The Pursuit of Change

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Sometimes those of us who work in health care may feel like we’re professional nags and guilt-trippers. For the rest of us, all of the advice, recommendations, guidance and even threats we hear from our physicians and others undoubtedly are efforts to get us to do healthy things. Notice that a whole industry dedicated to our physical and emotional health has grown over recent years, providing all of the information, inspiration, guidance and guilt imaginable. Self-help books, Dr. Phil, the legion of experts on Oprah, and so many others speak to us about the benefits and relief that are just around the corner, if only we try. And here we are, in this article together right now, yet one more example.

Maybe this mass helping industry is popular simply because many of us find ourselves and other human beings fascinating. But more likely, this is because many of us are uncomfortable, even suffering, in many ways. And the suffering may be overwhelmingly vivid or just a notch from known, but it’s there. Even so, notice that the advice just keeps on coming, and that we keep coming back to browse the advice. Hands up those who have a personal library of self-help books.

I don’t know about you, but personally I couldn’t count the number of times that I’ve heard with great interest some healthy idea about what I might do or ingest, only to let the idea slip away. It’s pretty evident that we consume a lot of written and televised material that is directed to getting us to eat better, exercise more, love more and live well. We’re very interested in feeling better than we are. If we cleanse our colons and mental floss our minds, life will be better. The advice can be great, but “just doing it” is the problem.

Putting the ideas and advice from shows and books and each other into real and sustained action is incredibly difficult for us. There’s a great felt need to change, but doing it is tough. In this regard, the business of change hasn’t changed much.

One stumbling point in the pursuit of change comes from what we might call embedded problems. Nested like Russian Dolls, these are problems that began in the service of another problem. Huh? What I mean here is that one problem, like booze or eating too much or getting angry all the time, may have started because there was some quality of the drinking or eating or anger that was softening temporarily some other problem, such as being stressed out by (quick, what came to mind?). It’s hard to deal with one problem when you’re paying attention to something else.

What to practice? Well, for starters it makes sense to get a hold of what it is that is most important to you. Ask yourself, “What is it that I really want? Why?” I’m deeply serious here. No one can answer those questions for you but you. But here’s the twist. I’m suggesting that you continue asking those questions at different times, over and over again, for many days. Keep drifting back to the questions. Let the questions ‘bug you’. It’ll get complicated and the “answers” will shift and change, but the point is to know more about your patterns of feeling and reaction, the stuff that our stress is usually made up of in the first place.

Intending to Change

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Guess what? If you apply yourself to practicing juggling there will follow measurable changes in your gray and white brain matter. Truly. Scientists are recording all kinds of ways in which the brain physically changes when we learn anything new. After all, you’re alive, your brain is alive, and your memory and sense of life are alive.

One critical requirement for bringing about change or for developing a skill is to arrange for repetition and then more repetition.

It’s just like getting into better physical condition. Here’s a quiz: Can we get into better physical shape by reading about cycling? Nope. Can we get into better shape by wanting to be in better shape? Nuh uh. Can we get into better physical shape by going to the gym for a week? Hmmm. You get the point. To change our physical condition we have to use our tissue (muscles, lungs, bones) and our tissue dutifully responds. More use becomes more change. And if we’ve been going to the gym frequently for 6 months, can we then stop and remain fit for the rest of our days? You wish! So in this way you can see that physical fitness must actually become a lifestyle in which we keep practicing the activity of exercise over and over and over, always.

Now let’s swap the idea of physical fitness for psychological or emotional fitness (with big acknowledgements to life’s full complexity). In practice we have to reduce this to specific things like better attentiveness or greater patience or changing an addiction or whatever you wish. Here’s the easy truth: We can get better at just about anything that we have the basic potential to do if we practice that ability in the right way, over and over and over and gradually make that practice a part of our lifestyle. For example, there is solid evidence from neuroscience that we can improve our ability to pay attention, to be patient and to love ourselves and others.

Change has to begin with an intention. Once the intention fades you’re back on automatic pilot. The intention is essential and must be preserved and nourished for weeks, months, or always. With an intention we begin to pay attention. As a working example, quitting biting fingernails requires catching yourself in the act or post-act in a friendly way, paying attention over and over again with each nibble. Each time that you pay attention in the moment (and resist lambasting yourself or proposing that it’s hopeless), look at exactly what’s there – perhaps some tension inside, some worry, some boredom, some anger, some physical sensations. As you look you learn (that plastic brain is doing it’s thing), and what you learn are the subtle feelings and thoughts and sensations that are as much a part of the nail biting as the chomping. By repeatedly connecting with the full nail biting landscape, we gradually come to know the nail biting impulse. And with the knowing there develops a sense of having a choice. And there you are! You can begin to regulate your behaviour – your self-regulating brain has done it again!

Neuroscience and clinical research show that complex systems, from our immune system to our emotional well-being, are subject to change. We need not be stuck in depression, anger, shyness and fear. The key is to not surrender your intention because change is truly a live process that takes lots of repetition. Looked at this way, we can practice how we want to live. And take a moment to consider the words of Lao Tzu: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be”.

Resolutions for Change

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

The New Year resolution is a healthy but often unsatisfying cultural ritual. The Rez may cause more dread than hope because most of us know it as the humbling half-serious failure with which we start each New Year. Ugh! More often, we just think, “Why bother!” Even so, the Rez comes to mind each year as a taunt, “Do I have what it takes to do it?”

Let’s look at this from a couple of new angles and see if we can’t rehabilitate the Rez.

