NOTE: This is the first draft of the "Choice" essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder
NOTE: The opinions expressed in the following joke do not represent those held by The Management.
So, there is this joke about two lawyers.One of them is walking out of a bank when he sees an old lady a little ways ahead of him, fumbling with her purse while trying to stay balanced on her cane. Eventually she gets herself together and goes on her way. As the lawyer reaches the place the old lady was standing, he spots a $100 bill on the sidewalk. He’s sure she dropped it. He picks up the money and then realizes he’s faced with a moral dilemma:
Should he tell his partner?
Each action we take, or don’t take, says something about who we are and who we are becoming. And yet, though most of us understand this even as children (Santa Claus "knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!), making the right choice can sometimes be elusive despite our best intentions.
Conscious choice is toughest when we are acting out our patterns. Truisms seek to guide us. "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result," we are told by helpful friends and family, "is insanity." Or our buddies may remind us, sagely, that "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it." I find myself often borrowing this one from Solution-Focused therapy: "If something’s working, do more of it. If it’s not, do something else."
These are all useful reminders that we have choices, and we utter them to try to help each other deal with the frustrations and difficulties of making wise ones. Sometimes, a reminder is all we need to shake things up and change what needs to change or to hold back from tinkering with what’s been working fine. More often, though, a simple reminder, no matter how well-intended, is insufficient.
Our patterns strive diligently to limit our choices to those they already know. They can’t help it – they’re just patterns, and that's what patterns do. When our patterns are working well for us, that’s great. But when we are stuck in a dysfunctional loop, our patterns still tirelessly reassert themselves despite our best efforts to circumvent them.
Some of our patterns are instilled early in life by the surrounding culture, others we create out of our experience in our families, neighborhoods, and schools. These cultural and personal patterns are deeply inscribed, and they usually take more than awareness to release. According to a recent study, changing even a simple habit takes about nine months of consistent effort. Altering the more complex patterns we develop over a lifetime is harder. The magnitude of change is similar to an operating system upgrade on a computer; a lot of old code needs to be debugged or rewritten.
Inherited cultural patterns, such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of prejudice, often resist change for a lifetime. Though it may help us alter our behavior, telling ourselves not to think poorly of those we were raised to believe are "other" is seldom enough to unseat deep-rooted beliefs and emotions. Often, we have to examine the roots themselves, find support for changing our feelings, ideas, and attitudes, and act repeatedly in an unbiased fashion, sometimes for a very long time, before the prejudice itself dissipates.
Patterns we have learned in childhood about ourselves and our relationships with others are also surprisingly durable. These patterns typically become embodied in an internal critic that rigorously enforces its rules, relentlessly setting obstacles in our path to prevent us from deviating from the pattern’s instructions even when our conscious minds tell us they serve no useful purpose or, even, are harmful. Here, too, awareness is a necessary first step, but we also need to sense deeply into our established programming and to consistently reinforce new thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and beliefs.
Although we often have little or no say in the cards we are dealt – we cannot control the circumstances of our birth, and good and bad fortune happens to us all – we do have a say in how we play those cards.
When I look at my own life, I still see patterned repetitions that reach back decades, despite diligent efforts to alter them. I react to triggers knowing that they are triggers, make questionable choices knowing that they are questionable. As a therapist, it’s galling to see my own patterns continue to unfold, internal/infernal machines that seem to run as efficiently and effortlessly as the day they came off the production floor. "I should be able to do better than this!" I moan.
But I also see consistent progress in altering previously intransigent patterns, and I note with pleased surprise that I have even completely replaced old, dysfunctional patterns with new, much-improved models. In itself, that’s gratifying, and it also reminds me that the remaining dysfunctional patterns can also yield, if only I persist.
Psychotherapy is a marvelous laboratory for repatterning. Over time, I see my clients acting out some patterns, breaking others, vacillating between repeating and reinventing just like I do. Sometimes they feel as if the struggle to make different choices will never end, and then there is a breakthrough followed by consistent change. More often, I see a slow accretion of better choices, interrupted by ever briefer relapses into old ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving. That’s how lasting change seems to occur: a little here, a little there, a little forward, sometimes a little back. One choice at a time.
The good news is that even when we feel trapped in our old patterns, helplessly watching ourselves play them out, we still have choice. We can remain unaware, or we can adopt practices and attitudes that raise our awareness. We can go it alone, automaton-like, or we can seek the help we need to move into more alive territory. We can choose to remain asleep or to gradually awaken and, once awake, to resist hitting the snooze button and stay out of bed as long as we can manage.
Even when we appear to be locked into difficult circumstances, we can choose how we respond to them. Do we sink into depression or despair? Do we become entrapped in victimhood? Do we struggle (valiantly!) against truly impossible odds, only to fall into despair when we inevitably fail? Or do we find a way to re-center ourselves, reassess, accept our situation for what it is, and select the best options available to us?
Momentary choices – "Should I tell my partner?" – may define us in that moment, but breaking our patterns, and thereby freeing up our deepest blocks and releasing our fundamental sources of empowerment, helps us make choices that reflect our core selves – and not only in that particular moment, but also, with increasing reliability, in each succeeding one.
For this to happen, we need to tune up our psychological immune systems. When our immune system is working as it was designed to, it skillfully identifies our own tissues as "us" and nutrients as "good for us," while distinguishing pathogens as "not us" and toxins as "not good for us," simultaneously accepting the good and rejecting the bad without conscious intervention. When our immune systems are not functioning well, they misidentify friendly substances as the enemy, and they fail to recognize the unfriendly nature of genuine threats.
A psychological immune system, at its best, works similarly. Much as repairing a damaged physical immune system requires attention to diet, exercise, and other lifestyle factors, repairing a psychological immune system also requires specific kinds of attention and effort. Healing a damaged or neglected psychological immune system requires that we believe choice is possible; that we find support for our new ways of being and doing; and that we acknowledge even very small positive changes, so that we do not lose hope if we suffer a setback. Over time, we gradually develop our facility for responding to what our true natures want, need, and are striving to be. Then we can think different thoughts, feel different feelings, and choose to say "yes" to what supports our fullest selves and "no" to what will harm us.
This process is often slow and unsteady. Now in my early 60s, I still sometimes hover at the threshold of change, uncertain in which direction to turn. Yet at the same time, I also continue to more deeply sense parts of myself that have been waiting for a lifetime to be consulted, heard, and acted upon. And when these parts awaken from their lengthy slumber, the effect is as breathlessly stunning as the sun rising on a brand new day.