Kona Hawaii 2013 116

I remember Dr. Peter Derks, my very first psychology professor, many years ago discussing a study in which people were asked to find patterns in flashing lights. Lights would flash in a sequence and participants were supposed to figure out the pattern so they could predict which light would flash next. What the participants didn’t know was that there was no pattern. The lights were programmed to flash in a random pattern. In every case, however, people found a pattern. When they were ultimately proved wrong, they would typically say, “now I see what you’re doing,” and would change their theory to a different pattern. No one ever figured out that there was no pattern, it was all random.

The NPR podcast, Invisibilia, recently did a story about patterns in the context of trying to predict behavior. One story was about a woman who had a history of abuse and arrests. She had turned her life around and was trying to become a lawyer in Washington state. Her appeal went to the state supreme court, and her attorney was a man who had convictions of bank robbery. Another story was about a Princeton study that used longitudinal data to try to predict outcomes in children. The researchers, despite massive amounts of data and coding efforts were not able to predict outcomes. You can listen to the podcast at https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia (it is the March 18, 2018 podcast) or you can read the transcript here. People long for patterns and predictability and typically feel very uncomfortable with randomness. With randomness you can’t predict what will happen next. And life just has way too many variables to be completely predictable.Our brain takes shortcuts to give us the comfort that we can predict things. We inherently look for patterns. It enhances our chance at survival. It is part of evolution. It also gives us a sense of self, of who we are. We are those patterns we fall into.

Michael Puett, a professor at Harvard, and Christine Gross-Loh wrote a book called, “The Path: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches Us About the Good Life.” Rather than looking inside for our “authentic true self” we are urged to “recognize that we are all complex and changing constantly. Every person has many different and often contradictory emotional dispositions, desires, and ways of responding to the world. Our emotional dispositions develop by looking outward, not inward. They are not cultivated when you retreat from the world to meditate or go on a vacation. They are formed, in practice, through the things you do in your everyday life: the ways you interact with others and the activities you pursue. In other words, we aren’t just who we are: we can actively make ourselves into better people all the time.” Every moment can be a moment of redemption or a moment of damnation. For all of us. Puett says that Zhuangzi, a Chinese philosopher of the Warring States period, said that labeling yourself is dangerous. It limits you. Saying you are an inherently shy person limits you to being that, you become stuck in that pattern. Instead, you can look at each moment for what you can become. We are not static beings.

That moment of becoming reminds me of solution focused therapy and narrative therapy. You start with small steps, like a small snowball at the top of a hill that gets bigger as it rolls down. The problem is outside yourself, and does not define you. Instead of staying with your past patterns and stories, you look at how you would like to be. It reminds me of flow – you become one with the moment you are in. But that takes practice. Humans tend to fall off the Way or Dao. We get caught up in thinking and patterns and ruts. Joseph Campbell, when interviewed by Bill Moyers on the Power of Myth, spoke about the Coptic Christians for whom the everlasting life was living forever in the moment – transcendence. Confucius used rituals to help us get there.

Chance life encounters with their randomness play a large roll in our lives, too. That can be for better or for worse. The better are situations like that if Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, who had given up on publishing his first book and planned to destroy it. That changed with a chance encounter on a walk home. You can read that story here. For worse could be an instance of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I remember years ago a man driving home from work, just as he did every week day, was killed when a car, driven by an adolescent girl and friends, went airborne with the front end coming down into his windshield and killing him instantly. Albert Bandura wrote an excellent article on chance life encounters in the APA Monitor back in 1982. You can read it here.

So in this life, with all its messiness and randomness and chaos, how can be live in a way of growth and loving kindness? How can we live in the present so that we are not captured by the past, but have a chance at a better future? How can we change our relationships into skillful ones? How can we flourish? The Path gives us some practical ideas from the Chinese philosophers whose ideas have been found to be supported by neuroscience.

I think a part of changing and just being in this life is to be comfortable with that randomness and ambiguity. We learn that going with the flow is being open to the results of that butterfly flapping her wings off the coast of Africa, and we adapt and adjust as best as we can. That may go against our nature of desiring predictability and a world of where everything is easily judged right or wrong, good or bad, and we always know what comes next. Rather than judge harshly and condemn or overly praise and think that something is solved for good, we look at how skillful we are and how we can improve that. We have a sense of curiosity. The Chinese philosophers all sought to teach us how to be decent people, each in their own way. It is a constant life long process, and our skill levels vary from moment to moment. The philosophers from Confucius to Xunzi all have ways of reaching a place where we automatically find and live the Way. But for all the teachings, there is an inherent paradox. The harder you try, the more difficult it becomes. In Chinese, the process similar to flow is “wu wei” or effortless effort. Edward Slingerland gives a good overview.