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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.

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I’ve learned over the years that sometimes the more enthusiasm someone expresses for something, the more likely they are to lose that enthusiasm when they get what it is they wanted. It reminds me of a dog chasing a car, catching it, and discovering that they really can’t drive the thing so what was all that fuss about.

I have seen it in taijiquan over the years, both with my teacher and with me. People say they have wanted for a long time to learn taijiquan and are eager to get going. But maybe they show up and if they do, maybe they last one or two lessons. I think there is good reason that a Chinese teacher may tell would-be students they have to show up to check in everyday for months before they will even consider taking on a person as a student. In counseling, people decide they want to change and discover change can be very difficult and takes energy, and they lose desire. Thermodynamics applies to behavior, too. Behaviors in motion tend to continue and those not happening tend to stay that way – unless a force acts upon them. When that force has to be you over time, procrastination and the status quo can be very attractive. I think of someone I knew long ago who constantly talked about a dream vacation. She went on and on about it but time went by, and that vacation never happened. The idea of something often is more desirable than the thing itself. The examples are almost endless.

There is something to that cliché that it’s the journey, not the destination. The journey can become monotonous. It’s like a Louis CK punch line – the guy spends so much time out in the yard by himself because he is just running out the clock. And telling your goal to others so you can liven up the journey makes you less likely to actually accomplish that goal. Derek Sivers explains why.

It makes me wonder a bit about treatment planning in therapy. Make the goals specific, measurable, and positive (“I will do something” versus “I will not do something” which activates that part of your brain associated with what you don’t want to do making you more likely to do it guaranteeing failure). There is an online program to help you accomplish a goal that has been around for a number of years at https://www.stickk.com/. They make it interesting by having you put your money on the outcome. Achieve your goal and an organization you support will get your donation. Don’t achieve it and an organization you don’t like gets your money. You have a referee ensuring the integrity of the outcome, and you can form a support network.

The transtheoretical model of change helps. Realize that change may not continue upwards in a straight line. People start and stop. They have set backs; they recover. Sometimes they take a break.  It may take many starts to finally continue something. And realize that the destination is not the end point. A good example is that sense of loss after completing a marathon or a degree or some other big goal. What next? Keep on the journey. Don’t retire in place. Keep moving. Daydreams are nice, but are not a place to live like Walter Mitty – unless perhaps you are just running out the clock. Life is ongoing change. Adapt and learn and be open to what comes next. But maybe don’t get overly enthusiastic about it. Remember the middle way and wu wei. Wu wei, similar to flow in western psychology, is that paradoxical Chinese concept of effortless effort or not trying. Don’t try so hard. You just make things more difficult for yourself. Relax and flow into it.

Setting goals is important, and how you frame them is critical to succeding. A goal can be as broad as “I want to live a life of integrity” to as specific as “I want to run a four minute mile.” With the former you need to define just what integrity is – how will you know when you are living that life and when are you veering off course. How do you get back on course? For the latter, you need training, a workout schedule and a sense of just how realistic that goal is. Whether your motivation is internal or external also has an effect on succeeding. You are less likely to burn out if you are focused on getting better for you.

One thing both those goals have in common is that they are positive goals. Positive goals are “I am going to do something.” They are action oriented in that something will happen and you will know it. It gives you a place to move towards. All too often we define our goals in a negative fashion – “I am not going to do something.” There are many problems with that. First off, you are activating your brain to think about what you don’t want to do. Do not picture a blue jay in your mind at this moment. What picture just appeared in your mind? I spoke with someone recently whose goal was, “I don’t want to be lonely.” “Well, what do you want to be?” I asked. How will you know you are not lonely? Focusing on loneliness tends to leave one lonely. So we began to look at how she wants to connect with people, what kinds of relationships does she want, and first off, what kind of relationship does she want with herself. It is much easier to be in the company of someone who is comfortable and secure with themselves. Negative goals too often become self fulfilling prophecies. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say, “I didn’t want to be like my parent.” And then they realized that in focusing on what they didn’t want to become, they took on those qualities and became what they vowed they would not be.

A negative goal is inactive. Tough to prove a negative. So when you are setting goals, make them positive, something you will know is present. Put in as much detail as you can. It is like writing a good story of what you want to do or become. You can even use a 10 scale to track your progress. A ten is you have achieved the goal.  A zero is you haven’t even begun. Where are you now? Track your progress up the scale. That gives you some flexibility, too. Stuck at five? Reevaluate and redefine and see what you need to do to move up even to a 5.1. Edit your story.  One of my favorite exercises is “start-stop-continue” from Jerry Lynch and Chungliang Al Huang. What do I need to start doing, stop doing and continue doing to function at a higher level? And remember the concept of wu wei or effortless effort. Sometimes when you push too hard, you push yourself into the ground and get stuck. Have a plan but relax into it and have fun. It is hard to stick with a goal when the process is something you hate or find punishing. That is why so many resolutions for diets and exercise programs fail. Flow and adapt, and make your goals positive.

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