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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.

Since 2008, Massive Online Open Courses have been providing free or low cost high quality college courses.  There are several sites that offer outstanding courses from universities around the world.

EdX.org is based in Cambridge, MA and governed by Harvard and MIT. You can read more about their principles and goals at https://www.edx.org/about-us.  As with most MOOCS, you can take courses live, or you can audit an archived course that has ended but stored online and still available. More about EdX later.

Coursera’s mission is to “provide universal access to the world’s best education,” and has partnered with major universities all over the world. Like EdX, it has apps for your Android and iPhone as well, to make it even easier to take courses.

iVersity is a European based MOOC with a variety of courses. EdX, Coursera, and iVersity all offer courses in languages other than English if you also want to practice your other-than-English language skills.

You can also use these as resources for students, and there are some geared just to students with resources for teachers and parents.  Khan Academy is a good resource and also has test prep for the SAT and other tests. If you, or someone you know, are interested in tech and coding, there is the Code Academy and Udacity. The World Wide Web Consortium also has classes with certificates you can earn for learning various computer languages and coding.

For a long list of free courses, MOOCS, and other free learning sources, take a look at Open Culture.

I hope you check these out and find something to stretch your mind. The course you take may be work or career related or just something you are interested in and take for fun. The most recent course I took on EdX was called “Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science” taught by Edward Slingerland of the University of British Columbia. Slingerland did an excellent job of looking at Chinese philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and others and using modern neuroscience, psychology, anthropology and sociology research to examine the ethical models of human behavior that each philosopher espoused.  Do expect to spend time on courses. There are lectures (the EdX ones I have taken are not classroom lectures but more like very well made documentaries), reading assignments, message boards for class participation, tests, and papers. There are certificates for passing. Be sure to read the details on the site where you sign up.  Give your brain a work out, and keep learning and growing your entire life.

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