiness we dreamed of would come our way. The truth is starkly different—we are not giants in chains; instead, we are more like a toddler throwing a tantrum, trapped by the will-of-the-wisp of his story. We trap ourselves with our stories, with our resistance, and then we try to trap others into agreeing that the problem is as we have defined it.

So what can we do?

1. We can become very aware of the stories we tell. Most of us have constructed an airtight logical system to justify our stories. We may have found allies that agree with our stories. Although we may want to change our habit, our concurrent identification with our justifying story prevents real change. The habit remains until we reach the point where we can finally say to ourselves, “I’m tired of my stories, and hope I am wrong about my stories.”

2.  Don’t judge your stories; don’t resist your stories. Our habits thrive on the energy of our fighting and flailing. Under certain conditions, the stories we tell ourselves will habitually play in our minds, even when we recognize them as stories and not the cause of our problems. Each time they replay, our job is to become aware of them, to not identify with them, and to not judge ourselves for having them. If we can do this without resistance, we can begin to release even very long standing stories.

3. Through non-judgmental awareness, we loosen our identification with our stories. As we loosen our identification with our stories, there is room for a new identity to be built around our highest values. In this process, we begin to identify with our True Self and not with our habit and not with our justifying stories.

A Course in Miracles observes, “You will identify with what you think will make you safe. Whatever it may be, you will believe that it is one with you. Your safety lies in truth, and not in lies. Love is your safety. Fear does not exist. Identify with love, and you are safe. Identify with love, and you are home. Identify with love, and find your Self.”

Finding our True Self is a process of subtraction; we remove our stories, and the truth of who we are rushes in to fill the void. Yet, as long as we believe that our stories keep us safe, we will continue to identify with them.

I wish everyone a happy New Year; may we all have the courage to drop our stories and find our True Self.

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Keeping Our New Year’s Resolutions: Part 1

January 2, 2011

Whether or not we make New Year’s resolutions, the relative stillness at this time of the season fosters reflection. We may think we see clearly which of our habits or behaviors need to change, yet the only thing that seems to occur without much effort is our easy slide back into habitual patterns.

A few days before Christmas, my wife went online to enter her final grades. Having trouble logging in to the university portal, she asked me to take a look. She uses the portal daily, so no doubt she had the correct username and password. Initially I considered two possibilities, either the portal server was down or someone had hacked into her account and changed her password. There was no sign that the portal server was down, and I quickly realized that the odds that someone had hacked into her account were infinitesimally small. I realized that my mind had limited itself to considering two almost certainly incorrect causes for my wife’s problem; and literally within seconds, a new possibility popped into my mind: Had my wife accidentally turned on the cap lock key? Indeed, she had; she restored the cap lock to its default position and was able to enter the portal.

That same evening at dinner, my son asked me what I thought of inductive reasoning. “Funny you should ask.” I said to him. “Just today I was again reminded of how inductive reasoning can get us into trouble.” Inductive reasoning often fails us if we are certain we are itemizing all possibilities, when in truth, we are not. Using inductive reasoning in this matter, we try to solve the problem where it is not. In my wife’s case, initially I was trying to solve the problem by considering external causes. Given that I initially believed the cause was external, I almost advised her to call the university’s help desk. Yet, because I had no real attachment to the incorrect causes to which I had attributed the problem, I was able to drop my story quickly and to be open to having the real cause revealed to me.

The real cause, the real problem, was right in front of my eyes. This whole “computer problem” was over in mere minutes, but it illustrates an important principle: Problem solving by individuals, organizations, and societies is often futile because not all the possible causes of problems are considered.

Consider an individual making a New Year’s resolution. A person may resolve to lose weight, to exercise more, etc. That person may have acquired a new technique follow, and may be eager to begin. Yet, most techniques fail because a technique will not address the real cause of the problem.

