Sandpaper: the secret tool of change

Oct 24 2011 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

Daily, it seems, we're bombarded with new books and research about why people behave irrationally and why even those who know their behavior is not rational have difficulty changing it. We're also inundated with information about change and why it is so difficult, even when the brain is supposed to be so "plastic". So why is it so challenging to make lasting changes? Here's one perspective. See how it works for you.

Visualize a "gutter" - the ball return groove that runs alongside a bowling alley. Assume that at one time, this gutter was completely flat. Visualize that over time, with guiding barriers on either side to keep the (returning) bowling ball moving in a straight line, the ball gradually carves out its own pathway until it no longer needs any guide barriers to control its movement.

The ball now follows it's own self-created pathway – day in and day out, night in and night out, over and over, with never a change in direction. The ball seemingly has a mind of its own.

Now, think of the initial guide barriers on either side of the "groove" as your parents or primary caregivers, your siblings, relatives, playmates, teachers, etc. - those who guided your mental and emotional development from infancy to about the age of seven.

And think of that "groove" as the neurological and somatic pathways in your mind – pathways that represent your habitual ways of doing, being, and thinking.

So, now, even with all the neuroscience research touting "brain plasticity" and popular books annotating how irrational we are in spite of our protestations to the contrary, we have a glimpse of why many folks are unable or unwilling to change.

"All appears to change when we change." - Henri-Frédéric Amiel

In order for true, real and lasting change to occur, one of two things must take place. We either need to "sandpaper" down the original grooves and/or create new grooves representing new ways of doing, being, and thinking.

Either way, both of these tasks require concerted time and effort. And this is why "recidivism" of a sort haunts most folks who want change.

What prevents most of us from carving out new grooves or sandpapering down the old ones is that we are happy to hang on to our original groves because they are comfortable, familiar and the safe.

Most of us live in a "closed system" – a loyalty to our own internal reality - that is resistant to change. We become in the present what we became in the past.

In a Buddhist perspective, we are attached to this inner reality, constantly reconditioning to itself. The brain generates this 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. This is how we get stuck in our grooves. It's an emotional and psychological necessity for us to keep things the same. "I am this" and "my world is such-and-such".

This orientation to our world is how we were as infants, then children, then as adolescents and now as adults. We are our earliest "grooves" even as adults.

The good news is that this "stability" helped us survive and make sense of our world as infants and children. The bad news is that it has locked us into seeing and reacting to our world and experiences in similar ways over time. In other words, we are also hardwired to resist change.

The key to true and lasting change is to open this closed system in such a way that we do not view our self as a calcified, reified structure, but rather as a "process".

Many folks who do deep personal work often refer to themselves as "a work in progress". These folks no longer need to "identify" - "I am this" or "I am that". Rather, they view themselves simply as "being". They are in the process of sandpapering down the old grooves, and loosening the hard, rigid identification with their selves. They are consciously creating new grooves.

The important point here is that such change usually cannot be done through the mind alone.

True change takes more than cognitive effort. It Needs to be nurtured through a conscious mind-body-spirit process – one reason why "positive thinking"-type efforts seldom produce true, lasting transformation. The mind alone cannot open it's own closed system.

Think of the moment you awake - when perhaps you hear the birds communing, or notice the sky, or hear the rain, or really smell the coffee - that precise moment before "thinking" kicks in. That's the place where true transformation takes place - a place of no-mind, no thinking. That's the place where we are an "open system", unconstrained and unconditioned by past experiences, completely present to our experience, right here and right now. There's no brain to interrupt, to interpret or to link our present moment to past experience.

When we allow this moment to become influenced by memory, conditioning, and past experience, we slide right into the old groove, back to the old ways of "I am this" and "I am that". This is what we mean by "futurizing" our past. Our history takes over. Our present is experienced through our past. We are clinging.

The clinging process is the mental equivalent of the bowling ball habitually returning to its starting place. As soon as we begin "thinking", familiar emotional patterns related to our thoughts also arise. Clinging reinforces our closed-system inner reality, our old, habitual self. Clinging is the basis of resistance to change because in every new situation, we keep "re-birthing" our old self.

Some questions for self-reflection

  • On a scale of 1-10, how impatient are you?
  • Do you ever reflect on how you came to be who you are or why you act the way you do? If so, what do you see about yourself?
  • 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?
  • Do you ever behave "irrationally" – doing or being in ways you know you shouldn't? If so, why?
  • What of your past - beliefs, feeling, emotions - do you cling on to? Why?
  • Can you envision a world where can be "present" in most every moment, where you can let go of notions of how you "should" be, where you're not a fixed entity but a "work in progress?" How does reflecting on this notion make you feel?

"They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself." – [Andy Warhol]

So one possible way to experience real change is to embark on a process that leads to a conscious awareness of these dynamics and supports us to move into presence where identity with our "grooves' is non-existent and where there is no attachment to "I am this" or "I am that".

The challenge here is to choose to move away from the mental and rational into "things spiritual" (not religious or theological, but spiritual), towards an an attunement to our self as we are in that moment when we wake up, in that moment before "I"-"me" kicks in.

True and lasting change is an eminent possibility. But it takes time, consciousness, honesty, courage, will 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 "gutters" of our past, and create new grooves – but just not by 9:00 tomorrow morning. And that's a sad realization for those caught up in a microwave-oriented, Twitter-connected, 15-second sound-bite, 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.