Getting Curious

“… the self which he has believed himself to be, is nothing but a pattern of habits or artificial reactions.”

– Alan Watts

As humans, our multi-layered neural complexities run many “programs” that ultimately define so many patterns as we go about our lives.  Some of these programs may feel so innately part of us, that we issue statements like “this is who I am” as if it’s a fixed state. Our deeply ingrained patterns or habits can take over our lives in the sense that they can make change a struggle or keep us from realizing our potential by achieving what we’d like. It takes a savvy awareness to recognize that who you think you are may be merely–as Alan Watts writes–“a pattern of habits or artificial reactions.” Moreover, as psychotherapist David Richo notes in his book by the same title: you are not what you think.

So much of what we do on any given day is a result of behavioral programs deeply encoded in our individual wiring. If we really looked at all the information that makes up something as seemingly benign as a decision we make, if we could review our human neurology structures like we analyze lines of code, we might see how much old code commands inform our current choices, actions, and the places that we get stuck.

Sorting out our behaviors can shed much light on not only our way of being in the world, but also how we can move forward with more clarity and grace. As coaches, we deal with change — and the wish for change–as part and parcel of our work with clients. Change can be hard. Shifting any cycle in which we get stuck takes conscious effort to bring awareness to what’s really happening in those moments so we can meet life fully, free from the defenses that keep us trapped in a small way of being in and with the world.

Last November, I attended a talk at Naropa University by Dr. Judson Brewer, author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love – Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits and also our podcast guest in this current conversation with Jerry. Jud is the Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness and associate professor in medicine and psychiatry at University of Massachusetts’  Medical School who’s developed novel mindfulness programs for habit change. In his talk, he geeked out on the numerous studies he’s done with his team around the mechanisms for change, and how mindfulness acts in our brains in the face of breaking habits, cravings, addictions, cyclical thought patterns, and the things you find yourself uncontrollably repeating.

His research made me think about how we can work with our brains to overcome the behavioral patterns in our lives that we may not typically classify as a “bad habit.” Understanding the inner workings of what’s at play in our brains when it comes to shifting our patterns and habits can move us from fear to flow. From there, we can increase our ability to meet life, or let it meet us, in an intimacy-with-all-things kind of way.

Addictions and ego-driven behaviors are self-reflexive in the sense that they are self-referential. Both can consume us before we even know it, much like a psychological complex running an old pattern formed out of a past experience. When we’re concerned with our self in this way, a different part of our brain lights up. It’s the part of our brain that’s identifying with what’s happening. When we’re in that space, it’s all about “me” as a separate entity from the rest of the world. (i.e “I am here, and you are out there, but I’m not really concerned about you because I’m too focused on me right now.”)

Jud explains the locations of the brain and what causes those parts to light up:

“The medial prefrontal cortex is involved in the conceptual self. Like I wake up in the morning and I remember my name and I remember I have to go to work and I remember where work is, and all those things. Then there’s the experiential self, which is the posterior cingulate cortex (or PCC). The PCC registers this contraction that says, “oh yes, that’s me.” And this gets activated during a number of different types of tasks. So for example, when we’re thinking about ourselves it gets activated. When we’re feeling guilty, it gets activated. When we’re emoting about things, when we’re ruminating about things, when we’re anxious it gets activated. When we’re craving a number of different substances it gets activated. This brain region seems to be activated when we’re contracting down around something. The posterior cingulate, on the other hand, gets really quiet when somebody’s out of their own way.”

Addictions, including addictions to our emotional states, make change challenging. At our last Bootcamp, one member of the cohort said, “I feel so anxious and depressed. I feel this way so much that I think there’s a part of me that’s addicted to feeling this way.” Our brain gets hooked on a feeling, which in turn affects our behavior, in ways not always helpful or healthy for us.

No doubt the strategies we run as humans are crafty–so crafty that if we cave to them unwittingly, we may never get where we want to get–whether that be posting a newsletter, or onward with the creative endeavors of our lives. We exhibit the behavior that sea slugs do: we move toward what feels good, and move away from what doesn’t. Sophisticated, eh? We’re slightly more complex neurologically than sea slugs, in that what feels good or bad to us may have many layers of emotion and meaning attached.

