What do you believe about the nature of change?
We know from neuroscience that one of the brain’s primary functions is to see events and conditions in the world as either threat or reward. This neural imperative raises an important question; if the brain is organized around this unifying dynamic, what is its nature?
While reading Buddhist teacher Pema’s Chadron book, Living Beautifully (with Uncertainty and Change) it struck me how powerful the role of impermanence is in shaping our lives and its drive in determining what we perceive as threat or reward. This force is constantly compelling the choices and decisions we make and manifesting as our daily behaviors.
Most of us don’t walk around consciously thinking we live in a universe where things are constantly changing and in flux. Most people don’t wake up each morning and plan their day as if it may be their last. However, when you link this idea with the proposition that under the veneer of our lives is the struggle with our immortality, you see how it can contribute to the forms our lives take. The conflict between living in a world where things are constantly changing – impermanent – and our striving to feel grounded, is reflected in our thoughts, emotional states and actions – our “self-identity.”
On an unconscious level, whenever we experience a threat response it can be thought of as a threat to our identity – the amorphous feeling of groundlessness and dissociation. The very idea of identity is rooted in our desire to be rooted in the world – to see ourselves as this and not that.
The challenge for many of us is how to live an integrated life acknowledging the flow of constant change. How do we link together mind, brain/body and relationships to create lives that are balanced and more harmonious?
Part of the inherent conflict is that one region of our brain (the neo-cortex) is hard-wired to seek certainty and predictability – is it a threat or a reward? The brain’s goal-seeking mechanism , its “certainty bias,” craves a reliable outcome – it’s “reward.” According to Dr. Robert Burton, former Chief of Neurology at the University of California at San Francisco-Mt. Zion Hospital, “I don’t believe that we can avoid certainty bias, but we can mitigate its effect by becoming aware of how our mind assesses itself. We need to recognize that the feelings of certainty and conviction are involuntary mental sensations, not logical conclusions.”
In The Places That Scare You. Pema Chodron writes, ““We know that all is impermanent; we know that everything wears out. Although we can buy this truth intellectually, emotionally we have a deep-rooted aversion to it. We want permanence; we expect permanence. Our natural tendency is to seek security; we believe we can find it. We experience impermanence at the everyday level as frustration. We use our daily activity as a shield against the fundamental ambiguity of our situation, expending tremendous energy trying to ward off impermanence and death.”
Accepting impermanence, however, can lead to a life with less internal conflict and open the door to a deeper level of self. This can free us to let go of some of our clinging to identities that are always external and uncontrollable. To do so requires changing our thought patterns and where we place our attention. While “embracing” the impermanence of all things may be scary, it can open us more fully to life in the present.
Neuroscience studies confirm the brain’s capacity to modify itself (neuroplasticity) through the growth of fibers extending down from the prefrontal cortex to sub-cortical regions, changing and strengthening our emotional states and responses. In other words, we don’t have to be captive to external experience, events and conditions.
The idea of an intrinsic fixed-self, our self-identity, albeit psychologically protective, is an illusion. Practicing affirmative thinking where we can begin to see life as a process and not through the lens of a fixed-identity (ego) frees us up.
The Indian Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan, who lectured in Europe and the U.S. in the early 20th Century, pointed out that “Inner life is not separate from outer life. Nor does it require leaving the world renouncing all pleasures and comforts. It is the enrichment of life with qualities that will last, with a source of energy and love which is truly your own… What we (have been) seeking slips out of our hold sooner or later. We depend upon things outside ourselves. Let us find our real being.”
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George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants