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”.