Often, a clue to the real cause of the problem can be found in the stories we tell about our problems. It may be that we do not tell these stories to others; we may simply recite an internal monologue in our mind. Perhaps stories like these sound familiar: “I am overweight because an uncaring parent fed me junk food as a child.” “I don’t exercise because my career is too demanding and I don’t have the time.” “I am justified in holding a grievance against my sister-in-law because of the unforgiveable way she treated me a few years ago.”  “I feel unfulfilled at work because I have never had a boss who gave me latitude to make any decisions.” Yes, some of the facts in our stories may be accurate, but they are rarely the cause of our problem.

We have confused cause and effect. The causes, or I should say justifications, we have in our mind for why we cannot change are really the effect of our decision to not change. They reflect where we are stuck; they tell us the exact situations in which our “cap key” is locked.

In his book Bonds That Make Us Free, Terry Warner writes: “The parts of our psychological history that make a difference now do not reside in the past. They are present. It is our presently held story of the past that is our bondage or our freedom.” In other words, it is not the story, but that we are still holding onto our story that is the source of our problem. Our habits are entrenched, because our stories about what causes our habits are entrenched. To change a habit we must be willing to question and then surrender our story about the habit.

Who would we be without our story? We can’t imagine—and we are frightened to find out. That is the real reason why we don’t lose weight, can’t find time to exercise, or don’t drop our grievances. Rather then drop our story and discover who we really are, we hold on to our current identity as someone, for example, with a weight problem caused by an uncaring parent who fed us too much junk food as a child.

When we see how much we love our stories and how frightened we are to give them up, we understand why we so quickly break our resolutions.  To change, we must be aware of this simple and unpleasant truth: If faced with the choice between giving up our habit and our story or keeping our habit and our story, we will choose the latter most of the time.

This is Part 1. Look for Part 2 in a few days.


Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

January 15, 2009

By now, many have begun to break their heartfelt New Year’s resolutions. They may believe that, if they are dieting, they are the unfortunate victim of bad genes. If they are trying a new exercise regime, they may attribute their failure to their busy schedule. If they are trying to improve their relationships with their teenage children, they may attribute their failures (sarcastically) to “everyone knows how teenagers are.” If they are trying to learn a new skill, they may claim that they are slow learners. The excuses are endless; the real power behind a resolution is always the same—hard work and a change of heart. Success rarely comes easily.

When you hear the name Mozart what do you think of? Most people think of a great musical genius who had gifts that were apparent at a very early age. They think of a genius who had to do very little to develop his gifts. Many believe that Mozart was a scribe writing down music that was “dictated” to him. In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin points out that these are myths. Consider this statement supposedly written by Mozart in a letter.

All this fires my soul, and provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once…. When I proceed to write down my ideas, I take out of the bag of my memory, if I may use that phrase, what has previously been collected into it, in the way I have mentioned. For this reason, the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is, as I said before, already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination.

The only problem is that almost all scholars of music history agree that this letter is a forgery; written by Mozart’s publisher Friedrich Rochlitz and designed to enhance Mozart’s reputation.  As Colvin points out, “Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was continually revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years.” Simply, “he wrote music the way ordinary humans do.” Mozart was no Mozart!

But didn’t Mozart begin to compose at a very young age? Doesn’t that indicate that Mozart was different? Colvin points out that his father Leopold, an accomplished musician himself, corrected his son’s manuscripts, and that Mozart’s early compositions were arrangements of works by others. Mozart went through 18 years of very rigorous training before, at the age of twenty-one, he published his first composition that is generally considered a masterpiece.

Colvin’s book is fascinating because he reports on a provocative thesis developed by psychologist Anders Ericsson—namely, most of our success in life is not the result of an innate talent, but it is a result of what is called deliberate practice.  Once we understand what deliberate practice is we begin to understand why better performance for most individuals does not get better simply by experience. Deliberate practice is not mere experience; and very importantly, it is not practicing what we are already good at.

Ericsson found, for instance, that skaters who had aspirations for the Olympics would deliberately practice those aspects of their skating game where their skills were the weakest. On the other hand, other amateurs would focus on what they were already good at; and they spent a great deal of their time at the rink socializing and not really practicing at all.

Deliberate practice is not easy; that is why it is the road less traveled. It requires focus and concentration—often this work is not fun. According to Colvin “deliberate practice requires that one identifies certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.” Such a practice stretches us beyond our current comfort zone. Many of us don’t place ourselves in this learning zone—we are happy just maintaining the level of performance that brought us to the position we are in.