Right up front, notice the ‘solution’ in resolution. Ah, so what’s the problem? Is something wrong? Yup, because all resolutions are about desired healthy change. It’s the wise ounce of prevention. Unfortunately, as we all know, changing anything about how we live isn’t easy. It turns out that the Rez is a light-hearted approach to a very difficult undertaking, like entering the Tour de France on a whim (I must resolve not to exaggerate things so!). And there you have my axe to grind, that the Rez has had the paradoxical effect of teaching people that they can’t really change (or win the Tour de France).

Well, I’m here to tell you that we sure can change. But change is easier when you know in advance that it’s harder than you’d think.

Making durable and sustained change (not of the three week variety) is really about making a change in how we’re living. After all, we wouldn’t be making a resolution if we were fully content with the job we were doing.

Change and the Rez point to some unknown and unpractised world, a way of living that is unfamiliar. We want to do something new. Because it’s new, we haven’t learned to live in that way yet. It’s not yet automatic and customary. As long as something isn’t automatic and habitual, attention and vigilance are absolutely essential.

Like a radio station pumping out hits from the past, our mind pumps out tempting ‘reasons’ to drink or smoke or eat or lay around. It’s not because our mind in some way wants or is designed to keep us from doing what’s better for us, it’s because our mind more easily does what it’s always done.

It’s our nature to do things on automatic pilot. The moment we become unaware, we revert to our automatic patterns, our established ways, our habits. If your Rez is targeting fast-food, watch how your mind greases the way to those fries with quick casual permission, rationalizing like a pro. If we’re paying attention and aware then we can play the superhero and defeat the automatic thought. This can be an epic fight sometimes, a fight which we get better and better at with practice. That’s the point of the Rez, it needs to be practiced over and over. Fall down nine times, get up ten. The key is being aware and catching the automatic foe red-handed. But you have to know that being unaware is too easy, partly because when we’re unaware, we’re unaware that we’re unaware.

So another thing that we have to get ready for is those moments of truth when our resolution stands in the spotlight. We have to be ready for the unfamiliarity of it. Notice that we have deeply engrained habits to recoil from unfamiliarity. We have to see that it’s unfamiliar and that this unfamiliarity is the place where change happens. Effort is expended to do the things that we haven’t yet learned to do automatically. We may worry about failing at these moments. But looking at that worry each time is exactly the thing to do. It’s just a fear, and if it isn’t confronted it will take over and take you places literally against your will. Embody the ‘resolute’ in resolution!

I love how Wendell Berry put it:

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.”


“If you keep going in the direction you’re headed, that’s where you’ll end up.”  That nugget from a Buddhist monk kind of ‘rhymes’ with one of Yogi Berra’s quips, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up somewhere else.”  Yogi’s gem hints that we all harbour some, perhaps unstated, destination that we’d like to reach, and I’d guess that for most of us we’d like to be headed toward health, happiness and togetherness.

But what if, on honest appraisal, you can see that there are distinct signs that you’re headed in some unwholesome if not dangerous directions?

Some change of course may be important.  Our most common efforts seem to entail medications as well as materialism; that we’ll “become” the person we want to be if we just buy THIS.  Therapy for many of us might seem too tough or too costly or too vague an undertaking.  Are there other ways?

Recent research shows that your lifestyle itself can be significantly beneficial for (or destructive of) your mental health.  Lifestyle choices in exercise and diet, and your involvement with your community, nature and technology can all have considerable effects on your mental and physical well-being.

Your mind is so intimately interconnected with both your body and your world that where one stops and another starts is unknowable.  Not surprisingly, then, recent research is showing us that beneficial changes in physical health seep in to our emotional well-being, that connecting with each other and with the world in particular ways will enrich your mind and your heart.

Exercise is therapeutic for many physical disorders and can reduce vulnerability to depression and neurodegenerative diseases, including age-related cognitive losses.  Exercise increases brain volume and cerebrovascular health.

Something else to chew on:  A diet that includes (1) multicoloured fruits and vegetables – a rainbow diet, (2) fish and/or supplements of omega-3 fish oils and which (3) reduces your caloric intake helps mind and body significantly.  The accumulating evidence pointing to adult neuroprotective benefits of omega-3s and possible decreases in attention-deficits, aggression and vulnerability to psychosis in adolescents recommends that everyone look into this supplement and check the few risks that have been reported. The “globesity” epidemic is associated with medical and cognitive problems, and over-eating weighs complexly on the minds of many. 

Time in nature and obtaining exposure to full spectrum light may be increasingly important as we spend more time with our eyes locked on to one electronic device or another.  ‘Mental health screen’ sounds like a new app, not a gut check.  Technopathologies, techno-stress, on-line compulsive disorders, screen sucking, data smog and hyperreality – “a simulated life-world that seems more real than reality” – creep our lives and give little that soothes.  In contrast, nature nourishes like nothing else and offers a stillness and silence that whispers wholesome truths, if you listen patiently and carefully.

Warm-hearted gratitude, kindness, reciprocity, acceptance, belonging, love and compassion are all resonant to our deep nature as social mammals.  Richer relationships reduce health problems, from common colds to neuropathologies, as well as psychological problems.  Our recreational activities, play and playfulness, may blend time in nature, good time with people and meaningful pursuits, all of which decrease stress.

And finally, the new embrace of the ancient practices of yoga (wisely-taught), tai chi and meditation may be one of the timeliest trends witnessed in participatory health care – the taking of responsibility for one’s own health. After all, no one else can richly regulate the course of your life for you.  Living as if your life really matters by exercising an attentiveness to one’s lifestyle can, day by day, help any of us chart healthier choices and live the benefits that follow.