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”.

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