Consider, for example, the artist who’s been trying to finish a big piece and once again just can’t seem to finish, but goes out to buy more materials and doesn’t return to his studio for a while. One might look at that and think “he was tired, artist-blocked, needed a change of scenery.” He may even think that himself, perhaps. Yet looking under the hood a bit we’ll find that as he’s getting close to finishing his project, he hears the voice of his father saying he’ll never amount to anything. That prompts a cascade of feelings, none of which feel positive, such that even the magnitude of joy and satisfaction of possible project completion doesn’t exceed that. Our artist contracts down around that moment and, as Bono sings, gets stuck in a moment and can’t get out of it.

That one negative-feeling memory snippet can trigger a tense and stressed or anxious feeling and create the wish for something outside of oneself to take the edge off. In the example above, the artist decides to run to the store to get more supplies. When feelings get too negative, we block that with something else from the outside world [insert list of addictions here]. Often, the less than positive feelings are rooted in fear (which at the core is when being loved, belonging and being safe are threatened). We become deeply concerned about our self.

This fear is an interesting thing to track. In fear, we feel our very breathing, pulsing existence threatened, thus it puts us in a state of self-preservation. Horses exhibit this wonderfully. When my horse is curious, he’ll willingly move towards something. When he’s afraid of something, he contracts away from it (in his mind, he’s moving away to save his life), and he’s incredibly worried. When he’s curious, he learns quickly. As the late legendary horseman, Tom Dorrance would say, “It doesn’t take a lot when it’s a learning process and not a worrying process.”

It’s similar with humans. A worried human is preoccupied and self-identified. When we wander around our lives thinking “Am I Ok? Do they like me? Am I good enough?” or running any version of self-doubt and inadequacy self-talk, varying feeling tones of insecurity, anxiety, guilt, and self-loathing creep in close behind, all of which all come from the same place: fear.

“From a survival perspective, fear causes us to contract down into the smallest ball possible to protect our vital organs,” Jud reminds us. “When we’re contracted around some identification with something–like my company or my company’s name or whatever–that literally may be the experience in the experiential self because it defines the boundary between myself and the rest of the world.”

Think about what happens when you’re scared. Depending on what’s inducing the fear, you may let your instincts react, or get anxiously mind-bottled in trains of terrifying yet unlikely thoughts that can’t derail themselves and keep you spiraling deeper and deeper into the vortex of self-contained, self-reflexive smallness — the world where you’re only concerned about “I” and thinking about survival. (Imagine if that pattern ran through your life in big swaths? What would you be creating in its wake?)

Contrast that with other experiences in which you’re losing track of time, deep into creative projects and forgetting about lunch because what’s happening is so juicy and you’re just in it. That’s a more expansive place, right? Your sense of self is present and not giving two sh*ts about anything your mind was noshing on as it was swirling into the vortex of fear in the paragraphs above. Odds are good you’re super relaxed and not trying too hard to do anything, it’s just all flowing with ease. Thinking too hard can get in the way. (I’ve ruined many a canvas, and many a ride on my horse, by thinking too hard about it.)

In many ways, the “I” that lights up your PCC, disappears. “And when that gets strong enough,” noted Judson, “there’s not even an “I” in there worrying about anything, or thinking about this. He continues:

“This is where this connectedness is so strong. This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihayi described as Flow. It’s selfless, effortless, timeless, and immensely joyful. This is the thing that extreme athletes will literally risk their lives to find. You know, that life daring thing. If we’re given a choice between survival and thinking or worrying about survival, we’re gonna just go to survival. And so that ego goes offline, and boom, we’re in flow.”

Author and mythologist Michael Meade notes that, “Fear is an old word that derives from the same roots that give us ‘fare,’ as in ‘thoroughfare.’ Although it often causes people to run away from troubling situations, at a deeper level, fear means ‘to go through it.’ The hidden purpose of fear involves bringing us closer to natural instincts for survival, but also for awakening inner resources and sharpening our intelligence when faced with true danger and the basic need to change.”

The subversively simple ancient technology of mindfulness gives us the antidote to unraveling the patterns that keep us from meeting life fully. It starts with getting curious, something we have on hand everywhere we go. We don’t have to reach for something outside of ourselves to feel better, check facebook, or check our email. When you notice and get curious, you move from being in your head to an embodied wisdom which helps the brain rewire. “It also teaches us something really critical,” Jud notes. “There’s a different type of reward that’s always available when we move from a contracted “I have to get something in order to feel better”  to an expanded curiosity right in that moment. Always available.”