The Science of Why Change Doesn’t Last and How Knowing This is Pretty Much All Knowing is Good For if You Really Do Want to Change
Why do we have the experience of feeling so good when we are “on track” but then we fall back into the habits and compulsions that make us feel awful again? What is it about us that makes us sabotage our very own efforts to think, feel and act in ways that we know are good for us? Why don’t we really change when we know what we must do, what we want to do, in order to change?
These questions have lingered in the minds of those of us that have attempted to shake ourselves out of ruts of depression, get back into shape, let go of bouts of anger, or any other bad habits. Often, we will have stints of eating well, getting enough rest, laying off the excess drinks or desserts and exercising regularly. We may even spend more time in contemplation, or pick up some books on spirituality. In these ways it is all going well for us and we begin to feel really good: calmer, more centered, more vibrant. Our digestion might improve and we might feel lighter, happier, more patient and even more creative. But…
For some mysterious reason before we know it we are one brownie sundae too far gone into a slide back into the same-old, same-old familiar patterns of suffering.
There is a neurological explanation that I would like to put forth in lay terms. If there are the scientifically educated among you whose sensibilities I offend in this explanation I beg your forgiveness for my useful generalizations.
The vast majority of our suffering is experienced through the emotional aspect of our being. Emotions are stored in the limbic brain through a process of what is called implicit memory. Meaning, we are passively, and unconsciously recording the emotional matrix we are in 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. More than that, we have inherited, through our ancestry, encoded patterns of emotionality that are at least 7 generations old.
In other words, there is a ton of momentum pushing us to have the emotional experience of life that we are having, for better or for worse. Suffering is not inherent in the difficulties we experience in life. Why is it that some people can undergo extreme trauma and come out unaffected while others are sent into a tailspin due to the most minor of hardships?
In life, pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.
The perspective that informs our experience of life is patterned, once again, in the limbic brain. Therefore, if we feel like we are easily and often getting stuck in ruts of suffering then it is because we are getting stuck in ruts: neural ruts. In a manner of speaking, our brains are lazy. Any thought, feeling or action is a result of certain neurons firing in conjunction with one another. Habits are a result of the brain assessing that is easier to fire down familiar lines.
We can liken our neural grooves to trickles of water in the sand. The water creates a tiny rivulet at first, but as more water is poured down the same track the rivulet grows wider. It then has the capacity to not only hold more water, but it also has more area to attract more water. It becomes more likely that more water will get caught in the same rivulet and flow in the same direction. Over time the rivulet becomes a stream and the stream becomes a river. The river has tremendous power and momentum and it is nearly impossible for rainfall in the area to flow down a different route. The river gains a life of its own and all water now flows to it, increasing its power and range.
This is how it is with our emotional reactivity to life. Like attracts like. We will actually seek out and even create the circumstances of life that will fit into the familiar neural grooves of our limbic brain. It is important that we stress this point: even if a pattern causes us to suffer we will choose (albeit often unconsciously) thoughts, feelings and actions that are familiar in lieu of the unknown, which to us seems more scary. Hence the saying, “Better the devil you know than the one that you don’t.”
So, when we feel like we are getting “on track” with habits and patterns that will make us happy and healthy we are actually getting “off track” from our familiar neural grooves. The intense momentum of our old, crusty, familiar and even ancestral ways has too much gravity to allow the “water” of our new decisions to flow in the direction of our choosing – it is easier to do what we’ve always done.
So, then, are we doomed to a life of repeating our unconscious habits that cause us so much strife? Absolutely not. We just need to go about things in a different way. First of all we must recognize that because emotional storage is in the limbic brain we cannot access this material through our thinking minds. The limbic brain is not active when the neocortical brain – which is responsible for thinking, understanding, planning, solving problems, rationalizing, etc. – is doing its job. We have a tendency to get stuck in our heads, spinning and looping on our worries. We might sense this, but to make it clear: it is physiologically impossible to alleviate our experience of emotional suffering by “figuring it out.”
We must use our logic only to understand just enough: a.) That we can’t “solve” our problems and, b.) To recognize old patterns that don’t amount to the life that we want. That is it. In this arena that’s all that the thinking mind is good for. Then, having understood these two things, we must ACT DIFFERENTLY.
We must lay down new neural grooves – ones we choose – that have a trajectory that we desire. We need not understand “why?” which is an over-glorified talent of the neocortical brain. We just need to act differently and by consciously ritualizing our daily disciplines we will cultivate new and improved neural grooves.
We have all heard the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It is true. But, we also began this article by recognizing that a lot of us have tried to do things differently, only to fall back into familiar ways. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill to rid us of this difficulty. It might not be easy, but it is necessary that we summon our greatest efforts precisely when we feel the pull of our compulsions calling us back to a life we don’t actually want.
This is where this article might take a turn towards not being so popular. I have no quick and easy cures in the form of pills or surgeries from the religion of science to suggest. I have no false-promises from the fantasy-realm of the “new-age.” Your chakras can’t be adjusted by a “healer.” I have no crash-course diets, “cleanses,” or aggressive exercise regimes.
All I have is tried-and-true old school, natural wisdom, which is mostly common sense. If we want a different life we must exert maximal effort to obtain it.
We must think and feel differently. But, it is too hard to just decide to do that. So, we must first act differently. Proper eating, sleeping, working, resting, sexing and exercising will automatically result in laying down new grooves that are inherently characterized by an experience of joy, balance, peace and health. We begin with balancing the body and our thoughts and feelings will naturally comply.
Thankfully, the development of neural grooves works both ways. Once we get over the hump and resist the temptation to fall back into our familiar patterns and we establish new grooves we will more easily flow in the direction of our choosing. Our old habits have constructed neural grooves in proportion to the frequency, intensity and duration of their expression. We must equal that frequency, intensity and duration with our new, chosen, patterns. And, thankfully, when we consciously choose to not only do something new, but also to NOT do something old and familiar, we generate a great amount of intensity that can make up for a lot of time spent doing the same-old, same-old as an unconscious robot.
Finally, a word on the ancient technologies of practices like yoga: despite any negative appearances that may be generated by the modern fad of yoga and holistic medicine, these systems are proven, over thousands of years, to circumvent the neocortical brain-habit of human beings and directly access and transform the limbic grooves that drive our emotional experience of life. These traditions, when practiced in their authentic forms free from commercial priorities and delusions of egoic grandeur, are unparalleled in effecting actual, real, and lasting change: body, mind, emotions and spirit.
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