The change challenge: escaping the groove

May 12 2016 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

We are bombarded daily with new books, news, and research about why people behave irrationally even when they know their behavior is not rational. The brain is supposed to be plastic yet lasting change and transformation is a major challenge. I have my own view on why this is so.

Visualize the ball return groove in a bowling alley. Assume at one time it was completely flat. But with guide barriers on either side to keep the ball running in a straight line from the far end of the alley and back to the ball-holding area, the ball begins to carve out a pathway.

Over the years, the control of the guide bars becomes unnecessary. The ball now follows its own self-created pathway, like it has a mind of its own. Think of the guide bars as the people who have guided you from infancy to about the age of seven. These may be your parents or primary caregivers, siblings or teachers or clergy.

Now think of the groove as the neurological pathways, neurons, and synapses in your mind and your brain, each representing habitual ways of doing, being, and thinking. This includes self-image, self-concept, and other personal and world-related assumptions, premises, expectations, worldviews, and beliefs.

Using this analogy we are given a glimpse of why many people cannot, or will not change, even with neuroscience research touting brain plasticity and popular books explaining how irrational we are in spite of our protestations to the contrary.

In order for lasting change to occur, one of two things has to happen. Either we sandpaper down the original grooves or create new grooves representing new ways of doing, being, and thinking. Both of these tasks require concerted time and effort. And that's why this recidivism of a sort haunts most people who want to change.

What prevents most people from carving out new grooves is that they're wired to cling on to their original ones. In short, most people live in a closed system, a loyalty to our own internal reality. We become in the present what we became in the past.

The brain continually generates a closed internal representation of our outer world, seeing and relating to it the same way, over and over again, even if in reality the outer world is changing. It is an emotional and psychological necessity for us to keep it the same.

This orientation to our world is how we were as infants, then children, then as adolescents and now as adults. We have the same grooves now that we had as children. But while they helped us survive and make sense of our world as infants and children, the grooves hardwire us to be resistant to change as adults.

Some psychotherapists hold the view - and it is a Buddhist perspective - that lasting change can only come by opening the closed system in such a way that we do not view ourselves as calcified, reified structures but rather as a process.

Many people undertaking personal change no longer say "I am this" or "I am that" but see themselves simply as being, or in the process of sandpapering down the old grooves and loosening the rigid identification with one's self and creating new grooves.


  • On a scale of 1-10, what number describes your general feeling of impatience?
  • Do you ever reflect on how you came to be who you are, what you think or why you act the way you do? If so, what do you see about yourself? If not, are you curious as to why not?
  • Do you feel enslaved by your electronic life? Is this by choice?
  • What old grooves would you like to sand down and eliminate? What new groove would you like to create? Are there obstacles that prevent you from doing either, or both? How so?
  • Do you ever behave irrationally? Doing or being in ways you know you shouldn't? If so, why?
  • What of your past do you cling on to? Why?
  • Can you envision a world where you feel free in most every moment, where you can let go of notions of how you should be and dis-identify with "I am this" or "I am that?", where you're not a fixed entity but a process?

Such change cannot be done through cognitive efforts alone. It needs to be processed through a conscious mind-body-spirit process. This is one reason why positive thinking type efforts seldom produce lasting transformation. The mind alone cannot open its own closed system.

Change requires an open system. Think of the moment you wake up, that split moment when perhaps you hear the birds, hear the rain, or really smell the coffee. This is the moment before thinking kicks in. Here we are not conditioned by past experiences. It is the place where true change and transformation takes place.

As soon as this moment becomes influenced by memory, conditioning, and past experience we slide into the old grooves and are taken over by past perceptions, judgments, thoughts, beliefs. We are clinging again.

The challenge is to choose to move away from things mental and rational into things spiritual - not religious or theological, but spiritual. This means a shift from identification and the need to proliferate our conditioned self towards an attunement to our self as it is in that moment when we wake up.

Lasting change is a possibility, but it takes time, consciousness, striving, honesty, steadfastness, courage, strength, will and lots of love and compassion for one's self - qualities that for many in our culture seem to be in short supply.

We can smooth out our old grooves, the irrationality, and create new ones but not by 9:00 tomorrow morning. And this is a sad realization for anyone caught up in our hyper-connected, immediate-gratification culture.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.