Over the years I've received emails from numerous people reporting spontaneous and surprising (to them) changes in their habitual behavior. One person described giving up alcohol after nearly 30 years of dependency; another stopped smoking without any particular effort after numerous failed attempts; a third noted a sudden interruption in their use of illicit substances.
Despite the dramatic changes each one of them were experiencing, there was something almost anti-climactic about the way the changes came about. For each of them, the long-awaited behavior change happened simply because "they didn't fancy it anymore."
And this is the reality behind all human behavior:
We do what we do because it seems like a good idea at the time; when we see things differently, we do different things.
This also points to the futility of attempting to change our behavior without first having something new occur to us about what it is we want to change. Even if we succeed in the short term, giving up our bad habits or willing our way into new ones, the moment our focus shifts and our effort dips, we'll slip right back into doing things the way they've made sense to us all along.
And it raises an interesting question:
If a lasting change in behavior is inevitably the result of an insightful change in seeing, can we reverse engineer the process and change our behavior by deliberately chasing insights into the thinking behind it?
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it doesn't seem to work that way. When we look for insights into our own behavior, we inevitably wind up with "explanations" - very good reasons that explain to us why we behave the way we do. It's because of our parents, or our lack of parents, or the neighborhood we grew up in, or the way people like us are treated in society. Or perhaps it's our brain chemistry - our depressive/anxious nature, or our physical limitations, or a personal history that "if you only knew what I'd been through in the past you wouldn't make light of what I'm going through now".
The problem with all these explanations is that while they may be real, they're not true. Or to put it another way, they're accurate but not causal.
This is why insights that are truly transformative are almost never about your life - they're about the nature of life itself.
When we try to get insights into our own lives, we inevitably get caught up in a web of our own psychology, beating ourselves up for our behavior on the one hand while desperately attempting to justify it on the other. But when we swim upstream and take a look at the the principles behind life itself, we can see beyond our own psychology.
What people see when they look into this direction is unique to them but remarkably consistent in nature:
1. They sense a larger energy that they are a part of but not in charge of. Whether they call this energy God, or spirit, or the life force, or Universal Mind, there's something about connecting with this deeper power that both humbles us and gives us hope.
2. They catch a glimpse of what it is that allows us to see. Whether they call this capacity awareness, or mindfulness, or realization, or Universal Consciousness, gaining insight into the nature of it is like looking into the inside of your skull from the backs of your eyeballs - impossible to describe but incredible to experience.
3. They intuit something about separate realities -- what it is that creates our moment to moment experience of life. Whether they think of this differentiating force as creative potential, the divine (hidden) storyteller, or the power of Universal Thought, when people turn away from attempting to control the content of their thoughts and begin to grasp the miracle of the fact that we think, life becomes far more fluid and we tap into a deeper compassion for ourselves and others.
And when we return to our lives with this new depth of understanding, we find that while our circumstances haven't changed, the person experiencing those circumstances fundamentally (and effortlessly) has.
Here's a seven minute cartoon adapted from my radio show that points out how this works though the metaphor of a world filled with scary dragons. If you're wrestling with a habit of your own right now, you might want to click play, relax, and see what comes to mind...
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