Sunday, January 11, 2009


Building Patterns

It seems clear there is a level where all minds connect when you hear the same ideas bubble up in widely different venues as though collective themes were finding expression in multiple disciplines of thought. The day after my New Year’s post on building new habits, a show on public radio was talking about the need for new financial habits in a way that resonated with the points I was making. Adjusting one’s habits to new circumstances is the essence of adaptation.
Though habits tend to be seen in a negative way, I often tell my students that discipline in relation to one’s work is really a matter of well-chosen habits. If we really made use of our natural pattern making ability, we might be amazed at what we’re capable of achieving.
When a toddler wants to see the same thing over and over, it’s probably an assertion of personal choice by strengthening circuits that support it. John Lilly called it “programming the human bio-computer”, and his work using floatation tanks showed how much learning is possible if we make use of the natural processes of the brain. He was one of the early proponents of visualization as a technique for learning. Subsequent research showed that this was almost as important as physical practice. Athletes derived significant benefits from simply visualizing doing their best performance repeatedly.
Since we use many of the same brain circuits for visualizing an act as actually doing it, it makes sense that the mental part of the pattern can be reinforced that way. And what’s being reinforced is the ideal performance, whereas the physical practice is usually punctuated by mistakes. This suggests that visualizing what we want to be and how we would like to behave could lay a foundation for realizing it in action.
Repetition creates a sense of security. I’ve often thought that the idea of home had more to do with familiar routines than with a particular place. When we move to a new living space, we feel displaced until we build regular patterns of movement in relation to it. The deep love of the squirrels and trees that surround me when I walk wasn’t there when I first started. It’s grown steadily and come to include even more particular features of the landscape, and my appreciation expands accordingly. The sense of familiarity and of the known is an important platform for taking risks in our work, and to stretching into the unknown in learning. Creating positive habits makes use of natural tendencies and consciously uses them to create the security necessary to try new things.
The problem of habit arises from getting cemented into unyielding patterns that take over and leave little room for growth. Many negative habits are defenses against uncertainty and doubt and reach a crisis when they grow into compulsions. The idea that we should know and feel certain could be a cultural habit that we would be better off without. When a habit is unconscious it controls us. When we pay attention to the patterns we have chosen purposefully we deepen our experience and begin to understand how it is possible to “see infinity in a grain of sand”.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Re-Conditioning Our Strange Attractors

“In every action …the main intention of the agent is to express his own image; thus it is that every agent whenever he acts, enjoys the action. Because everything that exists desires to be, and by acting the agent unfolds his being.” Dante Alighieri

When we were first married I asked my husband what he thought the meaning of life was. He answered, “To find out what we’re capable of.” Subsequent research supports what he said. The reward system in our brains reinforces what helps us develop our powers. Our survival advantage is our minds, so whatever will add to the mental resource will be pleasurable. This is why the peak experience, when you’re stretching your abilities to the utmost is the most deeply rewarding. Studies have shown that learning in general produces endorphins. Considering that this naturally produced opiate is also a mechanism to fight pain suggests a connection between the suppression of pain and being actively engaged in life. As neuroscientist and discoverer of the endorphin receptor, Candace Pert, emphasizes, any drug that works on us signifies there’s a receptor for it, which means we make it for ourselves. Understanding the behaviors that stir the human reward system reveals that our purpose is growth.
Viktor Frankl saw the meaning of life expressed through three aspects- what we give to life, in terms of our attention to others and our contribution to the whole, what we take from life as inspiration and education which includes all we fill our minds with, and perhaps most difficult, the attitude we take toward what we can’t change. We cannot control every circumstance, but we can choose to learn from the experience or to passively be oppressed by it. His account of surviving the holocaust, in “Man’s Search For Meaning” emphasizes the importance of searching for meaning in order to maintain the will to live.
The idea of beginnings, symbolized by a new calendar year, creates the opportunity to make new choices about what we want to give and take from life. These choices give us direction and having any direction is a positive for the mind, organizing mental energy around that purpose. Making a radical change can be frustrating because we’re trying to create a brand new pattern. Creating patterns from scratch is as difficult as trying to completely eliminate an old one. Our conditioned circuits may have been reinforced for many years, which then attract the flow of mental energy to those areas. A simpler way to add a new behavior is to use the existing strange attractor, the way the energy is conditioned to flow, and build on it.
When I resolved to do sitting meditation every day, I did it right after lunch so it was hooked to an existing daily habit. When I decided to walk every day, I fit it between lunch and sitting, and now it all happens without effort as the natural flow of my day, and though the time was taken from my afternoon in the studio, the studio time is of far better quality because walking and meditating clears my mind so the picture I’m working on can guide me without a clutter of other thoughts interfering.
Building new, life-enhancing patterns is a mode of personal creation. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “The Evolving Self”, wrote, ”Shaping one’s own reality, living in a world one has created, can be as enjoyable as writing a symphony.” We are all the artists of our own lives, and making more choices about what is right for us, creates something unique and personal. Where we make no choice we submit to our previous conditioning. We create ourselves by where we give our attention. Being more conscious of where we give our attention helps us shape the mind we want to have, and understand our power to build the future.