“My behavior has usually been to cut something out when it didn’t make any sense to me anymore. So, if someone would hurt me or my work didn’t seem fulfilling anymore, I would change it. But I can now see that things that I push away don’t stay away, because I have a connection that drew me to them in the first place. So I feel stuck around some people, not willing to do more, but not willing to let go. Do you have any advice?”
Imagine if every time we needed to open or close a door we had to learn the whole process of doing it all over again: Lift my arm. Grab the handle. Close the hand. Push the handle down. Pull the door back. Lift the handle. Let go of the handle…etc. We could not live our lives. Luckily nature is very intelligent and once we learn something that works (we learn how to open a door) a memory of what we did gets recorded in our brains and next time we need to open a door, the memory jumps up and we don’t have to think about it anymore. We just do it.
This works for opening and closing doors and it also works at the level of our psychology. This is wonderful, except that, like everything else in life that has its advantages, it also has disadvantages.
Every time we do something to feel better—like eating a piece of chocolate, watching a movie, calling a friend, whatever—this creates a mark in our psychology. Next time we feel in a similar way, the memory of what we did before reappears as an impulse to repeat that same action. And every time we do it, the mark gets deeper and deeper.
You say: ‘If someone would hurt me or my work didn’t seem fulfilling anymore, I would change it. But I can now see that things that I push away don’t stay away, because I have a connection that drew me to them in the first place.’ To me this sounds like a great example of what I mentioned before. I may ‘understand’ that something is not good for me, but the past ‘memory’—the mark left in my psychology—does not care about my new understanding. (Of course it is not that it does not care. What I call ‘a mark’ is like a program that runs inside our head. We are like computers, and once we program ourselves in a certain way, it is very difficult to get reprogrammed.)
Those marks—those memories of past actions—are the ones actually leading our lives. We believe we are in charge, but in reality the past is what is in charge. But as I said before, this is the way nature makes sure life runs smoothly. Imagine every time something happened we needed to discover a new way to act! It would be impossible to have a life. Now, having said that, this is exactly the reason why it is so difficult to move away from old patterns of behavior; that is why it is so difficult to grow.
When we see a situation, we very rarely see what is actually happening, but what we see is our past. We interpret the new situation in a way that resembles something that happened in our past and we react to it accordingly. Many times, that is a good thing; but many times it is not. Many situations in our life are repetitions of previous situations and so it is fine if we respond to them in exactly the same way we did before. But of course, many times situations are not identical, and if we respond as if we they were, we will very probably act mistakenly.
Most of the time, most people, lost in their own problems, lost in their own heads, never see that they are acting their present as if it was their past. But, either because a situation is becoming too painful or because one starts to be more present and aware to the moment, one may see this process in action.
To see this process in action is like an awakening, it is a gift, a wonderful opportunity… but it is definitely not enough to change it. This is where I believe you are right now. Either because you are paying more attention to your life or because the situation is just too painful for it to go unnoticed (or a mix of both) you are starting to see. You want to change, but the old patterns keep returning. What to do?
There is really not an easy solution. That is the way the world is made. If it were easy, our life would be a mess because everything we learned in the past could be easily unlearned and that would create chaos. But what to do when you see that the old patterns are not what you want for your life? You need to see what benefit you get by acting in the old ways. Even if it is not so clear now, the reason why at one time you acted in that particular way was because there was a clear benefit. You need to be very sincere, go deep into your psychology and see what were (or are!) the benefits of acting in that way. Once this becomes VERY CLEAR in your mind, you need to bring your new understanding into the light and compare it with the old view. You need to see that the benefits (even if they are pleasant) are not what you want any more. But you need to know VERY CLEARLY why not. Again, this has to be very sincere. Sometimes in this process one may discover that one is not ready to let go of the old ways. That is good. If you see that you are not ready, if you see that you don’t want to let go of the old, even if it brings some pain, then go for it with no regrets. Follow your heart!
But if you discover that the benefits are not so attractive any more, then you need to bring this new understanding into you head over and over and over… and over again. The old patterns of thought will try to re-insert themselves, but armed with your new understanding (not with force or will but only with that clear vision) you will confront the old pattern. And every time the past appears, you bring the present; every time the old pattern shows up, you bring the new understanding.
It takes time, but it works. The mind is no more—or less—than a very sophisticated computer, and all we are doing is to rewrite the old programs. Like with everything else, it takes some practice. But I promise you, it is time very well spent. The old, unwanted patterns of thought are a large part of our unhappiness. Maturing, growing up, is always greatly liberating.