Choosing deliberate practice takes commitment. In the world of sports, some athletes stand out not because of their talent level, however high it is, but because of their commitment to deliberate practice which in their profession may be grueling. Former National Football League wide receiver Jerry Rice is considered by most to be the greatest of all time at his position. However, it was not his physicals skills that were extraordinary-many others exceeded him in important categories like speed. What was extraordinary about Rice was his training regime which was so demanding that few came close to emulating it.  For example, Rice was not the fastest on the field, but his daily uphill wind sprints gave him acceleration skills that no one was able to match.

Back to our New Year’s resolutions. Trouble speaking to your teenage son? You may need to learn new skills, and you may need a change of heart. You’re going to have to practice some things that you haven’t done before.

New diet? Same thing. If you rely upon your taste buds, which have become accustomed to processed foods, to eat natural foods may be a deliberate practice for you.

Exercise?  You may have to cancel your cable television subscription and feel the discomfort of doing so. You may have to suck wind the first time that you jog up a hill.

Lots of things seem impossible from where we stand today. We can make the impossible possible with deliberate practice.


How To Break a Bad Habit

June 21, 2007

You may want to break a habit, but by now you have realized that willpower only takes you so far in overcoming bad habits. Why? You’re continually struggling with what you believe is real and what you believe is part of you. As long as you identify with your habit, there is little hope of change.

By habit I mean anything we do to dull emotions such as anxiety, worry, or fear. Commons habits could be excessive eating, drinking, sex, surfing on the internet, shopping, television watching, etc. Usually when the habit kicks in, it is an automatic and mindless reaction.

Because the habit is so familiar, many identify with their habits. They may believe: “I am somebody who drinks too much.” “I am somebody who eats too much.” Or, “I am somebody who shops too much,” etc.

This is a case of mistaken identity. By identifying ourselves with our habits, we continually measure and judge ourselves. The judgment only solidifies the habit.

What if we didn’t identify with our habits? What if the origin of the impulsive thought to indulge in a bad habit was from what Thomas Hora calls the “sea of mental garbage”?

Puzzled? You may be thinking of course the thought is mine. I just thought it. But did you? Did you really voluntarily think these thoughts? If you did think up the thought, you should be just as able to stop thinking the same thoughts.

Of course it is not easy at all. But there is a way out.

If you are finding it hard to release your thoughts, it is probably because you are resisting your thinking. When a thought to indulge in a bad habit comes, you may clench against it, because you believe that the thought has real power over you.

The power that the thought has over you is proportional to the resistance that you give it. Thoughts have you in their grip when you entertain them and resist them. The alternative is to allow them to pass like the passing clouds.

For example, I might be sitting down with a writing project. My writing goes best if I have a block of uninterrupted time. When I hit a snag in my writing, a thought may appear that I should check my email.

Now, lacking understanding, I may act on this thought instead of recognizing that thought for what it is. It is a thought that comes from “the sea of mental garbage.” The thought would have me believe that I can reduce the anxiety I am feeling by checking my email.

Of course checking my email may temporarily relieve my anxiety by shifting my attention, but very quickly there will be a rebound effect and my anxiety will increase. Why? I have dropped a project that is important to me and I’ve chosen to honor a thought that came from “the sea of mental garbage” rather than thoughts that come from the strength in me.

If you are following along so far, you may be wondering how is dropping a thought different from exercising willpower? With willpower, you are treating your thoughts as reality. Then you use your willpower to struggle mightily to resist these thoughts. This is almost impossible to maintain for long.

The approach I am suggesting does not involve resistance. It suggests instead beginning to undo a habit by gently understanding that you did not think up the thoughts that are driving you to indulge in the habit. Thus these thoughts are nothing you need to honor or resist. You are thus simply aware of the thoughts, and you drop them.

With simple non-judgmental awareness you are neither resisting your thinking nor indulging your thinking. When you try this, you just might find that the strength in you has space to appear. And when it does, the habit will lessen in severity or disappear.

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